This is the conclusion of my series on car dealer megatrends. The first three articles covered the long running trend toward consolidation, steadily improving process maturity, and disruption from new technology. Like all good megatrends, these three flow together, reinforcing each other to produce a sea change in the industry. Consolidation means bigger groups with more money to spend on technology, and the scale to exploit improved procedures.
Big dealer groups crave stability, and repeatable successes. In my trade, software development, we have a formal process maturity model. The bottom rung is where your success depends on “heroes and luck.” When you own 20 stores, you are less interested in one superstar killing the pay plan, and much more interested in a hundred guys making base hits. If you are not clear on this, I recommend the movie version of Moneyball, featuring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane.
We’re making less per transaction, but we’re doing more transactions.
I work mainly in F&I, but you can see the same general idea in the velocity method for new and used car sales. That idea is margin compression. The quote above is from Paragon Honda’s Brian Benstock and, last I checked, he was still hard at it.
The locus of high gross shifted from new cars to F&I, and then from finance to products. Smart people tell me the 100% markup on products will soon be ended, either by competition or by the CFPB. Today, when you read about the latest PVR record from Group 1 (or whomever) you will also read management downplaying expectations of further such records.
The executive, however, said the group’s F&I operations may have reached the peak in terms of PVR.
Dealership ROI is above 20% but, as you know, highly cyclical. The stock market has been around 14% lately and, arguably, less volatile. AutoNation has been chugging along at a steady 10%. Investors will accept a lower return, in exchange for stability.
AutoNation was founded in the era of big box retail. My colleague there, Scott Barrett, came from Blockbuster. It was always our intention to remake auto retail in the image of Circuit City, which, by the way, was the parent of CarMax.
I spoke with an AutoNation executive recently who told me that learning to live with margin compression is an explicit part of their strategy. It is an iron law of economics that, in a free market, competition will drive margins toward zero.
Have a look at this NADA chart. In five years, gross has been cut almost in half. This is a breathtaking diminution, and then you go on the industry forums and find people bitching that vAuto has cut used car gross, and TrueCar has cut new car gross, and now some idiot proposes to cut F&I gross by putting VSC prices online.
Marv Eleazer has called this a race to the bottom, and he’s right, but this is not a race you can opt out of. That’s not how competition works. Think of it as a race run in Mexico City. The smart dealers and big groups are already training to compete in the thin air of lower gross.