Tag: eCommerce

Looking for Work

I am ready for my next engagement.  This blog, together with my Linked-In profile, gives some indication of what I have accomplished and what I can do for your business.  There are also some case studies on my web site.

I am currently interested in digital retail, digital marketing, and artificial intelligence.  I generally do contract work, but will consider salaried.  If you have a job that requires my particular set of skills, please get in touch.

My Shift in the Call Centre

A User Story

I enter the PCI compliant cleanroom at eleven o’clock with only a quinoa bowl from Freshie’s, and log in to Salesforce on my locked down computer.  No cell phone, no scratch paper – and there are cameras.  I wave to Peter on Camera #1 and start to dial.  I do not have high hopes of reaching anyone in the middle of the workday.  Amid all the DNRs, I may catch an inbound call off of our direct mail campaign, or someone out on the floor may catch it while I am dialing.

I log in to the dialer and it presents my first call.  To save time, I hit “dial” and the phone rings while I paste the number into Salesforce and search for the Opportunity.  Our Cisco dialer has a predictive mode, but I am not using it.  For low volumes, preview dialing is supposed to be a better experience.  The Ministry of Commerce prefers it, too.  This number is guaranteed to be in Salesforce, with a prospect status, because the dialer file is generated nightly from the Opportunity table in Salesforce. 

Bonjour et félicitations pour votre achat d’un véhicule Nissan

My first call goes to voicemail, which is par for the course.  I recite the voicemail script, which I know by heart, and log the status in Salesforce.  I really wish the dialer could leave that damned message on its own.  I must recite it a hundred times a day.  I will dial this number three times before dropping it from the file, spread over a two-week period, in case my prospect is away on vacation.  Salesforce applies this business logic when it generates the dialer file. 

For the next few hours, I get voicemail, no answer, not interested, and never call me again, which I duly note in Salesforce.  This last category will be added to the phone number filtering logic, along with the Do Not Call list we purchased from the Ministry.  I recognize the next number.  Merde!  It’s Dave Duncan.  I try to cancel the call, but too late.

Dave proceeds to grill me about my affiliation with Nissan.  No, I do not work for your local dealer.  If I did, we would have an “existing business relationship” and we wouldn’t have to honor the DNC list.  No, I do not work for the factory, its captive, nor the captive’s department of protection products – but we are the one and only factory authorized direct marketer of said products.  That’s why it’s their number on your Caller ID. 

By six o’clock, I have a live prospect.  I alt-tab to my SPP system, which allows me to quote rates as well as set up a payment plan.  I also have a custom Product object in Salesforce which connects to the rating API, but I find it easier to work in SPP because most customers will want a payment plan anyway.  SPP calls the same API. 

Things are going well until my prospect insists upon seeing the contract.  I recite the talk track about cancellation and full refund within thirty days, but to no avail.  I can also email a specimen contract and we can review it right now while he’s on the line (better odds of closing).  I end up emailing a custom link, or PURL, from SPP that will open right to the rates and contract we discussed. 

I flag this one for callback in a few days.  It’s possible he will self-close on the SPP site, and then Salesforce will close the Opportunity automatically when it receives the file from SPP.  In any case, I now have an email address we can use for the next digital marketing campaign.  Speaking of digital marketing, whenever a voicemail greeting begins, “the Rogers mobile customer you’ve dialed,” I flag those as numbers to which the digital team can send text. 

My next prospect, I actually close on the call.  I am sitting in this fakakta cleanroom just in case I have to handle credit card information which, at last, I do.  My guy buys a 72-month plan, which I set up for 24 monthly payments on SPP.  Then, I download both contracts – the protection plan and the payment plan – and attach them to the Opportunity. 

Salesforce won’t close the Opportunity, though, for another day until it receives confirmation from SPP that all is well with the credit card.  If not, it will indicate that status, send an email, and I will have to call him back.  Once the Opportunity does close, as a win, Salesforce Connector will pick it up and Marketing Cloud will include both contracts in a direct mail welcome package, ending the Customer Journey. 

So, to summarize my workflow, I am manually pasting phone numbers into Salesforce and VINs into SPP.  Salesforce and SPP are each capable of rating and contracting via API, and the customer can check out with or without my assistance.  These tasks could be improved with some Computer Telephony Integration and an SPP interface.  Instead of sending data directly to SPP, all I really need is the logic to generate that PURL and then Salesforce could either launch it for me or send it to the customer as needed. 

At eight o’clock, the end of my shift, I doff my headset and run the job to generate tomorrow’s dialer file.  This is basically a query against the Opportunity table, applying the “next date to call” rules.  Without CTI, the best time to call is not supported.  Jeanette will have to pick those out of the comments manually.  Tomorrow is my day off. 

The Case for D2C

A while back, I wrote a survey of Direct to Consumer VSC Sales.  This was a “how to,” and today I am writing about the “why.”  The short version is that D2C is a large and unserved market.  Franchised dealers sell service contracts with 47% of new vehicles, which is great, but that leaves the other half unprotected. 

Add 6% to reported F&I gross, plus 4 to 5 times that amount for the backfile

Depending on which “touchpoint” you wish to pursue (see here) this market includes roughly 67 million vehicles.  That’s how many are on the road, less than six years old, with no coverage.  Dealers are the group best positioned to serve this market.  Of course, a dealer can only address his local share of the market, not the whole 67 million.  See Profit Opportunity, below.

To succeed with D2C, you must have an existing relationship with the customer.  That’s because success requires digital marketing, and anti-spam laws limit what you can do without a relationship.  For example, an OEM can email their customer a solicitation for their factory-label protection products, but a TPA cannot.

So, the dealer has the inside track.  He has the relationship, the contact info, and a service department to verify eligibility.  Plus, every additional VSC aids in service retention.  Depending on the dealer group, it may also have the other ingredients.  Here’s the parts list:

Direct to Consumer (D2C) Operation

  • An advanced CRM with the ability to run a scheduled, multichannel contact program.  Salesforce calls this a “customer journey.”
  • A source of premium finance, like SPP, Budco, or PayLink.  Dealers will already have one of these, for their instore F&I operation.
  • A call center, which could be the BDC, to participate in the selling journey and also to deal with issues around premium finance.
  • A branded website capable of presenting and selling the service contract, including Visa checkout and premium finance.
  • A service facility.  If you’re not a dealer (trying to cover all bases here) there are still things you can do with Pep Boys and mobile facilities like Pivet.

Depending on the dealer group.  Obviously, if you’re Lithia, you already have a finance arm which could (with training) handle bounced Visa charges.  They’ll need to comply with the PCI security standards.  Maybe that’s best left to PayLink. 

There is a host of such decisions, for which you will need expert assistance – but let’s get back to the “why.”  We are going to make a gross profit calculation in three steps:

Direct to Consumer (D2C) Profit Opportunity

  1. Compute the potential product gross that didn’t close with the vehicle sale.
  2. Estimate the likely D2C conversion rate.
  3. Add the backfile of customers from prior years.

Let’s look at AutoNation.  Sorry, NADA Average Dealer doesn’t provide enough detail.  Even the AutoNation data doesn’t provide much detail on product sales.  Still, we can draw some inferences using the 2019 annual report, industry norms, and these remarks from then-CEO Cheryl Miller.

AutoNation reported sales of 283,000 (new) and 246,000 (used) with F&I PVR of $1,904.  That’s the headline figure, including finance reserve.  Owing to adjustments, the figure in the annual report is a little higher, and the calculation based on Miller’s summary is a little lower.

The $1,350 (new) and $1,050 (used) are averages across all units.  We can infer that product gross was roughly $2,580 (blended) on 47% of units.  That leaves the other 280,000 vehicles unprotected, with a potential gross of $720 million, equal to 71% of AutoNation’s reported F&I gross.

You can use 75% of F&I gross as a rule of thumb.  In general, product gross is two-thirds of F&I gross, and this is derived from fewer than half of the vehicles sold (omitting ancillaries).  The ratio of D2C opportunity to instore penetration is 53/47 of the two-thirds, which makes 75%.   

This $720 million is the potential gross AutoNation left on the table in 2019.  Okay, that’s not fair.  It’s only on the table assuming every one of the D2C prospects will buy the product, which they won’t.  Most won’t, in fact.  The conversion rate is the product of three factors:

  • The number of contacts per customer, based on your touchpoints and your programmed journey.
  • The take rate, which is the percentage of people who take action by clicking the PURL link, scanning the QR code, or whatever.  The industry norm here is 2-5%
  • The close rate, which is the percentage of takers who are closed by the call center or self-close on the web site.  Expert closers can do 20-30%.  Remember, this is within the self-selected “takers.”

The conversion rate is what counts, but we break out the components for management purposes.  For instance, maybe the take rate is high but your closers are weak.  Success requires a lot of contacts, with compelling CTAs and good closers.

Let’s say we utilize all of our advantages as a dealer – an aggressive journey on all touchpoints – bringing our contacts to 10.  Multiply this by a conservative 20% close rate and 4% take rate.  This gives us a conversion rate of 8%. 

In our AutoNation example, this would mean roughly $58 million of additional gross.  All of this arithmetic generalizes, too.  Simply take reported F&I gross and multiply by 6% (8% of the 75%, above, makes 6%).  So, now I can crack the Lithia annual report with F&I gross of $580 million, and reckon that D2C could mean $35 million to them.

This incremental income recurs annually, since it’s based on one year’s volume – but we start the game with a backfile of unserved customers from prior years.  We might reasonably want to go back five years for new vehicle buyers and three years for used. 

AutoNation is a convenient example because they sell new and used in roughly equal parts, so this works out to (blended) four years’ worth of volume.  If your mix skews more toward new vehicles, then your backfile opportunity will be richer. 

In short, you can use the 6% rule to compute the annual recurring, and then add a one-time opportunity of 4 or 5 times that amount for the backfile.  This more than pays for setting up the operation.  So, is it worth the hassle to earn an extra 6% of F&I gross?  Ponder that next time you see the Car Shield ad on television.

Digital Retail Taxonomy

The tech buzz at NADA this year was Digital Retail.  Tagrail has a new partnership, with dealer site provider Fox, and Moto showcased some of their OEM projects.  Roadster has an aggregation marketplace, which I’ll get to in a minute, and Modal (Drive) was conspicuously absent.  I hope they’re okay.

All dealer site providers are now claiming the hip acronym DR, including some that are way off the mark.  This week I want to cut through the clutter and taxonomize a bit.  We’ll see how well my predictions from five years ago have held up.

Dealers will migrate onto the most capable of the platform sites, and … the winning platforms will not be mere lead providers.

I am going to skip the consolidators and the used-car sites, to focus on DR solutions for franchised new car dealers.  That was the context for the earlier article (and the pull quote).  The grid above divides the DR space into four segments: True DR, Pivoters, TPC, and Marketplaces.

True Digital Retail

A true DR solution must handle the six canonical functions, do the paperwork online, and save the deal (not a lead) for use in the dealership.  True, not many customers will do the full process online, but you have to offer the capability.  Qualifying questions here are along the lines of “can you sell a service contract and book it online with the administrator?”

I don’t want to be pilloried for omitting someone, but my short list (when asked) goes: Roadster, Moto, Modal, Tagrail, AutoFi, and CarNow.  I can find CarNow dealers pretty easily online, paired with a variety of site providers.  Here in Atlanta, Ed Voyles is an example.

Pivoters

Anybody with a foothold in the dealer’s website is using it to pivot into DR.  The first group of pivoters are what I call “finance first” sites.  AutoGravity, DriveTime, and AutoFi are sites customers use to check their buying power before going into the dealership.  Based on intel from Ricart Ford, I would say that AutoFi has successfully pivoted into the DR segment.

Gubagoo is using their foothold in chat to pivot as “conversational commerce.”  SpinCar is adding protection products to their VDP real estate, which is right where they belong.  Even popular F&I menu Darwin is moving online with Darwin Direct.

Third Party Classifieds

My model for a marketplace is Autotrader plus its DR feature, Accelerate.  However, the other incumbents have not followed suit.  In fact, Cars.com “does not sell vehicles directly and is never a party to any transaction between buyers and sellers.”  This space is inhabited only by brave new entrants like Joydrive, GoGoCar, and Deliver My Ride.

As I wrote here, this model has plenty of challenges, like finding UX and services that will appeal to all dealers – not to mention the customers.  Dealers may prefer a simple clickthrough to their own DR solution.  This is the backdrop for Roadster’s Express Marketplace.

Roadster Marketplace

Roadster’s marketplace operates just like a TPC site.  It has the familiar VSP/VDP with faceted search, but then it segues into a full digital storefront.  The reference site I looked at, Cochran group in suburban Pittsburgh, lists 3,500 new vehicles in 18 makes, from 26 rooftops – with transparent pricing!

My first reaction, I have to say, was “Holy crap, they’ve actually done it!”  They have made their own private Autotrader.  Of course, the same market area lists ten times as many new cars on Autotrader but – funny thing – they all use Accelerate.  Competition is wonderful that way.

The arrows on my grid suggest some strategic directions:

  • Single-function solutions will pivot to become storefronts. AutoFi is an example.
  • Third-party sites will add DR functionality. Accelerate is an example.
  • As storefronts grow to serve dealer groups, they will tend toward marketplaces.

I guess the only remaining frontier would be for two unaffiliated groups to cooperate on a single platform, as I wrote in Toward a Digital Auto Marketplace, maybe in contiguous nonoverlapping markets.  The eCommerce term is “coopetition.”  Or, maybe Accelerate will gain some traction.

Caching the Rate Response

Every so often, I am asked to write on a specialist topic for F&I technology, like surcharge processing, term bumps, or credit life math.  Today’s topic is well known in dealer system software, but bears repeating for the new generation of digital retailers.  This is the problem of how long it takes to receive rates for protection products from the provider’s web service, also known as “latency.”

The good news is that all providers today expose their rates via web service, so they’re always up to date and tailored to the current deal.  It wasn’t always thus.  We once had to scan reams of paper rate guides, and walk ten miles in the snow.  The bad news is that the web rating call can take several seconds to run.

A savvy rate response already has Squish VIN in it, so you just smack the whole thing into Mongo and you’re good to go. 

In the typical scenario, a menu system calls the provider’s web service directly, passing the VIN and the dealer number.  The dealer number is required because product pricing and selection may vary with the dealer.  This may not be the case for digital retail.  You may have a standardized slate of products (or just one product) with a mandatory fixed retail price, and not care about dealer-specific costs and packs.

You still have to pass the VIN, in any case, because most products are risk-rated by model.  Then you wait.  At MenuVantage, we set the timeout for twenty seconds.  If a provider couldn’t respond within twenty seconds, they couldn’t be on the menu.  Digital retail, of course, requires a much faster response.

The rate response for an old-school SOAP call, returning all products for a single model, is about 500 KB, or 10,000 lines of XML.  I have seen them exceed one megabyte (you know who you are).  A well-done web service can transmit the rate response in about one second, and then another second or so for the integration hub.

Most menu systems do not interface directly with the provider.  They go through a central hub like PEN or F&I Express.  These are the main ones (full disclosure: both are clients) but there are others, and a slow rate hub can add seconds of latency.  Digital retail is more likely to be using REST and requesting a specific product.  The biggest product is a service contract, weighing in around 2,000 lines of JSON or 100 KB.

Ideally, all networks and services would be fast, and you would always send the request.  “The network is the computer.”  On the other hand, maybe you ought to cache the rate response.  To do this, simply save each response in a database, keyed by dealer number and Squish VIN.

If you’re in the “don’t care about dealer” scenario described above, then omit the dealer number.  If you expect to rate specific products, as opposed to the menu scenario, then take apart the response according to its (provider-specific) product segmentation.  A savvy rate response already has Squish VIN in it, so you just smack the whole thing into Mongo and you’re good to go.

The point to Squish VIN is that, of the 17 characters, only ten really matter.  The first eight identify the model and trim, and the tenth position encodes the model year.  This is what the provider uses to risk-rate by VIN.

Common practice for digital retail is to pull an inventory list and rate every vehicle on the lot.  That’s some redundant rate requests.  A dealer might have 500 cars on the lot, but only seventy unique VIN patterns.  Even if you’re compulsive about stale cache, and you want to rate every night, this is still a sevenfold improvement.

So, the procedure is: every time you want to rate, either in batch or on demand, go first to the cache.  If there is no matching Squish VIN in the cache, only then must you take the hit for a live rate request.

Menu systems generally do not do the lot-scan thing.  This seems to be new with digital retail.  Generally, we would just expire the cache at midnight and start rebuilding with the next day’s deals.  The first Cherokee takes a hit, and then the first Wrangler, and after that you’re rating Cherokees and Wranglers all day long from cache.

Also new with digital retail are various use cases that don’t require a dealer number.  This vastly improves the efficiency of the cache.  Instead of seventy VIN patterns per dealer, you might have seventy for the whole country.

Digital Transformation Playbook

I read a good book over Christmas break, The Digital Transformation Playbook, by David Rogers.  This is a good book because it has both theory and practice, plenty of research and real-life examples, and practical “how to” guides.

Just when you’re thinking, “oh yeah, when has that ever happened?” Rogers comes up with an example.  Many of the these include commentary from the people who worked on them.  It’s clear that the professor gets out of his classroom for a fair amount of consulting.

Digital transformation is not about technology – it is about strategy and new ways of thinking.

Most books like this focus on digital native startups.  That’s the sexy stuff and, in fact, where I have most of my experience.  I chose this book for its focus on digital transformation, in existing companies and hidebound industries (like auto retail).

The book is organized around five strategic themes: customer networks, platform marketing, upgrading your value proposition, data as an asset, and innovation through experimentation.

I did grow a little impatient with Rogers’ incessant enumerating: five core behaviors, four value templates, three variables, two trajectories (and a partridge in a pear tree) but I appreciated the effort to boil everything down to a foolproof recipe.  There are a number of these:

  • Customer Network Strategy Generator
  • Platform Business Model Map
  • Value Train Analysis
  • Data Value Generator
  • Experimental Design Templates
  • Value Proposition Roadmap
  • Disruptive Business Model Map
  • Disruptive Response Planner
  • Digital Transformation Self-Assessment

I was even inspired to start making value train diagrams of our business, and platform model maps:

On the theory side, Rogers reexamines familiar models from people like Drucker and Levitt.  He shows, for instance, that Christensen’s theory of “digital disruption” is a special case, and broadens it.

By the way, this discussion of digital disruption is one of the most lucid (hype-free) that I have read.  As usual, there is a checklist: analyze three features and choose one of six strategies.  If that doesn’t work then, yes, you’re disrupted.  Time to update your resume.

I read all the time, though I don’t often write book reviews (here is the last one) so Rogers’ fifteen-page bibliography was an extra treat.  That should keep my Kindle stoked for a while.

Wanted: eCommerce Product Manager

Things are going well here at Safe-Guard, and I am looking to hire another eCommerce Product Manager.  Posting is here.  We need someone who can not only manage a shopping site but, as we are in the midst of a digital transformation, also establish the required support and fulfillment processes.

The eCommerce department manages the development and support of these properties, whether they are standalone web sites, dealer-site storefronts, or web services … 

The successful candidate will have solid product management experience, and maybe some digital marketing.  Agile development experience a plus.  Self-starter.  Relocation.   Salary commensurate with experience.

Toward a Digital Auto Marketplace

Will the big public groups dominate online retail, as I predicted last week, and drive private dealers from the field?

This trend seems to have recovered, after some false starts, with the availability of fresh talent like Shift, Drive, and Roadster.  Shift has $253 million in funding, notably including Lithia.  AutoNation has recently invested $50 million in Vroom, valuing the online startup above $700 million.

How can smaller groups compete in this high-stakes contest?  One way, as I wrote here, would be to consolidate themselves online.

To defend themselves online, private dealers will migrate into the most capable of the platform sites. The winning platforms will not be mere lead providers.

I know something about platform marketing, having organized the Provider Exchange Network around cross-side network effects.  The more menu systems we added on the dealer side, the more success we had with F&I providers on the other side.

The difference between a selling platform and a mere lead provider lies in the site’s ability to deliver a completed deal.  That is:

  1. Show the true price online.
  2. Sell protection products.
  3. Provide a firm offer for the trade-in.
  4. Offer hard-pull credit approval and deal structuring.
  5. Allow the customer to save multiple deals and self-close.
  6. Sign the contracts online.
  7. Provide for home delivery.

Home delivery is not just a nice touch.  It demonstrates the capability to truly complete the deal online, with no tasks left over.  It is the acid test for online retail, even though most customers will opt to finish the deal in person.  The tasks are described here, and the workflow is here.

This capability is not so far-fetched as it was when I started writing about it, some years ago.  Delivering it on a multi-dealer site, however, poses special challenges.  The only eCommerce capable sites I can think of are run by monolithic used-car dealers Shift, Vroom, Carvana, and CarMax, or single points using digital storefronts from Roadster, Drive, and TagRail.

So, I am back to writing about the future.  In the fullness of time, someone will figure out how to do eCommerce for:

  • New cars
  • Multiple new-car stores in a group
  • Multiple unrelated new-car stores

When I started writing about the platform concept, I naturally assumed that Autotrader, et al., would be there.  Now that I have spent some time exploring Autotrader, Cars.com, Car Gurus, Edmunds, GoGo, Carfax, TrueCar, Autobytel, Kelley, and Deliver My Ride, I can tell you this is still uncharted territory.

Everybody promises eCommerce, of course, but most stumble at the first gate.  This challenge, price transparency, was supposed to be TrueCar’s edge.  In fairness, the platform model poses some special challenges:

Price Transparency – This one needs no explanation.  Despite glimmers of hope from the Rikess Group, online pricing is mostly confined to used cars.  A new car marketplace would have to disclose, on the search results page, prices from competing dealers.

Protection Products – Same story here, as regards pricing.  Also, if you want to do it right, you need to copy the dealer’s menu system setup, and ping those providers for pricing.  In fact, each step of the online process needs an interface with its “system buddy” in the dealership.

Trade Valuation – There are plenty of tools, but participating dealers must agree to honor the platform’s valuation.  This is easier if the platform happens to be Kelley.

Credit Approval – Each dealer will have their own stable of finance sources.  It’s best simply to bounce the application off the dealer’s Route One or Dealertrack credit system, and then return the results to the platform.  This data needs to be in synch with the dealership anyway.

Deal Structuring – I complain all the time about weak payment calculators on consumer sites.  The special challenge here is that data must be shared with each dealer’s desking system, and the calculations must match.

The rest of the process is pretty much unchanged from single-dealer: saving and transmitting the deal, signing (standardized) forms with DocuSign, and scheduling the delivery.

I recognize this is but the broadest broad-brush outline.  My purpose here is not to explicate the design, but to illustrate how progress toward the digital marketplace is impeded by these special challenges.

We may need to cooperate with a direct rival due to interdependent business models or mutual challenges from outside our industry.

How will these challenges be resolved?  Will competing dealers learn to cooperate, for the sake of their online survival, or will the palm go to a single online victor – like AutoNation, or Amazon?  The quote above is from Professor Rogers’ definition of “coopetition.”

Smaller groups cannot afford to invest $50 or $100 million, as AutoNation and Lithia have done.  Look a little farther down the league table, though, and it’s not hard to find four or five dealer groups which, combined, match the scale and revenue of a public group.

Joint ventures are not unheard of in our industry, especially when it comes to eCommerce.  My own brainchild (and eCommerce platform) PEN, like CVR before it, is a joint venture between archrivals CDK and Reynolds.  Route One is a creation of the Detroit three captives, plus Toyota.  Honda and GM are working together on electric cars, while BMW and Daimler collaborate on mobility services.

Combining four or five dealer groups simplifies the problem, relative to a fully open marketplace.  It reduces the number of systems, lenders, and product providers that need to be integrated.  The ideal venture partners would already have a high degree of standardization within each group, and similar choices of software among them.

Such a project might proceed “depth first” by developing core functionality in one partner, and then folding in the others, or laterally by function, or by merging the existing eCommerce capabilities of the partners.  What to aim for as “minimum viable,” and how best to expand it, depends on a number of factors.

Meanwhile, the commodity lead business is under pressure.  Damage reports and reviews do not offer adequate differentiation, whereas investments in eCommerce could yield significant new opportunity.  The Cars.com situation marks the beginning of the shakeout, consolidation, and – just maybe – the digital marketplace.

Asbury Drive in the House

Photo Credit: Nyisha MorrisKelly and I were sipping coffee at Digital Dealer, greeting participants, and speculating on how the ultimate online buying experience would come to pass.  Presenters had talked about Amazon, obviously, and the recent opening of a Hyundai digital showroom on Amazon Autos.

A while back, I organized the various offerings into categories like: online platforms where multiple dealers may list their inventory (basically lead providers) versus eCommerce plug-ins to be placed on individual dealer web sites.

One key variable was whether the site actually holds inventory, i.e., is a dealer, not just a technology play.  Carvana, for example, or Shift.  Increasingly, what I notice is that the good technology either evolved from a dealership, or – I found this intriguing – they will buy a dealership to serve as a test bed.

Your rapper name is a top twenty dealer group plus a digital retail system.

Roadster came from a concierge buying service which, as far as I know, they still operate.  A2Z Sync came out of Denver-based Schomp group.  The Gogocar people operate a Kia dealership.  This brings me to the next level of dealer technology tie-ups, those where big dealer groups choose an online retail solution and commit to it.

Roadster is working with AutoNation, Lithia just bought a big stake in Shift, and Drive is in all Asbury stores.  The Lithia deal is pure genius, because it allows Shift to handle more inventory and slashes their floorplan costs.  The many links in this post show support for my prediction using publicly available information.

We philosophically do not believe that software development is our expertise. Instead, we’d prefer to partner with third parties – Craig Monaghan

That prediction is … continuing the consolidation megatrend, we will see dominant groups taking the lead in online retail, but unable to master the technology on their own.  This is what I call the “Kodak syndrome.”  Incumbent leaders are not agile enough to ride a paradigm shift.  This means not only the dealer groups, but the traditional software vendors.

I expect to see the Sonics and Asburys of the world buying up the digital retail people, absorbing their talent, and denying access to their competitors.  I characterized this as a “land rush” in the earlier piece.  Direct to consumer is the final frontier.

Deconstructing the Dealership

Remember when dealerships had body shops?  Two out of five still do, but they comprise less than 20% of this $35 billion market.  Somewhere along the line, it became clear that collision repair was better done by specialist facilities, unconnected to the dealer.  Scale, capital investment, brand diversification, and (lack of) synergy were factors.

We may now wonder if parts and service belong in the dealership, thanks in some measure to the rise of automotive eCommerce.  Jim Ziegler warns that Valvoline Express is beating dealers in the shop and online.  Ward’s makes the same point, with emphasis on Google search optimization.  In the same vein, Amazon has come up with a way to sell tires online.

There can be much synergy between the two ends of the business, which can be leveraged to manage and sustain customer relationships – Vincent Romans

My approach is to “follow the money” and, sure enough, here is Carl Icahn buying up repair facilities.  Icahn Automotive Group is a classic consolidation play, with 2,000 locations including Precision Auto Care, Pep Boys, Just Brakes, AutoPlus, AAMCO, Cottman, and CAP.  Icahn is vertically integrated through Federal-Mogul Motorparts, which includes ANCO wipers and Champion spark plugs.

So, will eCommerce pick off the dealer’s profit centers one by one?  In this example, we see the convergence of powerful megatrends.  The traditional dealer model is challenged by two new ones, which I like to call the Best Buy model and Amazon model.

History tells us that the Amazon model will prevail in the end, but it doesn’t tell us what the transformation will look like, or how dealers should prepare.  To learn that, we employ an old tool from Business Process Reengineering, and we discover a surprising result.  Here is a breakdown of the traditional dealer operations:

The Seven Profit Centers of a Car Dealer

  1. New Sales
  2. Used Sales
  3. Finance
  4. Insurance
  5. Parts
  6. Service
  7. Collision Repair

We can consider each operation in terms of how it will respond to the new challenges – and whether it belongs with the others.  We have to start somewhere, so let us define new vehicle sales as the nucleus of the dealership.  The test drive is the process most resistant to eCommerce although, as I wrote last week, there are ways around it.

Used vehicle sales will certainly not stay in the dealership.  It is vulnerable to both consolidators and eCommerce.  This is a shame because taking vehicles in trade used to be a great synergy.  The new specialists are true “auto traders,” using high-volume analytics to trade both ways with the public and the auction.

Coming back to fixed operations, there is a clear synergy.  According to Cox research, customers who are properly introduced to the service department are two and a half times more likely to come back for service.  But there are other ways to exploit this synergy, like the “zero deductible at our dealership” service contract – and the Amazon tire store shows that parts can be separated from service.

Lithia Motors has 186 locations including, by my count, fourteen collision centers.  There is not much synergy between body shops and vehicle sales, or even service, but they run fine as standalone operations connected to the brand.  Likewise, given a branded service contract, I can see Lithia’s mass market franchises supporting shared service facilities.

F&I is the subject of fierce debate, too much to cover here.  Can it be merged into the sales function? Can protection products be sold successfully online?  What is the future of indirect finance?  Do “F” and “I” even belong together anymore?  For our purpose today, we need only observe that while F&I has a workflow linkage to sales, it does not need a physical one.  F&I could just as easily skype in from a call center.

As Carl Icahn would tell you, these are distinct businesses without much synergy, if synergy is defined as “positive return from shared personnel and facilities.”  Dealers organized along these lines will, indeed, be picked apart by eCommerce and consolidation.

On the other hand, if synergy means “positive return from shared customer contact and branding,” then these businesses will hang together.  Dealers organized along this principle will have diverse and independent operations, making them resilient to disruption.  They will have “optionality,” to use Nassim Taleb’s term.

You may be taken aback by this assault on the venerable “rooftop,” and I admitted earlier to being surprised.  However, decoupling and diversification (and divestiture) are textbook responses to an industry in flux.  Just look at how many departments are no longer in department stores.