Category: Retail Operations

Dealer Megatrends Part 3 – Process Change

In my previous Megatrends article, I wrote about how advancing technology is changing the role of F&I.  This week, we examine some new business practices.  You already know what I mean.  We’re going to talk about:

  • Hybrid Sales Process
  • No Haggle Pricing
  • Salaried Employees
  • Flat Reserve

High line manufacturers have tried to promote “one face to the customer,” since I was at BMW in the twentieth century.  Lexus Plus is the latest iteration.  Tellingly, BMW called it Retail 2000.  I fondly remember hearing a radio spot for “the last BMW dealer” in San Francisco, because we had styled all the others as retailers.  “If you want to pay retail, go to a retailer,” the ad went, “to get a deal, you need a dealer.”

So, it goes in cycles.  Lexus, or Scion, or AutoNation, will roll out a new process only to be outmaneuvered by the wily dealers.  Then they retrench and, five years later, someone else tries the new process.  They could literally be passing around the same procedure manual.  Look at me.  I have been advocating price transparency since Zag.

One Sonic-One Experience offers no-haggle pricing with one sales rep using an iPad who takes the customer through the entire vehicle sales process, including financing and the F&I product presentation.

A good example of the new process is Jim Deluca’s exposition of the Sonic One Experience.  In their EchoPark process, Sonic also eliminates dealer reserve.  The fight over flats and caps lasted from roughly 2012 to 2014.  See here, and NADA’s endorsement of caps here.  Next, Sonic will leverage their heavy investment in training to roll all of this into an online process called Digital One-Stop.

I suspect that Sonic would soon like to fire all their trained F&I professionals in their self-interest of saving a buck.

Forum comments reveal that old-school practitioners dislike the new process.  It’s funny to hear an F&I manager accuse a dealer of shameless self-interest, but there it is.  On the other side, Sonic’s Jeff Dyke reports good results from hiring people with no prior automotive experience.  Meanwhile, at rival consolidator AutoNation, 70% of the sales staff opted to go on salary.

Well-known F&I trainer Tony Dupaquier is here, advocating the hybrid process at First Texas Honda, and here is Findlay Group’s Las Vegas Subaru.  Savvy dealers everywhere are experimenting with at least two or three of the four new practices (online selling and iPads come up a lot, too).

Smart people have told me that the hybrid process will never produce four-digit PVRs, but many dealers – and certainly the consolidators – reckon that’s a price worth paying for a streamlined process, reduced turnover, and improved customer satisfaction.

Dealer Megatrends Part 1 – Consolidation

In the 2006 data, NADA noted a “moderate consolidation trend.”  Since the recession, sales have recovered but the dealer population has not.  My chart, below, is based on the last eleven years of NADA data.  You can go back as far as you like.  The dealer population has been shrinking steadily for fifty years.


This means the surviving dealers are selling more cars per store, but the real story is consolidation – the powerful trend toward fewer owners and bigger groups.

In 2005, the top 100 dealership groups were 9% of the total.  In 2015, they were 17%.  The Automotive News ranking is by gross revenue but, for simplicity, I am counting stores.  I imagine that the big, efficient groups command more than 17% of the total gross.

Gee group’s purchase of 16 Tonkin stores, backed by private equity, is instructive.  Both groups are family owned, with seven and 21 stores respectively.  Brad Tonkin will join the combined entity as president.  The Automotive News article also describes a Soros-backed purchase by the McLarty group, bringing its count to 19 stores.

The owners may be public, like AutoNation and Penske, private equity, or something in between.  Larry Miller group, for example, is still family owned but independently managed.  An IPO seems the next logical step.  Broker Alan Haig predicts his buy-sell business will continue strong in 2017.

This is about economies of scale, obviously.  The New York Times mentions efficiency in staffing, technology, and inventory management (as I did, here).  There is a lot of money chasing this trend, and only so many operators who know how to exploit scale.  That’s why Haig also has a recruiting arm.

Small dealer groups can compete online only by joining platforms that aggregate inventory.

If you are running a small group, you might want to start thinking about M&A.  That’s not my area, though.  I am interested in the related trends toward technology and process change.  I’ll examine these more in my next post.

One example is online retail.  Small dealer groups can compete online only by joining platforms that aggregate inventory, like TrueCar or Autotrader.  What I am proposing is that the (relatively) little guys compete with the consolidators by consolidating themselves online.

Dealers should seek help from their OEMs and software vendors.  Well, maybe not the OEMs.  GM’s Shop Click Drive only searches inventory for a single dealer, and it makes you choose the dealer first.  Not only will it not give you a price, it won’t even present a model list until you’ve selected a dealer.  No one shops this way anymore.

Modern shoppers will have found a model and trim level, a price, and even a lender, before landing on a dealer.  While Shop Click Drive has the machinery to structure a deal, and even sell protection products, some genius decided to make the “choose dealer” button its primary focus.  Most GM dealers I looked at were also on Autotrader.

I did a survey of platform capabilities last year, with Cox Automotive far in the lead.  The other guys seem still to be in the world of single-dealer web sites.  I also noticed that these sites are mostly hideous, and lacking consistency in even simple functions like credit application.

The consolidators have strong tech teams devoted to online shopping.  Dealers may fail to see the threat, because it’s not a physical presence.  If you owned a hardware store, and Home Depot went up across the street, you would notice.

Raising the Bar

Armchair strategists are feeling vindicated now that AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson has abandoned his “asinine” plan to ground all vehicles under recall.  I see the same argument whenever anyone tries to change dealer operations.  They estimate the reduction in profits and write about that, as if that were the end of the argument.  It’s not.  That’s not how competition works.

If you talk about disclosing product prices online, you will hear that F&I gross is now $1,500 and who wants to screw that up?  Same story with TrueCar and their diabolical plan to disclose transaction prices.  You even hear this complaint about vAuto and the velocity method, which sounds to me like the most logical thing ever.

My back-of-envelope calculation says that AutoNation carrying an additional 10,000 units of inventory, at maybe 2%, would cost them roughly $5 million per year.  That’s 0.02% of sales.  For comparison, the related “Drive Safe” ad campaign was $10 million.

AutoNation, with investment-grade credit, enjoys a lower carrying cost than its private dealer competitors.  Selling diverse brands, they are less exposed to a recall by any one manufacturer.  They can also exploit their scale to mitigate the cost of such a policy, not to mention the PR benefits.

If federal regulators had followed Jackson’s lead, this would have raised the bar for all dealers.  Two senators, now disappointed, were lined up to make that happen.  Jackson’s policy, a minor challenge for AutoNation, might have proved fatal for smaller dealers.  That’s how competition works.

It is a mistake to look at process change only in terms of the costs.  Athletes training hard for a competition don’t think about how much it hurts.  They think about how much it’s going to hurt the other guy.

Update:  Motley Fool estimates the cost to AutoNation at $0.06 of EPS, a little higher than my estimate (and Jackson’s) due to the Takata debacle.

Stop Worrying About Self-Driving Cars

I am planning an article on car dealer “megatrends,” and this is the first item not making the list.  It’s a sexy topic, though, and journalists can’t leave it alone.  For example, here is top Cox guy Mark O’Neil trying to change the subject.  Mark would rather talk about online sales which, with predictive analytics, is a key trend dealers should be watching.

Autonomous vehicles are part of a cluster of technologies which have the potential to reduce car sales, dramatically in some scenarios.  This McKinsey study does a nice job of explaining the cluster.  In short: car rental fleets go away because everyone uses Uber, and Uber drivers are obsolete because the cars drive themselves.  Car ownership will be fractional, like a time-share.  If you do own a car, it can work as a taxi all day while you’re at the office.

This is indeed a formula for sharply reduced car sales … in Europe.  Most of the U.S. is sparsely populated, and poorly served by public transportation.  The Boston Consulting Group has produced the best study on autonomous vehicles, here, and this is from their study on car sharing:

Car sharing … will not do to the automotive business what iTunes did to music: it will not redirect a stream of revenues to a disruptive upstart, and it will not spark a widespread change in consumption.

The BCG predicts that, by 2021, car-sharing will have a trifling impact on U.S. sales: fifty-two vehicles, total (chart on page 11).  They predict that fully autonomous vehicles will not be available until 2025, and will not be 10% of the market until 2035.  It is only these vehicles that trigger the nightmare scenario for car dealers.  “Driver assistance” systems are luxury features, which boost dealer profits.


NHTSA policy guidance is based on the five-level SAE model.  This roundup, from Automotive News, envisages Level 4 autonomous vehicles by 2021.  No manufacturer is even guessing at a date for Level 5.

Bringing these vehicles to market is an important challenge for the manufacturers, and they will have an important impact on society.  They will not change the business of selling cars, however, for a good long time.  For car dealers, other trends are more urgent.

Links for the two BCG studies, in case you can’t download the PDFs: Car Sharing, Autonomous Vehicles.

Owner Loyalty in the Service Department

I was asked recently to explore the service retention space.  This is a little outside my F&I comfort zone, but everyone knows why service retention is important.  Parts and service make up 40% of a typical dealer’s gross profits.  And, there is actually some overlap with F&I.  Consider, for example, a service contract with “zero deductible at original dealer.”

Here, I present my impressions of the space in workflow terms, plus some thoughts on the features I found technically interesting.  The workflow has a natural break between the onsite procedures of the service department, and marketing procedures which may be a different department (or outsourced).

The space is dominated by two recent mergers: AutoPoint, which acquired DME about a year ago, and Dealer Track’s Service Pro offering combined with Xtime.  See Cox Strategy Redux.  There are some pure play marketing firms in the space, but these two vendors cover the full cycle.  They are able to exploit not only workflow synergies but technical ones.


For example, you want your telematics to feed information to both the shop and the invitation process, and you want your intake procedures to include information from the accepted invitations.  Also, if the vendor has analytics that can drive a marketing program, maybe they can optimize shop loading as well.

If you are looking at a full-cycle vendor, then the distinction I am making about workflow may seem arbitrary.  Here are features and functions commonly associated with software support for the service department:

  • Greeting boards and RFID tracking
  • Mobile greeting/CRM tools with write-up capability
  • Service menu with “loyalty products” as well as shop services
  • Scheduling and shop loading
  • Status tracking with text alerts for customers and technicians

Pure marketing, on the other hand, brings in additional vendors and different offerings.  In addition to the usual mailers and campaigns, these might include a box of cookies, owner loyalty “membership” programs, and prepaid maintenance.

If you’re in F&I, you may have sold the Ultra Care prepaid maintenance product.  The provider of Ultra Care is not a normal warranty company, however.  Performance Loyalty Group (PLG) offers this product as a service retention play.  Here are features and functions on the marketing side:

  • Multichannel marketing campaigns including call center support
  • Analytics to plan and evaluate the campaigns
  • Telematics interface
  • Geo-fencing and mobile apps

The service invitation process is well established, and now understood to include all media from cookies to WhatsApp.  What is interesting is the use of analytics to make best use of the media.  Text messages may be cheap compared to mailers, but there is a cost in terms of the customer’s attention.  AutoPoint has an advantage here, because they do original research on aggregated data.  Analytics is only as good as the data you put in.

Strategically, telematics is not only a powerful tool but a barrier to new entrants.  It reminds me of how the big DMS vendors once had a lock on OEM dealer communication systems.  For updates on the “battle for telematics data” follow Bob Chabot.

The holy grail of owner loyalty marketing is having the customer run your app on his smartphone.  This may even compensate for not having telematics data.  You can push invitations to it, and then manage service visits from scheduling through payment, along with geo-fencing and notifications.

Owner loyalty, of course, is not confined to the service department.  An app can be the touchpoint for new and used vehicle marketing as well.  Here, I am thinking specifically of the “velocity” method, in which the dealer is actively seeking vehicles to remarket.  For a list of popular app functions, look at AutoPoint or My Own Auto.

Design Concepts for Online Car Buying

In my last article, I made a distinction between online car shopping and buying. Shopping is an iterative process in which the customer settles on a vehicle, with only a rough idea of the price and terms. For many customers, this is sufficient. They will then proceed to the traditional dealer-driven process.

In this article, I will present tools and techniques to support online car buying.  As a software designer I feel that, fundamentally, this is something we should be able to do. If the tools exist in the dealership, then there’s no reason why they can’t be on a consumer site. This was the subtext of my earlier article, Dealer Systems in the Consumer Space.

I agree that customers should visit a showroom for help in choosing a vehicle, and I agree that two-thirds of them (that’s the survey figure) will prefer to do the paperwork there. On the other hand, why shouldn’t the customer have the option to complete some or all of the paperwork at home? I envisage a process driven by the customer, with support from the dealership.

We’ll start with a simplified process model based on task precedence, and then we’ll discuss the design requirements. I have a more detailed model based on data flows, but the precedence model is easier to work with. The flowchart below shows the required sequence of tasks, given their prerequisites.

Online PERTThe first thing you notice about this diagram is the number of deadlocks. You can’t be certain of the finance rate until you get an approval, and you need it to structure the deal. So, the sales desk must use a floor rate or do a pre-approval. Even in the dealership, this is an inherently iterative process.

Real-life business processes are never as clean as you would like. Still, I propose to streamline this one and hand it over to the consumer. Since we’re working from a precedence diagram, I’ll try to remember and discuss data requirements as we go along.

Choose Your Car

The customer may search the inventory of a given dealer, all models of a given OEM, or all dealers participating in an online search platform like Auto Trader. For our purposes, AutoNation is a giant dealer site, not a platform, because they control the inventory. This is an important distinction.

An OEM site may list all the vehicles they make, but must still search dealer inventories to find a specific unit. GM’s Shop-Click-Drive starts with selecting a dealer (an obvious concession to dealer pressure) whereas does a proximity search just as any platform would.

This question of whose inventory to search, and when, is not so much a process decision as it is a business model decision. That’s why I left “choose a dealer” off the diagram. For example, the difference between Vroom and any other used car platform is that Vroom takes the unit into inventory. Prices and policy are set by a single entity, instead of an aggregation of competing dealers.

The business context may vary, but the software requirements do not. Inventory search means model and trim selection, photos, zip code, etc. I seem to be permanently cookied in Farmington Hills, no matter whose search platform I use.


In the earlier article, I discussed adding an inventory search plugin to an online lending site. All of the high level tasks in our diagram already exist as components of various web sites and dealer systems. You could conceivably deliver the entire process using service orchestration.

Find Your Price

Once the customer lands on a vehicle, she has also landed on a price. A special task to disclose the price is needed because other dealers will undercut our online price. This is the most challenging part of our process, and I have written previously how I feel about it.   Here are some solutions:

  • Use no-haggle pricing. This is more practical with used cars, but new car dealers will come around eventually.
  • Join TrueCar’s conspiracy to “destroy the industry.” What the last guy paid for his MKZ is not the dealer’s intellectual property.
  • Do the haggling online, or by phone. For that matter, the customer can visit the dealership, take a test drive, haggle, and then go home to finish the paperwork.

Remember, our objective is to make the process available to the customer online. Nothing stops her from contacting the dealership for help.

Millennials are starting to express the fact that they’d like to do more shopping online. They’d like to connect that shopping to a buying experience…that needs to be quicker and more transparent.

Depending on the site’s business model, there are a number of ways to handle pricing. The trick is finding one that works for the customer, without alienating the dealers. By the way, an OEM is in a much stronger position to reform pricing than TrueCar is. The quote above is from Bill Fay at Toyota.

Protect Your Investment

Protection products are strangely absent from the shopping sites. When you put the process into precedence terms, selling a Vehicle Service Contract jumps right to the top. As soon as the vehicle is specified, even before it’s priced, you have enough information to quote a VSC.

Whatever sales approach you wish to implement – like, citing the total cost of ownership – is available early in the process. This applies to Road Hazard, Maintenance, and Appearance Protection, to name a few. My favorite sales tool for GAP must wait until the deal structure is known, but nothing stops you presenting the product at this stage.

Whose products to present is another question. If this is an OEM site, our choice of products is fixed. Let’s design for the worst case and assume a platform with a variety of dealers. In this case, we must store a profile for each dealer, as we would for a menu system, indicating the dealer’s slate of products.

Which sales approach is best for the online consumer? I’d be lying if I said I knew, because no one knows. I have some experience with menu presentation, and I am pretty sure that’s not the answer. I have also done some work with expert systems.

For the purpose of this article and our Millennial online customer, I am going to recommend a passive approach. In my next article, I’ll expand on passivity as a design theme. What it means for this task is simply exposing links to the products, including information about the chosen vehicle, and allowing the customer to educate himself. Also, bear in mind that as a commerce site, you should be doing A/B testing.

This question is really about navigation, and how to manage the customer’s experience. That’s where we’ll resume, next week.


Car Buying

Innovating Automotive Retail

McKinsey’s latest survey is required reading for people in our business.  The first section is a recap of things we already know about customers going online, but the last ten pages are dynamite.  They model the impact of their ideas on a sample dealer network, increasing its gross profit by 3 to 5% (your actual mileage may vary).

McKinsey’s ideas include superstores, test drive centers, pop-up stores – and an array of online “touch points” already familiar to my readers.  These ideas are presented from the perspective of an OEM, but would also be relevant to a large public group.  Weak dealerships are converted to service centers.


One in three customers would buy a car online, according to the study, which cites the “unpleasant experience” of haggling over price.  This is where old school dealers have really hurt the industry.  I have long been an advocate of a more transparent process – what you might call the Best Buy model.  Now, we can look forward to a business more like Amazon.