Major league auction group Manheim is redoubling its commitment to the light commercial vehicle market in the teeth of the recession. It’s already pumped £1.7m into creating a four-lane sales set-up at its branch near Colchester. Further investment in the sprawling Essex site — said to be the biggest of its type in Europe — will bring the total spend to over £5m.

“Having four lanes gives us more capacity and means we can offer the customer lots of choice,” says auction centre manager, Chris Cush.


Super Centre

April will see the launch of what Manheim describes as a van super centre at its Haydock, Lancashire, location. What’s more, the company is trialling 21-point mechanical inspections of light commercials under the Van Check banner to give prospective purchasers a more accurate picture of the condition of a vehicle before it appears in front of the auctioneer’s rostrum.

The inspection’s findings remain in force for 24 hours after the buyer has taken delivery of the light commercial concerned. A money-back guarantee will be provided by Manheim if the findings of the inspection prove to be inaccurate.


Internet Bidding

Buyers don’t have to attend an auction physically to bid on a commercial vehicle. If they have an account with Manheim they can bid over the internet and more and more of them are doing so.

The total value of commercials sold over the internet by Manheim reached almost £9.6m in 2008, a 263 per cent rise over the previous year’s total. The number of online bids shot up by 254 per cent to over 23,000 while the number of buyers logging on rose by 239 per cent to north of 8,300.

A visit to Colchester while a light commercial sale was in full swing showed how well the four-lane set-up — an American concept and the only one of its type in Europe — works. Admittedly only two lanes were in action at the time, but remarkably effective and unobtrusive sound-proofing between the lanes means that the different auctioneers don’t drown each other out. They work from two-tier rostrums, with staff on the lower tier ready to answer queries from customers.



So who bids at Manheim’s sales? Around 18 per cent of bidders are end-users; tradesmen such as plumbers, plasterers and so on who need a van to go to work in. The number of end-users buying at auction rose by 3.0 per cent last year compared with 2007’s total.

Some 55 per cent of bidders are independent non-franchised dealers who want vans to sell from their site — typically they’ll have 30 to 40 in stock — while 25 per cent are traders who may not have premises at all. A mere 2.0 per cent are franchised main dealers. The vans they are all after are typically entered into auctions by major leasing businesses, high-profile fleets such as the Royal Mail and rental companies such as Northgate.


Van Business

Over the past nine years Manheim has quadrupled the amount of commercial vehicle business it does. It sold getting on for 52,000 commercials in 2008, a rise of approaching 12 per cent on 2007’s total. Things grew progressively tougher towards the end of the year, however, as recession started to bite, with light commercial values hitting their lowest point for a long time in the final quarter.

“Over the 12 months we saw prices move from 105 per cent to 79 per cent of the CAP Average figure,” says commercial vehicle sales director, Alex Wright. CAP is one of the country’s leading van and truck price guides.

The start of the year saw a bit of an upswing at Manheim, however, with average van values improving by 5.5 per cent — £140 — in January compared with December. Attendance at auctions was up too. “However we believe that prices are likely to remain flat for most of the year with the possibility of a recovery in the final quarter,” Wright says.

His opinion, he stresses, is hedged about with a number of ‘ifs’. “I believe that what I’m saying will be the case if consumer credit restrictions are eased, if dealer network casualties are minimised, if there are no other unforeseen market influences and if consumer demand for used vehicles remains stable,” he states.


New Van Sales

The latest figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) will do little to cheer him up. New van registrations plummeted by a staggering 47.3 per cent in January, it says, and dropped 17.6 per cent for the rolling year.

“The UK commercial vehicle business is in for a very tough year even if government aid and lending guarantees arrive,” says chief executive, Paul Everitt. “The resilience of the sector will be tested,” he continues. “It will come through, but the challenge is huge.”

Nor are things likely to get better quickly. The SMMT’s latest forecast suggests that there will be a modest upswing in new van sales in the autumn followed by a slow but steady rise in 2010. The SMMT’s comments confirm What Van?’s view that there has seldom been a better time to buy a new van. Dealers are anxious to do business and many of them have large stocks of unsold light commercials that they are desperate to shift.

So don’t be afraid to drive a hard bargain, and don’t be afraid to ask for a few extras — a tow-bar, say, or a ply lining for the cargo area — to be thrown in free-of-charge. If the dealer won’t play ball, then remind him that he has lots of competitors who will.



Manheim’s observations indicate that now is a good time to buy a used van too; and don’t be frightened to bid at auction if you can’t find anything that meets your needs at the right price at local dealerships. OK, you should do your homework first, attend two or three sales before you make your first bid and never forget that you don’t have the same redress if you don’t like what you’ve bought that you do if you buy from a dealer. If you can overcome those obstacles, however, then you might just end up with a bargain.