The client

British Car Auctions (BCA) operates the auctions of personalised registration numbers on behalf of the DVLA.

The context

Since 1989, DVLA have sold registration numbers by auction at various venues across the UK. If you want a specific registration number, you can ask the DVLA and if the registration is available, they will include it at one of their auctions.

As the demand for more accessibly-priced registrations had grown considerably by 2010, DVLA started selling them through online-only timed auctions. Initially running twice a year, the number of online auctions steadily increased as more and more requests were received.

In 2015, BCA decided that the online timed auction system needed significant improvements. Their existing tech was deemed end-of-life, so OpusVL were commissioned by BCA to develop a new auction platform on a new technology stack.

The brief

The DVLA wanted to sell to the highest bidder on a maximum bid basis, and in the interest of fairness, introduce lots with sliding end times to stop auction ‘snipers’.

As Piers England, Contract Manager at BCA explains:

"We wanted bidders to be able to set a maximum bid of, for example, £1000 for their desired lot. The lot may have a starting value of £500 and the customer’s bid will go up from there in increments of £10 each time someone bids against them. This will continue until the maximum bid is reached when the bidder will be asked if they wish to increase further. Alternatively, the lot may not have many people bidding for it and the bidder will end up purchasing it for less than their stated maximum amount."

Sniping is the technique of outbidding the winner in the last seconds of the auction, so they do not have time to place a counter-bid. It was critical to BCA that an anti-sniping mechanism was added, so that all bidders have the opportunity to increase their maximum bid if they wished.

As well as automating general administrative processes, BCA needed to advise the DVLA about which lots can be released to the purchasers. This includes a variety of documentation needed by the purchaser to assign the registration number to a vehicle. These can only be released once full payment has been made, and if someone has purchased five registration numbers, for example, all five must be paid for before they are released.

Due to the high value of many of these lots, BCA also request a deposit payment from bidders when the total value of their bids reaches a certain amount.

This links to another required aspect of the solution, which was managing BCA's complex accounting requirements. These unique requirements were unable to be met through current off the shelf products, or established online auction services, so BCA required a tailor-made system in order to fulfil their accounting needs.

The journey

Before development on the platform could begin, OpusVL undertook a thorough analysis of the auction process.

Running an auction involves many concurrent events and operations. Each new bid placed can trigger other events and actions such as activating proxy bids and sending notifications via email and SMS. This all needs to happen in real-time with quick delivery of rapidly changing data.

During the design stage the team modelled all of the different bidding scenarios to produce a detailed timeline of each. This in-depth process gave the development team a deep understanding of the auction process flow, and in particular how the anti-sniping feature would operate.

The testing aspect of any development is crucial, but particularly so for this project to assure that the integrity of the auction process was maintained. To achieve this, the team produced a detailed test plan to make sure that each scenario was covered.

The test process started with unit testing - creating a test suite within the software build to validate the operation of each internal function. This means that whenever the software is updated, the automated test suite can be run to confirm there have been no unexpected changes.

To test how the platform would cope with large numbers of bidders, OpusVL built a simulator that could have any number of virtual bidders going through an auction flow. Data gathered from these tests enabled the developers to optimise the application, and allowed OpusVL's infrastructure team to tune the performance characteristics of the hosting environment to match the load profile of the software.

The result of this collaboration between development and infrastructure was a platform that both met the current performance needs and could be scaled up in the future.

Finally, the test team ran a series of mock auctions to validate the user experience (UX) from the perspective of the general public.

The delivery

OpusVL developed the online auction tool using two Open Source products: Flexibase and Odoo.

Flexibase was used to build the auction platform whilst Odoo managed the accounting elements, with the two products seamlessly integrated to exchange data in real-time.

The challenge of tailoring Odoo to meet the needs of this project was to ensure it could handle the complex layers of accounting processes that a DVLA auction requires.

This was explained by JJ Allen, Head of Product at OpusVL:

"When a bidder is successful in purchasing a registration number, they pay BCA the value they bid, plus a buyer’s premium, plus VAT. BCA then must pay the VAT on the buyer’s premium to HMRC and must also pay the hammer price of the registration number plus VAT and assignment fee to DVLA. It is quite complex and required detailed and bespoke development. The solution also had to be able to accept deposit payments and refund them if the bidder was unsuccessful in the auction."

The outcome

The timed online auction platform became the main auction channel for the DVLA when the COVID-19 pandemic prevented in-person venue auctions from taking place.

Piers England, Contract Manager, BCA, commented:

"The DVLA publish their auctions a year in advance. In 2020, by October, we should have had five venue auctions and four timed online auctions. However, we held one venue auction in February, then when the pandemic started things had to change and we switched to entirely timed online."

Piers continues:

“The system coped well with the increased activity overall as well as the increasing number of sales. We essentially doubled the frequency of the timed online auctions and the system coped 100%.”

Prior to the solution developed by OpusVL, many of the tasks were manual and required a team of personnel to undertake them. Office hours were 9-5 and this limited the customer service experience.

The solution has meant that auctions can now continue well outside of 9am-5pm hours without the additional burden on the administrative team who would have previously been required to manage deposits and other payments. With the system digitised, more auctions can be held over longer periods of time selling more lots and, unexpectedly, increasing the value of those lots too.

Piers commented:

"We believe the way the auctions work has also increased average prices. The timed online auctions are open for one week and you can log in and see the current prices. People are able to look at the lots and have longer to think about their strategy and to decide how much they are willing to pay for a registration number."

OpusVL continues to work with BCA and manage the solution, ensuring it can deal with the increased activity. At the time of writing, OpusVL are developing the solution further to enable people to see two or more auctions at the same time.

Piers England said:

"We wanted people to be able to view the auctions that are coming up, not just the ones that are running. This is a significant step forward and a sign of its success. Only one auction will run at any time, but we can now tell people about future auctions and allow them to see what registrations will be available earlier."

He continued:

"Though we plan to continue to hold venue auctions as well as virtual ones, the timed online auction tool and its success during the last year have advanced the DVLA’s plans by a couple of years. We hadn’t anticipated this much success with the platform so quickly. It’s brilliant."