Q&A: Simon Dixon, Founder of Rockar

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Founder of Rockar, Simon Dixon talks to The Retail Exchange podcast host Ben Bland about his background in car retailing, his horror at car dealerships and what's different about Rockar's format of empowering the customer.

BB. Tell me about the journey that you’ve taken to get to where you are now in your career?

SD. From leaving education I joined the family business, which was a very small car business, and then over the next 20 years I worked closely with my father – I was the chief exec then to build that business into the third/fourth largest car retailing business in the UK; we were also the largest retailer of motorcycles at the time. We formed a joint venture in 2001 with Direct Line called jamjar.com, which was the first online seller of cars and created the first part-exchange valuation system, and even though 25 per cent of the population were actually online, there was still a big uptake back then in terms of people wanting to buy cars online, although the model I would say was very different. Back then, online buying was very much just about price rather than all the other points of convenience that it brings. But that joint venture led to the Royal Bank of Scotland acquiring the company and I worked for them for a couple of years, from being an entrepreneurial-type business to being part of a very big corporate and at that time, global organisation, was quite an interesting time.  But on the finishing of our workout deal that we had with them, I then got cars out of the blood, I stopped working in the car business in 2004, went off and did other things – property businesses, leisure businesses, but what I did become at that time was a true car buying customer/consumer and over that period from 2004 going into dealerships to buy cars for those businesses I was running or for my family that was growing, I was pretty horrified about the process, and also pretty embarrassed...

BB. The style of showroom that you have with Rockar is very different to what people expect, and location is a big part of that...

SD. We tend to find that having a smaller, more compact, more intimate-sized store makes the customers visiting feel differently. If you look at research, they walk into these huge showrooms now, they’re out of town, they have to make a special journey to go and actually feel a level of intimidation because they are the only people in these huge showrooms. Let’s put them into smaller more compact stores, but actually where there are thousands, millions of people going, so your chance of having a lot more people in the store. People make people comfortable. Any one of our stores probably has as many visitors, compared to the entire franchise network, so it’s about the size of the store, it’s about the location of the store, but also people going to a shopping centre are in a completely different frame of mind than they are going to walk into a car dealership.  

BB. I’m quite intrigued by the concept that Rockar has – ‘angels’ on the shop floor...

SD. An angel is a product expert. We call them an angel because they’re not sales people, but they completely fulfil the role. They know everything about the product, they’re on continuous daily upgrades in terms of product knowledge. What they’re absolutely not is they’re not sales people; we do not train them to be sales people; we don’t select them to have sales people attributes; we select them on personality, communication skills, knowledge retention. They don’t have any sales targets, they don’t have any objectives to achieve apart from serving the customer and knowing all about that product. We’re an expert in the product, but we’re not there to sell to you or use techniques to convert you.  

BB. Tell us about the partnership with Next...

SD. I think this is, for us, another interesting step. If you look what’s going on, the whole retail industry is pretty much similar to the car industry – less people are visiting stores or dealerships and therefore those retailers that are innovative will look at different ways of maintaining more people visiting their store. I think Next have come out the blocks really quickly on this and have seen that, actually, it’s a good thing that half their customers want to buy things online but they can’t keep forcing consumers to walk into their stores just to buy the same product, but what they can do is encourage customers to visit their stores to do other things that they may already be wanting to do.  So for us it was just a great sort of alignment, equally having Ford as part of that journey was fantastic. Just tying all those three things together was really cool in the Next  relationship. You only have to look at the news every night and see those that are not responding to change are going out of business and are closing, or closing lots of stores, and there are those that are changing and adapting to what consumers want and I think you’ll see there’ll be more of this type of thing happening, certainly in the next 18 months.  

BB. How do you think shopping for cars will change in the future?  

SD. The more people that support digitalisation, the greater percentage of consumers will move to buying cars absolutely purely online. The positioning of product in high footfall areas, whether that’s a mall or a transport hub or whatever, will be a point of leading to digital marketing, so it’ll make that journey easier and it’ll also put physical product where some consumers want to touch and feel it. Those two things are going to push on tremendously I think in the next two or three years. We can talk about electrification of cars; electrification of cars will reduce servicing requirements, this industry is probably in the greatest change period it’s ever had in these next five to 10 years and it’ll all be about enhancing the consumer experience through digitalisation and letting consumers do things when they want to do them.  

BB. What’s your vision for the company?

SD. Our vision is that we enable this change to happen and that we were seen as the stimulators of this back when we started in 2012, and that ultimately more people using the platform we’ve created, more people are using the format, and not just UK, globally, so we want to be … we want to use what we do around the world and that’s our vision.  

Listen to the full interview at www.theretailexchange.co.uk

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