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Future of Transportation: Dealing with change

In the first of two special interviews, Al-Futtaim Automotive’s Vincent Wijnen talks about helping shape an exciting new era for the automotive trade in the region

Imagine a future where you will be able to select, design and finance your vehicle online. Or perhaps you would prefer to be able to take on a car subscription, where it sits on your driveway for as long as you need it without the hassle of registering and licencing it – and can cancel it whenever you like.

For the Future of Transportation special of T&FME, the magazine sat down with Al-Futtaim Automotive’s senior managing director Vincent Wijnen to discuss how the UAE’s most successful dealership is already offering those services and more to customers. Early into our chat, the former Nissan executive makes a side remark on how he is leading the firm’s rapid advances in the way the retail of vehicles works in the market: “Unless you are ahead of the curve, you get left behind.”

It really could be the mantra to explain how he has re-positioned Al-Futtaim Automotive since joining the company in the early months of the Covid crisis in 2020.

How is the commercial vehicles and SME sector responding to a post-Covid market?
The commercial vehicles market is a little ahead of the passenger cars. Coming out of Covid, there are a lot of companies that are either growing or renewing. I think, what you see is them being a little bit ahead of the curve and those products are less affected by supply chain issues, because they don’t consume as many special materials. (However on the car) side supply is holding back new vehicle registrations although we are up 4% in people visiting our showrooms compared to 2019.

You worked across Europe and Asia in your previous role with Nissan, and now with AFM Automotive you cover the Middle East and North Africa, how do they compare?
I think here in some areas of the business, it is about 10, 20 years behind mature markets. The UAE is interesting because if you look at the cars in the car parks, the market looks very mature and possibly richer than most I’ve seen. However, in some ways, it is still very traditional. People walk into the show room (to buy). It’s not the same in Europe anymore. And, of course in the UAE, a big chunk of the market is government owned – or linked to it. But I don’t think it’s as much an issue of being behind, it’s just the nature of the market.

Since you joined, Al-Futtaim has rolled-out some new initiatives that seem very much at the cutting edge of what you might expect from a dealership even in Europe.
We have been focussing much more on the retail side of the business. I think people are also much more comfortable with using digital means to inform themselves and make decisions after Covid. We’ve invested a lot of money in developing and upgrading our digital platforms in the last one and a half years and we’ve also introduced full e-commerce functionality with our six steps to buy programme on all of our brands in the UAE. So, you can actually buy a car online without any physical intervention; and that you’ll get the car delivered and don’t need to go to showroom. Selling cars is still not a huge volume compared to the total, but it is growing.

One of the most interesting options you now offer is the MOOV service where you can subscribe instead of own or lease a Honda or Toyota RAV4. Being the Netflix of the automotive trade seems pretty out there for the market.
It’s all digital, and you can pick the car you want, choose the payment you want and again there doesn’t have to be any human intervention. You upload your driving licence and use your credit card and your car will be delivered to you.

How different is the demographic for this service?
The customer profile is definitely different. It’s young, affluent people in there 20s and 30s who don’t think they need to own a car. And also the female cohort is much higher. We also have a 25% of the fleet as hybrids and all of them have gone. The difference between leasing or renting is that you get the vehicle you want – and for as long as you want.

Has the rise in fuel prices affected the types of vehicles people are interested in?
If you look at our website (traffic) the interest in hybrids has gone up four-fold since the price increases. Also (when it comes to EVs) the government is supporting it

Your push with the performance electric vehicle brand Polestar has been fascinating to see. What has the market reaction been like?
As you know we have the Showroom of the Future at the Mall of the Emirates where you can do test drives – and we have 100% buys after them. The experience is premium and the works well in the UAE. The problem is having enough vehicles!

How does it feel to be able to push the envelope like this?
This is very exciting in the sense of not just doing what you think is nice but you can do these things properly with the right infrastructure. So, with a company like Al-Futtaim, we are big enough to take (a risk) and actually do these things.

Read the 100th issue of Truck and Fleet Middle East to read more about the future of transportation and mobility.

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Stephen Whitehttps://truckandfleetme.com/
Stephen White was formerly editor of Big Project ME.
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