By RYAN TAYLOR New car sales in the isles dropped by a tiny margin in March despite the introduction of the new registration plates which usually tempt customers into the showrooms.
Figures released from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show 110 new cars were registered in Shetland last month, compared with 116 during the same period last year.
So far this year 157 new cars have been sold in the isles. In 2008, however, sales stood at 178 for the first three months.
This follows the national trend, which has seen March sales fall by 30.5 per cent on last year, although the fall is not nearly as large as on the mainland.
Across the country March has usually been seen as the biggest month for sales volumes since the registrations started changing every six months instead of every year in 1999.
However dealerships here said the decline in Shetland had more to do with the weather than the economic climate.
Jim Manson, who owns three garages in Lerwick, said March was traditionally quieter than September“ when the registration plate changes again“ because March in Shetland is still pretty much winter time.
“March has traditionally never been a big month in Shetland. It’s never been a big thing here.”
He said he had seen little sign of people driving for an extra hard bargain, adding that “Shetland people traditionally drive for a hard bargain”. “There has always been that, and we try to give people a good deal.”
Bixter garage R & M Nicolson deals with Land-Rover, one half of the troubled Jaguar Land-Rover which has had to seek help as demand for luxury cars and premium four by fours has dropped.
Managing partner Martin Nicolson said even demand for the more bread and butter Volkswagens, which make up the main franchise for the garage, has declined because VW“ which works in Euros“ has pushed its UK prices up.
But he said a healthy demand for second-hand vehicles was taking up the slack.
“March has been quieter on new car sales, but used cars are a lot stronger than normal for this year. Used car sales have been really strong. There have been a lot of enquiries that have followed through to sales.
“New car sales enquiries have been less, and sales have been less as well.”
However he said that had less to do with the recession, and was more because customers were avoiding the heavy depreciation associated with new cars.
“In the rest of the country the buying public have caught on to the depreciation of new cars. In Shetland we’re more frugal anyway.”
He agreed with Mr Manson’s view that September was usually busier, although he said there had been more enquiries for commercial vehicles during March.
Meanwhile, both new and used sales at Leask Motor Garage have remained buoyant throughout March.
Andrew Leask said the business, which recently changed its franchise from Ford to Suzuki, was reaping the benefits of offering low-emissions cars, which have become more attractive thanks to their lower excise duties.
He said the chance of buying a car with a £35 tax disc and attractive finance deals meant sales for the first three months of 2009 were “on a par” with last year.
“Bigger cars will be struggling but we work with smaller cars that can offer lower insurance and running costs.”
Colin Burgess, of JB Autostore, said customers were “very savvy” about the best deals around, although he said March had been ahead of last year’s figures, with April looking to be good as well.
“We’re very lucky with the agency we’ve got, and folk are really looking for the best value they can get for their money.”
He said garages here had to compete with the internet, and added motorists were not scared of heading down south for their new wheels.
Used car sales had been “neck and neck,” he said, although most drivers are choosing to dispose of their own cars on the private market.
Overall, sales in Shetland have been steadily increasing over the last three years.
Two years ago 695 new cars were sold in the isles“ up four units from the 2006 total for Shetland.
However last year saw a big increase on that, with 767 cars finding owners in the isles.