Why did Tesco's use car arm fail?

It turns out selling used cars is very different to selling eggs

In a week where supermarket giant Tesco is battling to keep some of its biggest shareholders amid concerns about the group’s future strategy, it was an interesting time to pull the plug on its fledgling car retailing venture, almost exactly a year to the day after it launched.

Using the infrastructure of a used car operation called Carsite, Tesco Cars saw itself reforming the used car landscape, offering sellers of cars up to three years old – mainly fleet operators, car leasing companies and rental firms – a sales channel that it claimed would offer faster sales at higher prices than other routes such as auctions.

The reality has proved very different, and it turns out selling used cars is very different to selling eggs. When Tesco came in, the used car market was in a fairly depressed state, with plenty of stock around. But in the last six months in particular, volume has dried up considerably as the depression in new car sales of 2008 and 2009 now hits supply of three-year-old vehicles. Good used cars can currently command top dollar from buyers, as there simply aren’t enough around to satisfy demand.

Anecdotally, my contacts tell me Tesco came in and tried to act as it does with farmers and its other supermarket suppliers, using its size to try and dictate terms by wanting customers to keep cars on their books and wait for a sale, rather than taking them to the nearest auction where the cash would come through much faster. Ultimately, Tesco struggled to get hold of enough decent quality used cars as the company learned, slightly too late, that the used car market didn’t need Tesco as much as it thought it would.

Don’t mistake this as a weakness in the car market though. Private sales are struggling because of general fears about the economy leading to people not making luxury purchases like a new car when their current one serves a purpose for now, but Tesco isn’t pulling out of selling cars because it’s a struggling sector of the UK economy. The general view of people I’ve spoken to in what is a mature and established car industry is that Tesco came in and though it could easily become a big player overnight, and that people would buy cars from the brand the recognise as the place they get their groceries. Approached in a softer way and with a perceived greater understanding of how and why the new and used markets work, Tesco Cars may have survived beyond its first birthday, but the famous supermarket brand has found used cars too tough a nut to crack.

Paul Barker is group automotive editor at BusinessCar.co.uk.

Tesco's used car venture failed, Getty images.

Paul Barker is group automotive editor at BusinessCar.co.uk.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.