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The Coronavirus crisis has been a catalyst for change throughout global business, proving that necessity really is the mother of invention.

Online channels have been vital for maintaining contact with suppliers and customers to generate revenues that have proved inaccessible to companies relying on offline methods.

Companies that have already invested in future-proofing their businesses are responding quickly to the shifting business landscape, while less developed rivals struggle to catch up.

In the remarketing industry, vehicle sales are its lifeblood and innovative UK specialist Aston Barclay has reaped the rewards of a multi-million digitalisation programme that was embedded in the business from its launch.

It focused on a balance between change and tradition with a national network of physical sites backed by extensive investment in digital technology, including a smartphone app for buyers.

The development of an ecosystem that allows vehicles to be switched between offline and online sales channels meant that it was trading again within two weeks of the UK’s lockdown announcement in March.

Staff worked from home, fulfilling their roles in live auctions from anywhere in the country, sometimes hundreds of miles apart, while customers simply switched to online services, allowing companies to extract the value from vehicle assets worth millions of pounds despite lockdown.

In total, Aston Barclay sold 12,000 vehicles between April and the start of June, equivalent to around 200 a day, through its e-Live and e-Xchange platforms, which kept the wheels of the industry moving through the worst of the crisis, though at a slower pace of around one-third of normal volumes.

The experience has “changed mindsets” according to managing director Martin Potter (pictured), and it will have long-term ramifications, with digital retailing becoming the “new normal”.

He envisages 70% of sales through its auctions being digital as both buyers and sellers trust the process involved and the accurate information they receive on vehicles.

Potter said: “In the long-term, the only area I can see returning to physical buying is older cars, with OEM and fleet stock using online channels.

“However, there will always be a need for physical sites for customers that want to see and touch the car; the industry also needs the storage space we provide.”

Auction sites also carry out inspection and imaging work, which is critical to ensuring buyers are confident enough to submit bids online.

Aston Barclay has been attracting a growing customer base of buyers, with an increase of 30% to date this year, equivalent to the percentage growth achieved for the whole of 2019.

A key attraction is its investment in technology, with more than 40% of vehicles now bought using the Aston Barclay smartphone app.

Its digital investment has been showcased during lockdown and its success has secured the interest of major clients, with new signings including Volkswagen Financial Services, while leading leasing company Zenith has increased its volume with Aston Barclay.

Post-lockdown, industry demand has returned as consumers have driven strong market growth, which could see the company’s remarketing volumes match or even exceed last year, despite the disruption of Coronavirus.

In his new role for Aston Barclay (managing director - customer), Potter oversees services to both vendors and buyers, and he is preparing the business for the next major change on the horizon, as growing numbers of electric vehicles reach the used vehicle market.

Aston Barclay is introducing a new ‘assured’ service to confirm the quality of electric and hybrid vehicles to buyers in expectation of growing used volumes. Leasing companies report alternative fuels now account for around 10% of their sales.

The auction firm is also responding to growing demand for commercial vehicles, with its first dedicated vans sale.

The developments come amid structural changes at Aston Barclay, with planned new roles including a head of marketing, head of buyer services and head of sales, while a new centre manager structure has been announced.

As part of the changes, group chief executive officer Neil Hodson will step down to take on a new consultative role.

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