Skip to content

Car Dealer Megatrends – Conclusion

June 14, 2017

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 ex-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.

Cox Automotive Double Play

June 9, 2017
tags: , ,

It is time to break out your game board once again and play “link the subsidiaries.”  I heard this one recently from a Cox person at a conference.  I don’t know if they have it in production yet, but it sure sounds good.

If you authorize vAuto to source new inventory as it sees fit, then it can connect to Manheim and automatically place the orders.  As soon as the gavel goes down, Dealer.com can pick up images and data from Manheim and immediately begin merchandising the vehicle.  Cox also owns the logistics company that hauls the vehicle, so they can report when it will arrive on the lot.

So, you could conceivably have a customer walk in to buy a vehicle that is arriving today, with the entire sourcing cycle untouched by human hands.  In fact, this sounds a little like what I described in Cox Automotive Home Game.  No mention (yet) of the COXML message format.

Update:  Details here from Mark O’Neil.  The chain goes: vAuto, Stockwave, Manheim, NextGear, and then Dealer.com.

The Voice of Experience

June 7, 2017
tags: ,

This is a funny little story with a serious message.  I improvised this coffee timer, pictured below, for the break room here at Safe-Guard.  On days when I arrive before Yarileen and make coffee, she can see that it’s from this morning, and not left over from the night before.

There is general agreement that “whoever made that thing is a genius.”  Well, actually I picked up the idea from another client some years ago.  This reinforces what I wrote in Why I Freelance.  If you keep moving, and keep your eyes open, you can’t help but pick things up.  I may not be the smartest knife in the shed, but I have been consulting a long time.  Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo.

Dealer Megatrends Part 3 – Process Change

May 26, 2017
tags: , ,

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.

Why I Freelance

April 3, 2017

Recently, Linked-In reminded me that I have been an independent consultant for fifteen years.  Thanks to all who called and wrote with congratulations.  In fact, I have been either consulting, at a startup (or consulting for a startup) since business school.

I used “freelance” in the title because this word is in need of some rehabilitation.  There was a bitter post on Linked-In about how “freelance photographer” means “unemployed guy with a camera.”  I get that all the time.  I spoke with a recruiter recently who was startled to learn this is really what I do, and not just a placeholder on my resume.

According to McKinsey, there are 49 million of us “free agents,” equal in number to those who do it out of necessity.

I started consulting for a Big Six firm, back when there were six, and I noticed that our projects were always a big deal for the client staff.  They felt lucky to be on the client’s once-in-a-lifetime project.  We consultants, meanwhile, were continuously assigned to the good projects, client after client.  It becomes addictive.

If I were recruiting here, I would recount some groovy projects and then pitch the glamour and excitement – but I have a much more practical argument.  When you work for a long time at one company, you accrue specific knowledge about its organization, procedures, and history.  If you ever leave that company, the value of this knowledge falls to zero.

I was engaged by GMAC just before the crash.  Suddenly, my entire department was shuttered – desks empty, lights out.  It was a disaster for the faithful, lifetime employees.  Some were out of work for a year.  The consultants, however, rapidly found new jobs.

Job security no longer exists, and the good wages, generous benefits and secure retirement that used to be guaranteed with full-time employment are in decline or have disappeared.

It is a little scary not knowing where I’ll be working next year.  I won’t deny that.  My point about GMAC is that the people who thought they had job security were mistaken – and they were the ones most at risk.

Tom Peters writes that job security does not come from allegiance to your company.  It comes from having skills and accomplishments, plus a network of people who know about your skills and accomplishments.  This is where the exciting projects come in.  When I call around looking work, I want people to recognize me as “the guy who created Provider Exchange Network,” or something like that.

Changing jobs enhances your value by exposing you to new people, technology, and business models.  This has certainly been true for me.  F&I is a small community, but it includes dealer groups, software companies, and finance sources.  This is great because it allows me to move around without violating any non-competes.

This article in Harvard Business Review echoes Peters’ observation about job security.  The author is a B-school prof, who writes that the gig economy is the future.  Focus on finding work, she says, not a job. I am lucky that this attitude (and related skills) were drilled into me at Coopers.   In case you’re inspired to quit your day job, I’ll follow up with a “how to” article.

Dealer Megatrends Part 2 – Fintech

March 22, 2017

Car dealers today face a growing array of new systems and capabilities.  These are primarily in F&I, thanks to disruptive new entrants in financial technology – fintech, for short.  Mark Rappaport has a nice roundup here, from a lender’s perspective, and I maintain a list on Twitter.

  • AutoFi – Auto finance plug-in for dealer web sites. See Ricart Ford for an example.
  • AutoGravity – Customer obtains financing (via smart phone) before visiting the dealership.
  • Drive – Online car selling, with delivery, from the Drive web site.
  • Honcker – Customer obtains financing (via smart phone) and they deliver the car.
  • Roadster – E-commerce platform for dealers, with full sales capability (as I anticipated here).
  • TrueCar – Customer sets transaction price (via smart phone) before visiting the dealership.

The new entrants blur familiar boundaries in the retail process.  They’re basically lead providers, but all aim to claim a piece of the F&I process.  AutoGravity, for instance, provides a lead already committed to a finance source.  TrueCar provides a lead already committed to a transaction price.  If you’re unfamiliar with the canonical process, see my schematics here and here.

In my previous Megatrends installment, Consolidation, I cited the influence of PE money.  It’s the same with fintech.  AutoGravity, to name one, is backed by $50 million.

The new F&I space is also home to “predictive analytics.”  Automotive Mastermind examines thousands of data points, to produce a single likely-to-buy score.  Similarly, Darwin Automotive can tell you which protection products to pitch.

The technology’s proprietary algorithm crunches thousands of data points, combining DMS information with … social media, financial, product and customer lifecycle information

My specialty is F&I, but it seems pretty clear that predictive analytics has a place in fixed ops as well.  In terms of the earlier article, you can see that consolidators have an edge in evaluating new technology.  Speaking of fixed ops, they’re also better positioned to obtain telematics data.

McKinsey says fintech can help incumbents, not just disrupt them.  That’s why I have focused on technologies a dealer could employ, versus apps like Blinker that are straight threats.  Of course, you have to adopt the technology.  Marguerite Watanabe draws a parallel with the development of credit aggregation systems.

Fintech will induce dealers to adopt an online, customer-driven process.  I see this as an opportunity. On the other hand, those that fail to adapt will be left behind.  This article is aimed at dealers, but the challenge applies equally to lenders, product providers, and software vendors.

Stop Using Combo Products

January 25, 2017

I have had a hand in designing a few menu systems over the years, and I have always disliked combo products.  You know what I mean: the VSA form, plus maintenance and PDR, on which Marketing has found an extra square inch to offer road hazard.

Menu people hate combo products because the whole point of menu selling is for the F&I Manager to combine products into menu columns, not the combinations defined by the provider’s form.  What if she wants to sell the factory’s VSA, but her own choice of ancillary products?

One cavil I sometimes hear is the definition of “a product,” but this is straightforward.  If it can be sold separately, like key protection, then it’s a product.  If it always rides on another contract, like car rental, then it’s not.

What I try to tell my menu clients (and reinforce with my API clients) is this:

  • The unit of work for presentation is the product
  • The unit of work for contracting is the form

The correct data structure thus has discrete products at the top level, then coverages with their rates, and form codes at the bottom.  Obviously, you can have different forms based on coverage, and you can have the same form for multiple products.  Then, in the contracting phase, you collect the products onto the forms as indicated.

combo-productsCombo products persist because providers legitimately want to reduce the number of forms they manage.  The two-phase approach solves this.  Also, there are old-timers who design products based on the form.  I have even seen F&I shops where the completed contract form is used as a selling tool.

The package discount is the only serious challenge to the menu system.  A workaround here is to include a phantom product with no display and a negative price – although that may be as much work as developing an explicit feature.  Of course, if the manager chooses to discount a package other than one subsidized by a provider, then that discount is her responsibility.

I’ll close with an exception to the rule or, rather, a refinement.  Menu systems are compromised when we mistake forms for products.  On the other hand, there is a practical limit (six) to the number of products offered on a menu.  So, I can see the logic in a product that combines dent, coatings, windshield, and road hazard – especially PDR and windshield, if you think about how the services are delivered.

In this case, we are not merely combining products based on a form.  These products hang together in the same semantic class, appearance protection, and may indeed use separate forms.