TIME WAS if you had a furled copy of Auto Trader under your arm, you were either a trilby-wearing, felt-collared, George Cole-lookalike member of the trade or a motoring enthusiast who, frankly, ought to get out more.
Today if you have Auto Trader about your person, it will be on your mobile app or via your laptop. Where once there were hundreds of postage stamp pictures and a few words about the Austin Maxi or Vauxhall Chevette for sale, in the digital world Auto Trader is an automotive Amazon, a car buying internet search engine and motoring industry uSwitch service.
It has been celebrating its 40th birthday this week, a publishing phenomenon so successful that its founder John Madejski bought Reading football club, whose stadium is named after him.
“There is nothing left of the old Auto Trader,” according to Nathan Coe, the operations director of what is now a £4bn stock market-listed company based in London’s trendy King’s Cross digital quarter.
The business began migrating online 21 years ago, the physical magazine closed four years ago and over the past half-decade it has become increasingly about the mobile phone app.
“Five years ago buyers would still be going to four or five dealerships before buying a car. The average has now come down to between 1.2 and 1.5 visits because so much of the research has been done online”
Browsing in its 1977 sense meant flicking through the pages. Online, those car images can be videos and the amount of information can run to the equivalent of three pages, including comparisons of other models, of prices, of valuations for sellers and even advising on the financing deal. With 85% of new car sales effectively on three-year leases, Auto Trader, with 430,000 cars available online, is moving to quoting not only the price but the monthly payment option.
“Five years ago buyers would still be going to four or five dealerships before buying a car. The average has now come down to between 1.2 and 1.5 visits because so much of the research has been done online.
“Buying a car can be both exhilarating and fun, test driving the new car and technology, but it can also be irritating,” Mr Coe said, citing the showroom sales pitch and the search for finance.
It is here where Auto Trader sees the opportunities. “The future of car transaction is online, but there is not yet the big ‘buy’ button.” Digital doesn’t kill the dealership, he argued. “There will always be the need for the place to take the final look and pick the car up and, if nothing else, the place where you come back and get the vehicle serviced.”
Auto Trader aims to reduce the hassle. “Car transactions can be complex, especially if disposing of a car at the same time. For us, it is about taking out the painful bits,” Mr Coe said.
This article first appeared in The Times