Former Operations Director at Imperial Car Supermarket, Cazoo
Neil is the Former Operations Director at Imperial Car Supermarkets, the UK used car dealer that Cazoo purchased in 2020. He joined Imperial in 2010 when the company had only 2 sites selling 80 vehicles and scaled the business to nearly 20,000 vehicles per year in 2020 before the Cazoo acquisition. Neil oversaw operations during the Cazoo purchase and helped the company transition the sites into collection centres rather than traditional showrooms. Neil retired and now consults in the UK automotive space. Read more
Disclaimer: This interview is for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a basis for investment decisions. In Practise is an independent publisher and all opinions expressed by guests are solely their own opinions and do not reflect the opinion of In Practise.
Neil, can you provide some context to when you first joined Imperial?
I joined Imperial back in 2010. Prior to that, I had 25 years in the print industry, delivering printed products; transactional and commercial print to the motor trade. I dealt with the likes of Volkswagen Group, Toyota, Vauxhall, BMW, Mercedes and so forth. I then moved from that role, as marketing director of that business, into a creative agency. I spent 18 months working there and one of the first accounts I took on was Imperial Cars and that was to develop their first website, away from Auto Trader. I then got more involved with that business, took on the rest of their marketing needs through the agency and it then became apparent that they needed that support internally. I agreed to jump ship, move across to Imperial Cars, just at the point where they took on their second site.
In 2010, I joined them on a consultancy basis and started to really focus on the marketing side of the business and the strategy around that. For me, it was to get a real handle, at that point, on the used car industry. I had quite a good handle on new cars but hadn’t really worked anywhere – certainly not at the sharp end – with used car retailing.
How big, typically, were Imperial’s sites in terms of number of cars sold per site, for example?
The site that I first met the guys at was an ex-petrol forecourt site. It had the potential to hold a maximum of 80 cars and was selling about 80 cars a month; doing a stock turn a month. It was very successful in terms of what they were doing so that then led them to look to expand in the local area. That first site was in Southampton and the second site that they took on was in Portsmouth. That site was just over an acre and was an ex-Nissan dealership. It was the first foray into what would be a proper showroom. At that point, they moved, very quickly, from retailing 80 cars a month to 200 cars a month. The site had the potential capacity, at a squeeze, to hold 150 cars, at Portsmouth, but rarely was it up to the 150. Again, pretty much doing a stock turn per month, at both those sites.
What was the type of inventory that you were selling?
At that time, the inventory would have been around the £7,000 or £8,000 mark, maximum. As we progressed and accelerated, that average price increased quite quickly. Obviously, there were cars that we were selling at £12,000 or £15,000 at that time, but there were also those cars that we were selling at £3,000 or £4,000.
How did your role progress, at Imperial, when you fully joined them in 2015?
Initially, it was just getting to grips with the whole marketing side of the business. As the business grew, there was obviously more that needed to be done on that marketing strategy. We had a vision to grow and grow quickly. That was something that was going to have to be supported by the marketing spend and the marketing channels that we were utilizing.
Within three years of joining the business, in early 2014, we opened our fourth site which was the biggest site we had at the time, which was at Millbrook, Southampton, and that was a 250-car site. In the interim, we had opened another site on the M3, which was the Fleet site. In 2014, we were in the position where we were retailing 400 plus cars per month and it was really, at that point, that we started to look at where this industry was going and that was when we first started to look at Carvana, in the States. They were a relatively new entry into used car retailing, very much a disruptor, completely different model from anything experienced globally, at the time.
When we started to look at Carvana, which was pure online retailing, with a heavy emphasis on exceptional display of their vehicles online and the way that they marketed their vehicles, it became clear that their model was something we were very interested in pursuing. We didn’t have the sort of investment or money that could help us deliver exactly what they were delivering, but there were certain elements of it that we could certainly replicate within our business. When we first looked at the Carvana model, they had 200 cars on their website and were retailing a similar amount monthly.
We took some of the best practice from that model, specifically around ensuring that we were able to deliver a great experience online when the consumer was viewing that vehicle on our vehicle details page. That became more and more fleshed out, in terms of what details we were putting on there, to replicate a lot of what Carvana was doing online, in the States.
At Imperial, was your whole inventory available online or was it still only available locally? I believe Carvana started with one pool of inventory.
Exactly; we did the same. Back in 2014, we were right at the early days of internet selling of vehicles and we were very much geographically based. Everything that the aggregators were doing at the time – and up until relatively recently – was geographically based. You would put your postcode into the aggregator, select your radius and then it would show the cars available in that radius. We were still quite site, location and geographically based, right up until 2019, really. As we started to expand from 2014, nationally, we then had to look to other channels to advertise the product, so the visibility of the stock we were holding was available across the UK and people weren’t just seeing a subset of our stock that was close to them.
Looking at the customer buying experience online, what did you really learn from Carvana, in those early days, that really signaled to you that this was the future to focus on?
I think what we learnt in the early days was that, firstly, there was an alternative to the traditional sales model and we were keen to explore that. What we really started to buy into was the fact that, even back in 2014, people were prepared to, effectively, buy anything online.The Amazons, the eBays and all those marketplaces were growing massively and a myriad of products were available online. Not necessarily the high-ticket items that we are talking about and not necessarily as unique as a used car can be, but back in 2014, people were very used to buying products online. All we had to do was to find a way to change some of the perception of used-car retailing in the UK and we had to build trust, openness and transparency in the product, our pricing and our brand.
We worked very hard on that, from 2014. If you go back to the original premise of marketing, you’ve got to have the right product, in the right place, at the right time, positioned in the right way. We knew we had the right product and we knew we’d prepared it very well. In fact, we prepared better than most main dealers would because, at that time, we’d started to centralize our preparation, to get consistency and quality. We knew we were pricing competitively because that’s what we did. The building blocks were there. What we had to do was to get that message across online and that’s where we spent a hell of a lot of time on our vehicle details page and we started to see that we would need to put 40 plus images; we would need to put on 360 spins. We’d have to put all specifications of the vehicle down on that page because we needed to add value to that vehicle versus our competitors.
We also needed to start to do what Carvana were doing, in terms of putting paperwork and documentation online. Too many times, you as a buyer, may phone up a dealership and say, I’ve seen your car, I’ve seen the nine images, but what’s the service history? What are the MOT details? Very quickly, we got to the point where we thought that we shouldn’t need to rely on a customer ringing us. The only phone call I wanted to have from a customer was, I’ve seen everything online, I’d like to buy your car; is it still available?
We didn’t see the point in leaving stuff out, trying to create a lead, trying to create a phone call, trying to create an email which we could then influence. It was more about having confidence in the product, the way we dealt with customers and that whole customer experience, and start to move towards a self-serve option for consumers online, where they can do elements of that. Maybe they can get to a point, during that self-serve process, where they need a bit of help and we can then actively get involved.