2020 was a bruising year for the independent garage repair sector. With lockdowns, fire breaks, circuit-breakers and tiered restrictions all severely impacting the way garages operated.
Yet the sector also displayed remarkable resilience. It adapted to the national lockdown in March – having been given the green light to remain open for repairs and servicing work – and worked hard to keep essential workers safe and mobile.
These experiences proved invaluable as garages subsequently faced the challenges of responding to fast changing regional and national restrictions caused by the pandemic.
It was also a time of confusion. The government’s move at the end of March to grant car, van and motorcycle owners a six-month extension to their MOT test was implemented to reduce unnecessary journeys and maintain newly enforced social distancing rules. But with independent garages carrying out 80% of the UK’s 30 million yearly MOT tests1, it had a significant impact on revenue streams and prompted the furloughing of under-utilised technicians.
However, the lifting of the exemption from the beginning of August opened the floodgates. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) reported an additional 310,000 MOTs were conducted in August, equating to an extra 10,000 tests conducted every day of the month.2
This presented garages with a logistical nightmare requiring them to staff-up and work flat-out to satisfy the higher than normal demand for MOTs which lasted through to the end of 2020.
The ramifications of the extension are continuing to be felt this year with garages now preparing for a significant fall in demand for MOTs from April, the first anniversary of the extension.
For Hayley Pells, the second-generation owner of the family-run Avia Autos in Bridgend, Wales, this is all part of the challenges she faces of running a busy local garage.
“April 2021 is a major concern. As a sector we’re expecting to see MOT tests drop between 35-40% of normal levels in April because of the impact of the extension. I think this legacy will continue to be felt each year until new car sales drop into that month and start to reduce that gaping ravine of absent work,” she said.
The business already has contingency plans in place with a planned shutdown of her site in April, enabling the four-strong team to have a well-deserved break, while also giving her time to overhaul the workshop’s maintenance schedule.
However, Pells believes some garages will be caught out and could be seriously impacted by the abrupt fall in demand for MOT work.
“The drop-off in April will have a major impact on garages that are not prepared. There will be closures as it will be difficult to sustain that interruption to cash-flow after the year we’ve just had; not everyone will be able to sweat it out,” she said.
Ahead of the planned shutdown Pells says the business will go into “communication overdrive” to inform customers of its plans and encourage them to book vehicles in for service, repair and MOT work before April and from May onwards.
As a business Avia Autos has built a strong local reputation and punched above its weight on the national stage, having won Automechanika’s highly coveted Garage of the Year Award in 2019 and the Motor Ombudsman’s 2020 Garage Star Award for Wales.
Like all independent garages Avia also competes against national chains, something Pells is comfortable with as she believes her business has a strong local focus which has created a loyal customer base.
“I can’t demand loyalty from my customers, but I would like to think that informed choices on transparent services allows them to make the best possible judgement about using us.
“My business is very different from a big national chain, it’s one that local customers can depend on. I have an excellent team and we are doing our bit to raise standards in the independent garage sector and don’t feel there needs to be an “us and them”.
Finally, Pells believes lessons learned in 2020 places her garage in a strong position to tackle whatever 2021 has in store.
“I believe in over-communication as a successful marketing strategy and we are truly fortunate to have been robust in this area before the pandemic. So, during the lockdowns and fire break, we were able to work with local media organisations and use social media to communicate with our customers.”
Curtis Hutchinson is a B2B motoring journalist and former editor of Motor Trader and Company Car.
Skills in demand
In the months ahead, independent garages will continue to face the ebb and flow challenge of balancing workshop staffing levels with customer demand, following the long-term impact of the MOT extension and the possibility of further lockdowns.
Autotech Recruit, which specialises in the placement of vehicle technicians on a temporary basis, helped garages maintain staffing levels when the pandemic hit last year. Its CEO Gavin White believes independents were at the sharp end and, without the security of an OEM to fall back on, worked hard to keep their businesses going.
“Since August, many garages have been working around the clock to deal with the backlog, and this has been further compounded by the MOT exemption. There is a lot of fatigue out there, coupled with absenteeism. Garages are turning to temporary solutions to help them run at full capacity and meet demand,” he said.
The pandemic has also setback the sector’s drive to upskill technicians to prepare for higher volumes of electric vehicles (EVs), plug-in hybrids and hybrids entering independent garages.
The Institute of the Motor Industry estimates3 that only 5% of the current vehicle technician workforce are qualified to work on these vehicles, an issue brought to the fore following the government announcing the ban of new petrol and diesel engine car sales from 2030.
“With the vaccine, I would like to think that upskilling, particularly in the case of EVs, will be pushed to the top of the agenda in 2021,” said White.
“The industry also needs to focus its attention on creating a new pipeline of young talent which will sustain the industry in generations to come. The sector saw an 87% fall in apprentice recruitment during the pandemic and we need to turn this around.”