Why do car dealers moan about paying Auto Trader’s bills?

In our latest Car Dealer Investigations video we look at how Auto Trader grew into the giant it is today. Here, our editor-in-chief asks: If the advertising site works for car dealers, why do they moan about paying the bills?

Time 7:30 am, July 31, 2022

There are few motor trade suppliers that divide opinion quite like Auto Trader – and it’s for this reason that we wanted to produce a video all about them as part of our Car Dealer Investigations series.

Unlike Cazoo – a previous subject of the series – Auto Trader was open to the idea and welcomed us to its offices in Manchester to take part in the filming.

We sat down with Nathan Coe, the CEO, Catherine Faiers, the COO, and Chris Kelly, the CTO – all took the time to answer our awkward questions.

Before we started the project, I made it clear to Auto Trader that this was going to be no ‘puff piece’ for the brand. It needed to be unbiased, balanced and talk about the good, and ask about the bad.

I said I’d be tackling the elephant in the room – its prices – and asking dealers what they really think about the brand. Auto Trader didn’t know who we’d be talking to and the interviewees were told they could say what they wanted.

For years, I’ve fielded questions from car dealers asking me ‘what are you going to do about Auto Trader?’

The aggrieved – often not happy to put their name to their comments – would be furious that Auto Trader was ‘charging them so much’ for advertising. 

In fact, log on to any car dealer forum – ours included – and you’ll find similar comments from dealers.

I’d always ask them, when challenged directly, if they were so unhappy with Auto Trader’s prices why did they continue to use them? And the answer was always the same: ‘Because that’s where I sell my cars.’

It was with these comments ringing in my ears that I contacted a number of dealers to take part in our video.

We chatted to a large number of them – franchised group bosses, smaller franchised dealers and independent used car dealer owners – all were mostly very positive about Auto Trader.

Yes, there were some who weren’t overly happy with the bills they had to pay, but all admitted that they used Auto Trader because it helped them sell their cars.

Most don’t begrudge the huge profits the advertising giant makes either, saying that they were happy to pay for a quality service – and that’s what they got.

What I think dealers really don’t like is the domination Auto Trader has – it’s the largest player in the used car market by a huge margin, attracting an audience six times bigger than its closest rival.

Chatting to the experts for our video on numerous Zoom calls and in person, it was clear there’s actually a lot of respect for what Auto Trader has achieved.

Few can deny the business rapidly shifted from traditional publisher to tech giant, and the fact it launched its website two years before Google even existed is quite remarkable.

Those running the business now, know they’re custodians of a national brand that will be around for decades to come and are concentrating on improving relationships.

Coe admitted that there had been a distinct policy shift when he took over a few months before the first Covid lock down and he wanted to improve relationships with dealers.

The business gave away millions of pounds worth of advertising during the lockdowns and eased pressure on dealers at the toughest of times.

Catherine Faiers quote

That help did not go unnoticed. Everyone we spoke to respected the firm for making those moves when some dragged their feet and it’s gone a long way to thawing tensions with the motor trade.

The very fact they opened their doors to our cameras and were happy to answer any questions we threw at them, says a lot.

I asked them if they were embarrassed by the profits they made, whether they thought the business had peaked, and what they think of rivals – and none of the tough questions were dodged.

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Auto Trader is a fascinating business and a true success story for the motor trade. It’s transformed itself and is now reaping the rewards of that hard work. 

Yes, the motor trade might like to have a quiet moan about the bills they have to pay, but at the core most actually have great respect for what the business has managed to achieve.

You can watch the video now on our YouTube channel or listen to it as a Podcast on your favourite platforms by searching for ‘Car Dealer Investigations’. 

James Baggott's avatar

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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