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Repair workshop challenges mirrored across the globe

Industry reports from the UK and France for 2023 reveal some key comparisons and stand-out trends that will likely impact the collision repair market in the short to medium term, according to Barry Edney.

The headlines from these reports are that costs are up everywhere and as a result, insurance premiums are going up too. Well, tell us something we didn’t know, you all shout! My point is that it’s a similar story wherever in the world you look, it’s just the degree of impact that varies from country to country.

Looking Back to 2023

Just so you can put things into perspective, here’s a comparison of key trends pulled from the market reports of France and the UK.

As has been widely reported, we have witnessed repair costs skyrocketing, thanks to high inflation over the past couple of years, especially in energy prices. This surge and resulting increase in repair costs had a direct impact on motor insurance premiums, with reporting a whopping 58 per cent increase in UK premiums last year. It is a very similar picture across Europe as well. Staying on top of the essential metrics has become crucial for body shops as a result.

Image; Barry Edney

The repair expenses, covering labour, paint, and parts, continued to outpace the current annual inflation rate (2024 – CPI UK four per cent / France 3.1 per cent, Germany 2.9 per cent). Fortunately, the double-digit spikes from earlier in 2023 have tapered down to a more manageable sub four percent year-on-year for 2024. This trend continued in December and January, hinting at a potential stabilisation. Labour costs experienced the most significant jump in the UK, while in France it was parts and paint that rose the most, influenced by the steep rise in energy prices and input cost.

Interestingly, cycle times have started to decrease in most markets, primarily due to a drop in key-to-key times. However, lead times have extended compared to early last year. This indicates that assessing and submitting all necessary information, pictures, parts lists etc in advance, has improved body shop effectiveness. At least in terms of managing the challenges. While customers may experience a slightly longer wait for their vehicles to be repaired, it ensures a smoother process overall.

In January, repair volumes bounced back after a relatively quiet December, showing an increase compared to the same period in 2023 for most markets. This nearly brings repair volumes back in line with pre-COVID levels.

Car Sales

Despite the doom and gloom about the economy, car sales grew year on year right across Europe and in the UK. This is obviously good for our industry as more cars mean more vehicles to be damaged and repaired. Across the EU, car sales grew 14 per cent and, in the UK, a whopping 18 per cent. Interestingly signs in Europe’s biggest market, Germany, are not so good with a decline in sales during December, and a slow start to 2024. For the full year, 2023, total car sales across the EU were 10.5 million units, with all countries apart from Hungary (-3.4 per cent). France and Spain recorded double digit growth while Germany showed a weaker 7.3 per cent growth mostly due to weaker sales in December.

You will not be surprised to learn that sales of Electric Vehicles continued to grow although at a slower rate than previous years. This is likely due to government incentives expiring and the ready availability of hybrid vehicles. Despite this slight decline, electric vehicles held nearly 19 per cent share for December and nearly 15 per cent market share for the full year.

Sales of petrol fuelled vehicles fell to 35 per cent in the EU but held up at 40 per cent in the UK. That is very likely due to the UK government rolling back the deadline to end the sales of vehicles with 100 per cent internal combustion engines from 2030 to 2035.

As car sales is often used as a barometer for the broader economy, this would indicate that things aren’t as doom laden as some would have us believe.

Emerging Trends

I’ve often mentioned the skills crunch, and in my last article I also explored the capacity crunch that has been widely discussed here in Europe, and especially the UK. Of all the European markets, the UK operates most like Australia in terms of the insurers approach to managing their relations with repairers and managing the flow of work into body shops. Currently, around 75 per cent of UK body shops complete 100 per cent of insurer provided work. This logically leads to the capacity issues during peak times.

Skills Deployment

There is an emerging view that the challenge is not a skills shortage, but a deployment issue. For these super busy body shops, always full of insurance work, why do they task a master technician with the whole repair, when some well-trained labourer could do many of the less critical tasks at the technician’s direction? This is not a new idea, and my former colleague in the paint industry, Doug Kirk (some readers will remember his visits to Australia), has been an advocate of this approach for quite a few years. This is the approach used very successfully by DCR Systems in the US, taking the approach of breaking the repair into critical tasks for the technicians and general tasks for the experienced but less skilled labour force.

Repairer Groups

One of the consequences of keeping the shop full, to meet insurance company obligations, is focussing on volume instead of profitability. As a result, there are many busy shops but few profitable shops. At one time, there were various supplier programmes often from paint companies, helping repairers with the financial management of production, with classes on cost management, break-even analysis and much more. Those programmes seem to have disappeared, certainly here in Europe. I do know from past experience that they were expensive to run so they have likely gone the way of many ‘optional’ services.

To counter this, we are seeing the emergence of body shop groups to provide members a network with self-help, peer support and shared expertise. These groups aren’t franchises such as Fix Auto or a wholly owned group, they are a grouping of like-minded independent body shop operators, working together to figure out a better way to run their businesses in the current environment. These shops really do focus on the operational side and are proving to be successful. I hope to have more insight on this in future articles for NCR magazine.

The emergence of these repairer groups is not the only solution to this challenge of volume versus profit.


Although seeing setbacks a few years ago with Nationwide Accident Repair Services being bailed out of administration and the closure of 30 branches, consolidation continues in the UK industry.

The most active (certainly one of the most visible), Steer Automotive Group is one that continues to grow. At the beginning of March, they announced the acquisition of a further six body shops in Wales and in England. This brings their national footprint to a total of over 100 sites.

Consolidation can work well if a careful strategy is followed. The Steer Group continues to grow in the UK as it focuses on operations as well as volumes. Image: Barry Edney

What is interesting about the Steer group is their focus on operations and not just high volumes. The amount of time and effort that they invest into process development and training is impressive.

Rather than complain about the skills shortage, Steer have taken matters into their own hands and established their own, in-house, training academy to develop skills and train apprentices. They also have a separate team working on process development to streamline and improve effectiveness of repairs. Obviously, Steer Automotive are of a big enough scale to be able to sustain this in-house resource, while many single site repairers, simply cannot. However, it is refreshing to see a repairer get on with planning and resourcing their own future skills needs, instead of complaining that the government doesn’t do enough to support apprentices and training. With countless awards gained over the years and an impressive nine business and training awards in 2023, they are certainly making a mark on the industry.


Image: Barry Edney

It’s good to see businesses grow even in this current environment and the continued growth in car sales close to pre pandemic levels, is reassuring. Anyone who reads my column regularly will know I am an optimist and trust our industry to keep evolving and dealing with the challenges as they come our way. This year is my 37th working in or reporting on this industry and I am still constantly amazed by the resilience and determination of the people in it. After the challenges of the past few years, I really do think we are coming out the other side.

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