The Sharp End: Car sales crash course

Combing his Swiss Toni quiff, Dave Waller rattles round a Cornish forecourt.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

With the car industry apparently heading for the scrapheap, it's time I gave this ailing sector a jump-start by selling a few motors. I can see it now: 'Check out the exhaust on that.' Then, vrooom! Eat my sales dust.

I'll be honing my spiel at Hawkins Motors, a Peugeot dealer in St Stephen, a Cornish backwater nestled, like a face in an airbag, in acres of farmland. The garage has been there 80 years, since WAJ Hawkins started selling petrol. Now a mini empire, it's still in the family, with grandson Johnny in charge.

Johnny is on the forecourt when I pull in, engaged in his natural activity: running around sorting stuff out. I spare him my Swiss Toni pearls of wisdom - 'Selling cars, Johnny, is like making love to a beautiful woman' - and ask him about business. 'Until late January we were flying,' he says. Things have slowed since then, but as Johnny runs off on his next mission, I sense it'd take more than a troubled economy to knock him into neutral.

I begin checking in new cars off the transporter with sales team Chris and Samantha. 'Pick a car,' says Chris. We make several trips in convoy, hopping into different motors, each with plastic sheets still on the seats. It feels a bit like joy-riding in a car owned by someone expecting a bladder-control crisis.

Things are quiet back in the showroom, so I talk to sales manager Dave Hancock. The big hurdle, he says, is customer expectations. Punters want 'buy-one-get-one-free' deals. But the margin on an £8k car sale is a mere £170. Dave describes the dealership as 'squeezed'. But that's more like inviting four hitchhiking elephants for a ride in your mini.

Dave tells me how they make moolah in all sorts of complicated ways - largely through finance plans and insurance deals. He mourns the passing of the old days, when punters would come in waving cash in a brown bag, saying 'what have you got for two grand and that old car?'

I notice an elderly woman wandering the showroom with her husband. Dave tells me this is Joyce, a Hawkins customer for 12 years. Her 107 is in for service, so she has an hour or so to kill. She's adamant she's not buying a new car.

After some fevered calculator tapping, Dave thinks he has found a part-exchange deal that will both please Joyce and earn the garage a few quid. Never mind that she's not buying a new car. A quick scan shows just a small dent on the rear wing. Back outside, I see Joyce's husband pointing at a black 207 CC convertible. But Joyce clearly wears the trousers.

Chris tells me he has sold only two new cars this year. That's critical - working on commission is tough when punters are making fewer snap decisions. Joyce is a classic case - despite Dave offering a new car for £1 a month less than her current rate, she wants a couple of weeks to consider.

The main thing with the maths is that, as well as ticking the boxes for Peugeot, the garage gets its hands on Joyce's old wagon. Hawkins shifts 1,200 new cars a year, 800 a year used. But used sales are roaring. Joyce's little yellow 107 will be a fresh sight on the forecourt and go in no time.

After lunch, the showroom is lit by glorious sunshine. Everyone is suddenly busy. Dave has been out with a couple, test-driving a van. 'They seem to be talking themselves into it, not out of it,' he tells me as we watch through the window. The man then wanders over to ogle a different van. 'That's not a good sign,' says Dave. But he gets their signature in the end.

Chris makes two sales by mid-afternoon, and Sam is closing a deal with an elderly couple. Their colleague Shaun, meanwhile, has a punter visit him to goad him over finding a cheaper 407 in Newcastle. The downside of a family atmosphere, I figure.

I don't get the chance to unleash my patter, but they seem to be doing well enough without me. In troubled times, people like places they can trust, so a dealership with an 80-year history, a cafe selling home-made cakes, and a friendly family set-up can't go far wrong.

Joyce left a while back, with a sheaf of paperwork under her arm. 'You have very good salespeople here,' she replied, when Sam joked about her crumbling resolve. Her husband was chuffed. 'My wife twisted my arm so hard I had to sign with my other hand,' he said. Expect to see a used 207 convertible on the forecourt in a couple of years.

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