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.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war