Dealers’ reluctance to sell electric cars could leave sales in slow lane

New study suggests car sellers are actively steering buyers away from electric vehicles

 

We’ve all seen the latest doom-laden report into climate change and global warming. And are all doubtless now feeling the same creeping sensation that 2030, the date by which time we’ll all have had to make drastic changes in our lifestyles if runaway climate disaster is to be averted, is far closer than we think.

By that date, the Irish Government has stated it wants to see only 100 per cent electric versions of new cars sold in Ireland. That’s not hybrids nor plug-in hybrids, but pure-electric power, from batteries only, for every new car sold in the State by that date. If it has a combustion engine on board, it’s not getting in. Apparently.

Which would be quite something. It would require the most dramatic volte-face change in Irish consumer habits since.

Currently, pure-electric cars account for just 0.95 per cent of the Irish car market. That’s 1,175 cars (correct to October 14th) out of a total of 123,086 sales.

Hybrid powered cars, those which have both battery and engine, but no plug, account for a more robust 5.54 per cent, but even that is dwarfed by the 54 per cent of buyers who are still plumping for diesel, or the 38 per cent who are buying petrol-powered cars.

Low numbers

Why so few? There are a huge number of intersecting and conflicting factors in the lack of electric car sales, but one now seems to be that dealer sales staff are not only doing a poor job of selling electric cars, but are actively steering buyers away from them, and back into petrol or diesel.

According to a study published in the renowned scientific journal Nature, dealer sales staff seem at best unsure, and at worst positively hostile, towards electric power. “Do not buy this, it will ruin you,” one prospective buyer was told when they asked about an electric car on sale. “Another would-be customer was gently steered away from an electric model because, the sales person wrongly insisted it would take two days to drive 350 kilometres. These customers, according to Nature, were actually not customers at all, but were “secret shoppers” sent in by the research team behind the paper.

According to the study: “The attitude of the sales staff – largely driven by them not knowing as much about the electric models – was hugely influential. The study analysis suggests that it is the most important predictor of the likelihood that a customer will leave having bought an electric car – which the researchers calculated was a dismal zero per cent in many of the cities they visited.”

The study took place across Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden and it was kept limited, as researchers didn’t want to fall prey to criticisms that they were essentially, and unethically, wasting the time of the dealers. Thusly, their interactions were kept to around 10 minutes at maximum, and we must therefore add the coda that had more time been spent, then perhaps a more encouraging performance would have been forthcoming.

Nevertheless, and not least because the study included electric vehicle (EV) pioneer Norway (where strong incentives for electric car purchase and use have propelled electric cars to a near 50 per cent market share this year), it’s at least disturbing to see that the researchers concluded that: “Dealers were dismissive of electric vehicles and misinformed shoppers about vehicle specifications. In many cases, it took persistent questions from the mystery shoppers to get the electric-car dealers just to admit that yes, they did actually sell electric cars.”

In Norway strong incentives for electric car purchase and use have propelled electric cars to a near 50 per cent market share this year

Should similar concerns be raised about Irish dealers? After all, with Ireland oft-touted as being an ideal market for electric cars (short overall distances between cities, partially-State-owned power utility company, mild climate, no major mountain ranges), 0.95 per cent is a pretty pitiful penetration.

Ireland’s car importers and manufacturers say that they’re getting their electric houses ever more in order.

Strategic approach

A Volkswagen Spokesperson told The Irish Times: “We have taken a pretty cautious and strategic approach to EVs so far here locally, in part driven by supply. We would have sold more eGolfs this year and last year had we got supply, but the car was hugely popular in markets such as Norway, so we always knew there was a limit to how many we sell here in Ireland. We will have delivered around 80 units by the end of 2018. However, supply has become a lot better for eGolf, and in 2019 we will have more than 400 units available which is multiples more than we have had up to now. We are also planning an high-spec Executive Edition for 2019 which will appeal to the user-chooser customer that can avail of the 0 per cent BIK initiative. Currently, we will be able to fulfil orders placed now for January on eGolf.

“These measures, together with a gradual rollout of more EV enabled dealers (Volkswagen currently has six dealers serving a broad spread of the country based on population centres ) in the coming months will increase our presence. Dealer training begins next month for more of the dealers that are coming to the EV network, and with the ID range coming in 2020, there will be a full rollout of EV dealers by that year.”

We have been organising regular sales and technical training for all retail staff to ensure staff are equipped with all the resources they need to sell electric vehicles

According to BMW Ireland: “The expansion of BMW i operations and the significant financial investments by our Irish retail network is a clear commitment to meet the future demands of our customers. We have been organising regular sales and technical training for all retail staff to ensure staff are equipped with all the resources they need to sell electric vehicles.”

Nissan Ireland claims that it has the lead when it comes to EV sales, with a spokesperson telling The Irish Times: “At Nissan we have the luxury of having had eight years’ experience selling electric vehicles. So with over 2,000 new Leafs under their belts it would be misguided to think that the Nissan network shy away from selling EV’s to customers.

“All of the sales teams have been fully immersed and undergo continuous training in EV’s to ensure they remain top of their game. They are experienced in all things EV – including having full knowledge and experience in dealing with all of the grant systems and charging infrastructure questions which customers may have. A big part of that training also involves proper qualification of customers to ensure that the customer is sold a vehicle to suit their circumstance and requirements. If a customer’s driving requirements doesn’t suit an EV a Nissan dealer would certainly recommend an alternative for them.”

Thorny issue

If, as claimed, the dealer training is up to snuff, then where is the problem coming from? Well, it might be the thorny issue that, depending on the brand, electric cars don’t give the dealer as big a sales bonus as a conventional car. Tom Callow of UK-based EV charging experts Chargemaster. He told The Irish Times: “We have had feedback from some drivers seeking to purchase electric cars that they’ve experienced car dealers either trying to encourage them to buy a different – usually diesel – car because they will get a bonus, or in some cases totally dismissing the idea of electric vehicles altogether. Indeed, one of my relatives went to a dealer to ask about a specific electric car they had in their used stock, only to be told that he was ‘an idiot’ for considering one. He ended up buying an EV from a rival business, so that dealer lost a sale. The irony is that wholesale prices for used electric cars are relatively low at the moment, whereas retail prices are quite strong, so there is actually good profit to be made by dealers savvy enough to do the maths.”

The Government has already stated that it wants to see 100 per cent electric car sales in Ireland. Photograph: Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images
The Government has already stated that it wants to see 100 per cent electric car sales in Ireland. Photograph: Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

Chargemaster is unusual in that it has actually opened its own showroom, in the English town of Milton Keynes, where a variety of electric cars from different brands are displayed, and potential customers are able to explore them, and their options, in a less sales-focused environment. The feedback is striking, says Callow: “Clearly dealers will need a level of training when it comes to selling electric cars, and as long as they’re willing to learn, they should be able to successfully adapt to selling any type of vehicle. We are seeing EV specialist dealers crop up across the UK, selling only plug-in cars in many cases, and doing very good business as a result.”

There are so many other issues holding back electric car sales right now. Doubts over future subsidies and tax-back options for one (exacerbated no doubt by the UK’s startling decision this past week to dramatically, and without a lead-in, roll-back subsidies for hybrid and plug-in-hybrid cars); the parlous and insufficient nature of the public charging, and fast-charging, network for another; and the sheer cost of buying an EV, which in spite of generally softening prices remain generally more expensive than petrol or diesel options. Delivery times for electric cars are generally pretty lengthy too, although manufacturers say that production is being ramped up to lessen such delays.

All of which will have to be addressed before 2030, but if the people selling the cars to the consumer can’t, or won’t, go the extra length to get a battery sale over the line, then electric cars are going to be stuck firmly in the sales slow lane for some time to come.

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