As Car Sales Plunge, Auto Dealers are Not Amused

Automakers’ efforts are “chaotic for retailers and confusing for consumers.”

AutoNation, the largest automotive retailer in the US with about 280 franchise locations – and thus a sampling for auto dealers in general – reported second quarter earnings this morning, upon which its shares (AN) fell 7%, and are down over 40% from two years ago. It took Ford shares three years to fall 40%.

AutoNation’s new vehicle revenues in the second quarter fell 4.6% year-over-year to $2.93 billion; used vehicle revenues fell 4.6% to $1.2 billion. It booked revenue gains in its high-margin areas – Parts & Service, Finance & Insurance, and Other – but that wasn’t enough to make up for the slide in new and used vehicle sales. So total revenues fell 3% to $5.28 billion.

Selling, general, and administrative expenses rose 4.5%. Net income plunged 22% to $87.7 million, which once again missed consensus earnings expectations, continuing a series of missed earnings expectations that commenced last year.

This isn’t just about a sales decline. Profit margins also declined. The profit margin on new vehicle sales fell to 4.7% in Q2 from 5.3% a year ago – not totally unexpected, given the problems in new vehicle sales across the country.

But the profit margin on used retail sales plunged. Dealers sell some used vehicles to other dealers or via auctions to get rid of these units. At AutoNation, these wholesales fell 49% to $70 million. Excluding these wholesales, used retail volume was about flat year-over-year at $1.13 billion. But gross profit on these units plunged 14.6% to $74 million.

CEO Mike Jackson blamed the debacle on the “implementation challenges with our centralized One Price strategy during the quarter.”

Confusingly, this “One Price” no-haggle strategy was rolled out with great fanfare in October last year.

“The consumer is craving a fair, transparent price,” Jackson proclaimed at the time. “They really have had enough of the negotiated process and the lack of transparency around pricing.” And he promised, “We will have a bigger piece of share of the pre-owned market.”

At the time, AutoNation figured out what so many dealers and automakers have figured out over the decades: car buyers say they prefer no-haggle prices.

And now AutoNation is figuring out what so many dealers and automakers have figured out over the decades: car buyers take this no-haggle price and shop it around and buy at the lowest do-haggle-price.

This strategy has backfired on franchised dealers who compete with a bunch of dealers with the same franchise in town, and all have the same new vehicles at exactly the same cost. Customers who prefer no-haggle prices will take that no-haggle price and shop it at do-haggle dealers, and these dealers will undercut that price and get the deal.

It might work for a Lexus dealer when there isn’t another one for 100 miles. But in many cities, you only have to drive 15 or 30 minutes to get from one Ford dealer to the next Ford dealer and save some money.

With used vehicles, the no-haggle strategy has a slightly better chance of succeeding because they’re all in different condition with different mileage, etc., and the price is harder to shop. CarMax has been doing this successfully for a long time. But it’s not easy. And AutoNation is finding out just how hard this is.

AutoNation’s earnings report added some regional details:

Market conditions were very challenging in two of the Company’s largest states, Texas and Florida, which represent approximately 45% of AutoNation’s total retail vehicle unit sales. Same store retail vehicle unit sales in these states were down a combined 6%. According to JD Power, industry retail new vehicle unit sales in Texas and Florida were down 5%.

Indeed, Houston – where AutoNation has a slew of stores – is said to be recovering from the oil bust. But consumers didn’t get the memo, it seems as Financial-Crisis-style Carmageddon has descended on Houston.

In terms of its segments, AutoNation reported that:

  • Domestic segment income – stores that sell vehicles made by GM, Ford, and FCA – plunged 30% year-over-year to $60 million.
  • Import segment income – stores that sell vehicles made primarily by Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and Hyundai – was flat year-over-year at $75 million. The relative strength of Japanese automakers might be making up for Hyundai’s weakness.
  • Premium Luxury segment income – stores that sell vehicles made primarily by Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lexus, and Audi – dropped 10% to $84 million.

Back in October, along with the announcement of the “One Price” strategy, AutoNation said that it would open 25 used-vehicle mega-stores over the next few years – which was somewhat ironic since it had shut down its two dozen used-vehicle mega-stores in 1999, the year Mike Jackson became CEO.

Last week, AutoNation opened the first of these stores. Jackson told the Wall Street Journal that he wants to build “a business that we are in control of.” This is a reflection of how automakers control their franchised dealers. These desperate automakers are throwing incentives on the market that have triggered a new-vehicle price war that is, according to Jackson, “chaotic for retailers and confusing for consumers.”

But he tried to keep in perspective: “There are things that are bigger than me that I can’t change…the new vehicle market is what it is. It’s dominated by the manufacturers who have an irrational incentive program.”

Used vehicle operations are beyond the control of automakers. Hence, the once-again new strategy of the used-vehicle mega store.

Jackson has long been lambasting automakers for producing more vehicles than the market can handle. Automakers then shove these vehicles down their dealers’ throats. Dealers can’t sell them fast enough even if they cut terrible deals to move the iron. They get stuck with these units, and they pile up to where dealers have to rent overflow lots. And more units are coming off the convoy every day. It’s the bane of every dealer. And it can eat profits down to the quick.

Every month in 2017, auto industry gurus have given dismal forecasts. And every month, these forecasts weren’t nearly dismal enough. And it July, it got really tough. But not every automaker got crushed. Read…  Carmageddon for Hyundai, GM, Chrysler, Ford

Enjoy reading WOLF STREET and want to support it? You can donate. I appreciate it immensely. Click on the beer and iced-tea mug to find out how:

Would you like to be notified via email when WOLF STREET publishes a new article? Sign up here.

  55 comments for “As Car Sales Plunge, Auto Dealers are Not Amused

  1. John says:

    Were you referring to dealers profit margins of 3-5%? Or mfgr’s? Is that just cars? Because in ’08 I know SUV’s and pickups had profit margins in the 20% range for the mfgr’s., and they’ve doubled in price since then, while wages, for factory workers, and raw materials sure haven’t changed much.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      Manufacturers make extraordinary profit margins on pickups and SUVs. On the other hand, profit margins on small cars are almost nil for manufacturers.

      Dealers always have slim profit margins. Even on trucks, they’re not big. Manufacturers are greedy and will allow the dealer only so much.

      • Thunderstruck says:

        “Dealers always have slim profit margins. Even on trucks, they’re not big. Manufacturers are greedy will allow the dealer only so much.”

        I think the term for that used to be “holdback”, or a percentage (6%?) of the MSRP. It’s sort of like a guaranteed minimum income.

        Being a long time grinder, the salesmen would cringe when I’d mention that I wouldn’t try to go deeper on the sale than their holdback. I always used the PACE guide to get true invoice pricing. They hated to see me enter the showroom with my PACE guide and piles of notes and prices from other dealers.

        • Wolf Richter says:

          You can now search for the holdback amount on the internet. There are no more secrets. But it’s not 6%. Try 3% of invoice on a Ford.

          In other words, if you pay invoice, the dealer still makes that 3% that Ford will eventually pay the dealership (I forgot … 60 days later?). My dealer, back when I learned the business, told me that his father, who had also been a dealer, told him that this was so that dealers got some cash two or three months after the sale to pay their quarterly taxes…. Because apparently in the stone ages it happened that dealers spent all this money on other things and couldn’t pay their quarterly taxes, and the place was shut down, and the automaker would lose another sales location, and was maybe still owed some money from the dealer, so the story went.

          I never decided whether or not to believe the origin-of-holdback story. But I herewith spread it :-)

        • Pip says:

          Where can I obtain this PACE guide?

      • Russell says:

        Where do minivans fall on the profit margin scale? We are interested in the new 2018 Honda Odyssey. Their sales jumped the first month they were available, but dropped back down again in July. Waiting for them to cool off before jumping in; looking at the end of September depending on what we see in August.

        • Wolf Richter says:

          I’m not sure. Unlike SUVs, minivans generally are not hot sellers. Some of them look and feel like an SUV, and they might work better. So my gut feeling tells me that the automakers don’t have the same pricing power as with pickups and SUVs.

          But you’re doing the right thing: keep your eyes on the market, and when deals appear, buy.

  2. Bookdoc says:

    I still say that most dealers are doing very little on the prices of new cars-there’s not that much dealer markup (compared to the past) and online competition keeps everyone the same more or less. The difference is in the TRADES. That is the biggest sticking point in most deals. I do wonder how tesla is going to handle the inevitable trade-ins on those people who put deposits down. I also wonder how many of them have the credit to make the purchase when their number comes up.

    • Paulo says:

      Dealers might have slim profit margins, but every one that I know of are multi-millionaires with big assed waterfront, or view homes. Plus, in the nearest town/city where I live, every single dealership has just completed massive expansions and upgrades. They look like temples.

      My wife and I have some dinero put aside and the following is one reason why. I drive a 31 year old Toyota 4X4 pickup, and she drives a 2009 Toyota Yaris (which we bought new). Last Thursday I hauled home 1200 lbs building materials, and today I hauled home another load of lumber and used cabinets for a rental I am building. My lovely sister-in-law drives huge crew cab F 150…one of those that sell for +$70,000 these days. It looks new, is shiny, and was used to haul a bit of lacrosse gear about 3 years ago. It does no work, whatsoever. But, she is a hot blonde so I guess she can drive whatever she wants. :-) She bought it on time. :-)

      I hope to be able to one day order something online right from the mfg, and bybass dealerships, altogether. Until then, the antique workhorse is just fine.

      • MC says:

        TSLA is happy to take your money.

        • alex in san jose says:

          I’ve had the idea recently to go to a Tesla dealership and take a test drive. Trouble is, not having driven for about 5 years now I’m afraid I might be a little bit rusty.

  3. cdr says:

    That settles it.

    Resolved: We need to go back to a simpler time when cars started to rust, rattle, and disintegrate within 3 years of purchase. I haven’t seen blue smoke in years. This is a problem. Remember the Chevy Vega – a quart of oil every fill up. Ah, the rust on a Pacer. The pizzazz of a Gremlin. The flash of the Pinto.

    This will save Detroit.

    • cdr says:

      Or – to put it in economic terms – Massively improved reliability combined with population issues created production overcapacity. Time for a major auto maker to go away due to market clearing or supply to decrease in a more civilized way with respect to stockholders (same number of car makers – fewer cars). Or negative rates with respect to auto loans on top of massive discounts.

      • TJ Martin says:

        ” Time for a major auto maker to go away ”

        Agreed 150% . Fact is that was my battle cry back in the bad ole 2008’s … let one of them ( the obvious choice here in the US being Dodge/Chrysler with the 2nd being GM ) die the inglorious death they deserve and have earned making room for the few able to function at a reasonable level of profitability

        • Cashboy says:

          I am surprised that Fiat Chrysler still exists.
          I couldn’t believe that Fiat took 100% of Chrylser.
          I have been thinking for the last 10 years that Fiat is a Parmalat ( ) situation.
          In the 80’s I estimate that 80% of cars on the road in Italy were Fiat group ( Fiat, Afla, Lancia ). I would guess it wasn’t even 10% now.

    • HeatherVolt says:

      Per Bloomberg email snippet just now: The real reason car sales are falling. After seven years of gangbuster sales, the U.S. auto market is skidding badly. The only real wild card in the market is the replacement rate. Vehicles haven’t been hitting the junkyard quick enough to maintain what had been a record pace.

      • Not to mention bank loans are getting real hard to get for the average car buyer with so-so credit. The banks are experiencing a wave of vehicular loan defaults so…they raised the bar on loan criteria.

        • Issac says:

          Very true. Subprime finance companies charging customers who have bad credits %25 plus interest rates is gonna mess the loan/car business.

      • Thunderstruck says:

        “Vehicles haven’t been hitting the junkyard quick enough to maintain what had been a record pace.”

        So, it’s time for a “Cash For Clunkers” program again? Of course, we’d have to redefine “clunker” as any 5 your old car that is paid for.

    • Jarhead John says:

      1973 Chevy Vega…The first new car for this Marine…Case of oil left side trunk…Case of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill right side trunk…

      • nick kelly says:

        The Vega and the Pinto were both created to fight the same bug, the invasion of the VW Beetle.
        From what I’ve read, Ford won this one (NOT against VW, against GM)
        Ford had enough old guys left who had come up via the foundry to kill the idea of an aluminum head.
        Great for sports car, runabout not so much.
        As soon as a Vega overheated, the head gasket would blow as aluminum warps far quicker. Warranty claims were huge.
        Ford also brought Pinto to market at much lower cost to itself.

    • A beast arose from the Pacific Ocean. It’s size was massive, it’s impact felt nationwide when it’s massive paw prints were first seen in California. No, this wasn’t Godzilla, it was Toyota. Toyota raised the bar on automotive quality rendering planned obsolescence…obsolete.

    • walter map says:

      “Resolved: We need to go back to a simpler time when cars started to rust, rattle, and disintegrate within 3 years of purchase.”

      You’re not the first to come up with this idea.

      Milton Friedman to GM: Build Clunky Cars

      Specifically, Friedman raved against the notion that corporations have “social responsibilities” that, in this specific case, meant they should build safer, more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly cars. One can surmise this notion eventually extended, during a time when planned obsolesce was part of a business model, to quality.

      The idea, of course, is that Crap sells, Crap is profitable.

      Detroit tried this and Japan ate their lunch, proving that the Austrian School always has been a load of nitwits.

      • cdr says:

        “The idea, of course, is that Crap sells, Crap is profitable.”

        I used to like Milton Friedman until I discovered how idiotic his monetary theory is.

        However, people are still going along with his other idea “Crap Sells”. They have just twisted it around a little and uses printed money and forced lower interest rates to power it:


        Repeal border laws to import cheap labor. To enforce the importation of cheap labor, make it a prosecutable hate crime, such as in some of the Eurozone, to even report on some of the crime the newly arrived bring with them. Allow the unwashed immigrants to form their own police forces and deal with crimes on their own terms, such as in some of the Eurozone today. Send production and services to the lowest cost producers for your benefit. Ignore comparative advantage … only consider personal benefit.

        Use the low cost money to power the prices of paper assets and flip them relentlessly in new and creative ways. Turn the equity markets into a money laundering system. This is the transmission method to get free printed cash from the Fed to the US Globalists.

        Use some of the cash to power the media to make sure that your story is the one people hear and anyone who opposes you is the enemy. Repeat it over and over and over and over and over. Then some more. Endlessly.

        Use more of the laundered cash from the Fed to get more of your people into positions of influence. Lots of people beg to be flunkies for the Globalist rich and powerful.

        Convince some ultra liberal half wits that this freedom is an inherent right, and have them go witlessly angry at anyone who doesn’t support the bits and pieces of society that filter up and support the Globalist agenda.

        Schemes yet to implement:

        Open the boarders again and consider these people credit worthy. Create a new Fed money program and launder this cash to these new borrowers. Sell them cars and everything else. ‘Secure’ the debt with a new jobs program for immigrants. Combine and tranche the debt to suckers starved for yield.

        US negative interest rates: This attaches a cost to savings and append an implied tax to accumulated personal earnings. It also pays for deficit government spending.

        Of course, a major economic event is necessary before these changes can be sold as the fix for the new crisis.

        Crap Sells!

  4. TJ Martin says:

    Good lord … I just drove by the local Cadillac dealership . Acres and acres of unsold stock just sitting in the sun collecting dust . So I decided assuming Wolf’d be doing another story on the impending Carmagedon to take a quick detour around the local AN Toyota and Subaru dealerships as well . The same story if not worse . Acres and acres .. every available square foot filled with unsold cars including every available backlot within visible range ( who knows where else they might be stashing cars ) Pick a model , color and options package and all bets are they’ve got at least five close enough to meet your needs .

    Honestly in my 60+ years I’ve seen things get pretty bad … but nothing like this . Fact is paraphrasing the words of Prince it feels like ‘ Tonight We’re gonna Party like its nine teen twenty nine ‘

    And yet … as car sales plummet .. the dollar falls faster than a certain person’s bad combover … the DOW reaches record highs . Go figure !

    • John says:

      Never seen worse? LOL you must have had your head stuck in the sand. Back in 2001 bought a new GM truck with 25% off list price and 0% for 3 years financing. They haven’t had that lately, although there were steeper discounts yet in 08. I had friends buying new trucks for 35% off sticker then. So really man, wake up and quit with the theatrics.

  5. Jarhead John says:

    All of this angst and auto sales are at or near SAAR of 17mm units(ZeroHedge)…Watch out when the s#!t really hits the fan…

    • Wolf Richter says:

      SAAR in July = 16.7 million, the fifth month in a row under 17 million, down from 17.8 million in July 2016. That’s a difference of 1.1 million vehicles. If it stays that way, 1.1 million are a lot of vehicles to NOT sell in year.

  6. Jim Graham says:

    One thing (downstream) no one is talking about:

    What is going to happen with all the FANCY BIG NEW SPRAWLING AUTO CAMPUS BUILDINGS??? These have been springing up in every decent – and even indecent – metropolitan area. These buildings – sometimes 8 to the campus – cost at least a half million for each building to build – probably twice that.

    Last year a dealer in Cleveland built a new “campus” on the far west side. All kinds of advertising by the dealer and announcements in the news. I think it was for 5 different automakers. That is in addition to at least 5 of them built over the last three years in Cuyahoga county.

    Does anyone really know how much these buildings cost to build – some idea of the occupancy expense (real estate taxes, personal property taxes) along with insurance that the occupants have to sholder?

    Who supplied the money for these “campus” buildings? Buildings that, to me, have no other use than being a car dealership or a second hand store (not used cars either)

    Who is going to take the hit when those dealers downsize or flat out crash????

    • walter map says:

      ‘Who supplied the money for these “campus” buildings?’

      Bankers who expect to be bailed out.

  7. michael says:

    More importantly what if this is just the start of the car sales collapse. they will really not be amused.

    • Meme Imfurst says:

      Pakistan can use the cars, I read many are going there paid for or not.

  8. T.A. says:

    Purchased ’90 Subaru in ’97 @200.00 cash 278000 miles.Still on the road at 476000.Daily driver.2 cv’s, 5 aux. belts,1 timing belt @420000 (didn’t need it ) no oil used between changes.Subaru is love!!

    • alex in san jose says:

      It’s a flat-4 air cooled, right? Hm, driving an airplane motor.

      • RD Blakeslee says:

        Subarus are Liquid cooled, the old timey VW Beetle flat fours were air cooled.

        Incidentally, there has been discussion here of piston ring deficiencies in ca. 2015 model Subarus. Our new 2017 Forester needed a quart of oil during break-in, at 250 miles. Now have 3000 miles on it and no further oil use.

    • Suzie Alcatrez says:

      I call shenanigans on replacing the timing belt at 420,000 miles.

      Tensioners and idler pulleys wear out before that.

      • Hijee says:

        He probably has a timing CHAIN on his Subaru, not a belt. Timing chains last a long time.

    • Taddie says:

      I drive a ’07 FJ Cruiser – now 10 years old – love it – I keep getting messages from Toyota to sell it as they no longer make it and people want to buy one..some car magazine last year rated resale on all vehicles and the FJ came out at 98% return… previous vehicle was a chevrolet tracker – first one in my city – drove like crazy had it for 19 years – great vehicle – one issue in 19 years – it needed a muffler – even then I did not believe them and wanted to see the old one,…LOL..I hang on to my vehicles foryears ..when my FJ goes I want to go back to a vehicle from the 80’s or 90’s – do not like all the technology – waste of money

  9. Daqn Romig says:

    Wolf, interesting mention of Lexus dealers, “It might work for a Lexus dealer when there isn’t one for another hundred miles.” In my area, there’s Lexus of Wayzata, and Lexus of Maplewood, but they are both owned by the same family.

    I drive an old SC 400 for what it’s worth.

  10. AC says:

    The cars are all grossly overpriced crap, and dealing with a dealership is unendurable.

    If I buy a grossly overpriced POS car, I at least expect a full size spare tire to be included.

    • Bookdoc says:

      Getting rid of the spare isn’t so much to save money-those compact spares are not cheap. They want to eliminate spares as that means weight reduction as you get rd of a tire, metal wheel, jack, and tire tool. To maximize fuel economy, mfr’s are doing anything to shave weight off the car.
      My favorite car was a Grand Prix GXP-no spare as the front tires were an inch wider than the rears to minimize torque steer and it worked. You got an inflator kit…

  11. Popeye says:

    The incentives are cranking up right now and they’ll crank up even more. The only way out of this dead economy is lower prices for everything. Much lower prices.

    • economicminor says:

      Popeye, lowering the prices means less revenue and less revenue means someone on the top of the pile gets shorted. Maybe everyone on the top..

      Who takes less so the prices can come down? The property leaseholder? The management? The stockholders? The Bondholders? The suppliers? The Banksters? All of the above?

      Deflation is not pretty.. it will be totally chaotic.. and only the few will have enough cash to take advantage of it.

  12. c smith says:

    “It might work for a Lexus dealer when there isn’t another one for 100 miles. ” Absolutely. It may be more like 50 miles…people paying $50K for a high-end vehicle just aren’t willing to spend the time and effort to save a few hundred bucks. A great set up for the guys with the Lexus or Mercedes medallions.

    • Frank says:

      People paying $50,000 for a high-end vehicle just aren’t willing to spend the time, and effort to save a few hundred bucks.
      Yep,that would me.

  13. economicminor says:

    The new auto malls are just more mal investment from the low interest rates and aggressive lending.

    In my area there is Lithia Motor Group (LAD) which since 2009 has moved most of its dealers out of Medford down town to new huge mega stores/lots on Crater Lake Hwy. They still own the property in the old down town as it has yet, after a few years, to be re-purposed. I tried to look up their most recent earnings and Yahoo is showing a 4.6% loss but projecting only a 0.5% loss in the next quarter…

    I was by the new lots 2 days ago and I didn’t see any empty space on any of them.. Full inventory..

    Everyone seems to still believe the actual recovery is just around the corner and that stealing from the savers, off shoring our industry, lowering the wages, robots and mal investing the money can have a positive outcome.

    • economicminor says:

      Oh, they are projecting a 12.8% sales growth and a 1.7% increase in profits for 2017.. 2.8% profit next year…

      Such is the Power of Positive Thinking thru the lens of the Magic Looking Glass.

  14. Sound of the Suburbs says:

    You can only maintain consumption with debt for so long before it maxes. out.

    They kept it going for as long as they could.

  15. chris Hauser says:

    does seem to be a lot on the lots.

    funny how finance seems to be the money maker for manufacturers.

  16. Ambrose Bierce says:

    I’m in the used pu market, for the first time in years, and boy am i confused. 2dr, 4dr, 5ft beds? To clarify, if wholesale or auction units are down that means fewer buyers, not less product?
    seems to me just about everyone is at or near KBB, dealers offer warranty protection. I think Ford has their own program for used vehicles. so many units with several 100K miles, asking top dollar? my neighbor said just buy a new one. 60K, forget it, I just need a ride to HD and i want a full bed so i am pretty much looking at 3/4 ton and not many of those, or they have a 5th wheel in the back. crazy

    • Wolf Richter says:

      Most people who buy 3/4 tons use them for work and drive them for a long time. These are not the vehicles that cycle through rental fleets and auctions in large numbers. So sellers are out there, but as you saw, there aren’t many.

  17. mrbill says:

    Let’s see now> They want to sell you a car to small to either get into or out of. They want you to pay twice your annual income for this mini car. So what is the problem?

Comments are closed.