Q3 2020 Earnings Calls

Low Supply and SG&A Reductions Lead to Record Earnings

COVID-19 Coverage Public Auto Dealers

Third quarter earnings calls started with an optimistic tone, with just about every call reporting record earnings despite revenue headwinds. Advertising and personnel costs that were taken out at the beginning of the pandemic haven’t come back as dealers try to determine how best they can run lean and improve productivity.  Tight inventories continue to plague new vehicle volumes, which isn’t expected to get better until the turn of the year. To compensate for this volume decline, dealers have strategically priced the models they did have in stock. Executives noted some points in the quarter where certain models were completely out of stock. Trucks and crossovers have been particularly hot, representing over 75% of vehicles sold.

Speaking of crossovers, many executives discussed the point of the transaction where consumers cross over from digital to in-person. During significant shelter-in-place restrictions that caused April lows, dealers were thrust into their online strategies and there were many prognostications about the potential long-term impacts. As the pandemic has persisted, consumers appear to have indicated a preference to beginning the process online, but the desire to test drive the vehicle or discuss the financing has limited the amount of fully online transactions.

While Carvana is the new kid on the block in terms of public auto retailing, it’s their used-online operations that franchised dealers are looking to mirror. Across many calls, Carvana’s name was invoked as the key comparative tool to measure how digital offerings match up. While executives all project confidence about their used platforms, it appears clear that the well capitalized online used retailer has an advantage in this area. Still, franchised dealers have their own advantages with access to new vehicles and fixed operations.

With consumers still spending a significant amount of time in their homes, the collision business has seen an impact as miles driven has decreased. While miles driven would appear to be the most direct indication of demand for autos, interestingly, executives have noted another trend. With the decrease in rental business and ridesharing, it looks like auto retailing may be regaining market share, which would benefit the industry if this trend continues as the number of miles driven rebounds.

The recent Hummer EV unveiling also drew the attention of analysts and executives. The consensus was the hype surrounding the relaunch of a brand that was defunct since the financial crisis was a positive sign for GM, and the shift to electrification will continue. However, many noted the importance of quality models in this shift as consumers won’t be willing to pay up for vehicles (or expensive batteries) that don’t stand up on their own just because they’re electric. This is particularly true with low prevailing fuel costs. While the Hummer EV’s price point allows for good margins, it means volumes will be much lower and ultimately will have less of an impact on dealership profitability.

Theme 1:

Dealers made significant investments in digital offerings to compete under strict stay-at-home orders. As the pandemic persists, executives believe digital will continue to play a role particularly at the beginning of the shopping experience, though it is unlikely car buying moves fully online.

  • [I]n this day and age 95% of the people are looking online first.  – David Hult, CEO, Asbury Automotive Group
  • [I]f a consumer wants to, which is less than 2% of the population right now[,] they can go online, buy a car from end-to-end, no touchpoints […] I think about 15% to 16%, 17% of our customer base right now is completing some percentage of the transaction online before they come to the store to pick it up. […] The consumers are telling us that they want to be able to search our inventory online, but they want to come to a store, sit with an associate that’s got experience dealing with the car that they’re looking at. They want to test drive from a big inventory before they buy a car and make that decision. Our goal in our hybrid approach from A to Z is to allow them, if they want to go A to J or they want to go A to Z, our system is going to allow that to happen.  – Jeff Dyke, President, Sonic Automotive
  • About 80% of our consumers use digital forms in some way during the process. We actually only sell about 1.5% of our cars today on a truly digital end-to-end type of solution.  – Bryan DeBoer, President, and CEO, Lithia Motors

Theme 2:

Demand continues to outstrip supply as manufacturers struggle to get new vehicles to dealers. Consensus appears to be 2021 before this begins to normalize. Tight inventories have led to higher gross margins.

  • We’ve had of course running conversations with the manufacturers since the spring, and every target has been missed. What we’ve been told we would be shipped, it simply did not happen. I don’t see any change in the fourth quarter from what I understand is coming through, and so now we’re into the first quarter, best case. When I see that they’re able to consistently achieve their shipping targets, then we can talk about what you can sell new. The demand is there at retail. I’m not worried about the demand. […] we’ll either get it through the volume or we’ll get it through pricing.  – Mike Jackson, Chairman & CEO, AutoNation
  • Availability is coming back. I think we’ve got or 1,000 or 1,200 more cars on the ground at this point than we did last month at this time. And that just keeps improving every month. Manufacturing is doing a great job getting inventory back in our hands. The demand is there, and I think we’ll all be back and rolling as we move into the first and second quarter of next year as supplies build. From a used car perspective, […] the supply is endless.  – Jeff Dyke, President, Sonic Automotive
  • The substantial improvements in gross profit of over $1,000 per unit compared to third quarter of 2019 are largely attributed to high level of incentives from our OEM partners and a perceived inventory shortage in the country.  –Bryan DeBoer, Presiden, and CEO, Lithia Motors
  • Operators are very savvy, when they cannot replace a vehicle. They don’t sell it as cheaply. I mean, that’s the simple thing. They know whether they can trade with another dealer, and if they can replace it. So that’s driving these high margins throughout the industry. And the ramp up in supply from the OEMs has been far below what anyone in our sector would have expected. We’re just now starting to receive a few more vehicles and we’re retailing every month. But our new vehicle inventory year-over-year, one point drop something like 12,000 units. So we were still nowhere near back to normal levels. And I’m sure, we’re not the only one. So while the reduction in margins going forward will be proportionate to the increase in inventory, there still appears to be a long way to go before the industry is back to normal move vehicle and inventory levels.  – Earl Hesterberg, President and CEO, Group 1 Automotive
  • As we sit here today that we’re still benefitting in our GPUs from the lower inventory and we anticipate at this point to benefit throughout the quarter. The virus is starting to heat, but backed up as we all know, assuming factories don’t shut down at all, we anticipated some point in the first quarter to get inventory levels somewhat back to normal, and at that point you would assume you would feel it into margins, but we don’t see that happening in Q4.  – David Hult, CEO, Asbury Automotive Group

Theme 3:

While working from home has led to a decline in miles driven which has negatively impacted collision, other areas of parts and service have come back. Despite fewer miles driven, some executives also believe there is a structural change in demand wherein consumers want their own vehicles.

  • In our products and service numbers that we disclosed collisions in there. Collision for us is running, for 12% to 15%, back, depending upon the market. So that’s pulling back our CP numbers. We’ve been positive for the last few months in service specifically, as it relates to customer pay in warranty.  – David Hult, CEO, Asbury Automotive Group
  • I think we got to think a little bit socially what’s really happening, with a vehicle market and personal mobility. […] Personal mobility […] should create some more demand and use cars and also new cars now, not high luxury cars. But I mean, cars that we would use on a daily basis if you needed transportation, because I think combined transportation where two or three people are together, whether it’s in a transit, public transit, whether it’s a rental car, whether it’s Uber or Lyft, I think there’s some softness in those businesses, which will drive more automotive sales for us both in new and used. So I think these are things that personal use, will be help us drive a bigger part of the share of the auto business in the future. And I could be wrong. But there’s definitely a flight to safety.  – Roger Penske, Chairman & CEO, Penske Automotive Group
  • There has been a significant shift towards individual mobility as a result of the pandemic and shelter-in-place. This has increased demand across the board from pre-owned through new in every segment. This individual retail demand is lasting and will continue for the next several years.  – Mike Jackson, Chairman & CEO, AutoNation


At Mercer Capital, we follow the auto industry closely in order to stay current with trends in the marketplace.  These give insight into the market that may exist for a private dealership. To understand how the above themes may or may not impact your business, contact a professional at Mercer Capital to discuss your needs in confidence.