The car industry is failing women: that much we categorically know. Every customer survey, every “deep dive” into a huge data set of women drawn from Facebook, Mumsnet and other areas unconnected with the car world, returns the same findings: women are not marketed to, not recognised as a different buying demographic.
They are patronised or ignored or talked to in the sales showroom on the assumption that they then need to discuss a purchase with their husbands before making a decision. The vast majority of women feel 100 per cent disenfranchised from the buying process, despite having 85 per cent of the spending power.
A recent list published in Autocar magazine “celebrating” the top 100 women in the car industry showed how the industry is floundering: it was a navel-gazing look at jobs inside the industry for women, with categories such as the top female HR director and top female PR director, when it could have served its readers and the wider public better by celebrating the people who are actually doing something on the front line, to change the relationship between cars and the female public: social influencers, brand advisers, dealership managers, breakdown patrols.
Jack it up: Erin was among the 46 women at Field’s garage in Surrey
Last week, after 11 years as a motoring journalist, I found the person who has single-handedly caused the biggest shift in the link between women and cars.
His name is Richard Field, and he runs Field’s Car Centre in Woking, Surrey. If what follows seems like a big advert for one car garage, then good: they fully deserve it for ingenuity, kindness, honesty and a stroke of brilliance.
Because, one Thursday every month, they put on Ladies’ Night. Let us, for the sake of what follows, ignore the dreadful name for this event. The point is, it’s a free, two-hour session in which women learn about cars, ask all the stupid questions they want (“How do you open the bonnet?” was answered without a hint of a smirk) and get honest, kind, careful answers.
The idea came about after one woman turned up at the garage having put water in her brake fluid. It’s a complete no-brainer of a business move, too: women who come, and meet the friendly mechanics, are then far more likely to prove return customers, as well as spreading the word.
I went last week. The garage is not a swanky glass and metal dealership; it’s your average scruffy repair, servicing and MoT garage on a small trading estate; they also sell a few secondhand cars. Forty-five women joined me, and there’s a waiting list for each night. They were all ages – from 60-year-olds down to mums and their teenage daughters who had yet to pass their driving test. Seven welcoming mechanics waited in seven bays, and we split into groups that rotated round each bay. We had Gary on “awkward lights on dashboards”, Sal showing us how to change a wheel, Keith under a ramp pointing out MoT failures (“ladies like the idea of getting underneath Keith’s ramp”), Steve who’s normally on the phones but that night was explaining why a car needs to be serviced, how to check the oil and so on, another Gary on changing headlight bulbs, and Chris taking any questions at all, “although he doesn’t know about soufflés”.
Add in a raffle and a gift bag from Bose with sponges and tyre thread gauges in it, plus some cocktail sausages, crisps and soft drinks for all, and I had myself the finest, most useful, cheering, pleasant evening I’ve ever had in the car industry.
Next up, one woman pointed, out, it should be “Men’s Night”. We agreed they’d all turn up, but obviously no one would ask any questions.