Vroom, Zoom, and Stock Market Boom

COVID-19 Causes Declines in Q1, but Executives Maintain Optimism Going Forward

COVID-19 Coverage Public Auto Dealers

As we teased last month, Vroom filed an S-1 with the SEC in May enabling its initial public offering (IPO) on June 9th. The online automotive retailer priced the 21,250,000 shares at $22/share. By the end of the trading day, Vroom’s stock had increased 118% to $47.90. For perspective, the NASDAQ as a whole rose only 0.3% that day.

The company positions itself as “an innovative, end-to-end platform designed to offer a better way to buy and a better way to sell used vehicles.” A press release also touted its “contact-free” nature, apparently seeking to distinguish Vroom from traditional, franchised, brick-and-mortar dealers as COVID-proof.

In this post, we consider Vroom’s business model compared to other online dealers, the company’s investment thesis that may have driven their spike, and see what the filing could tell us about the broader industry and the IPO market more generally.

Drafting Behind Carvana

Leading up to an IPO, companies must put their best foot forward and offer plenty of promise. While being a futuristic company that uses buzz words like “data science” and “machine learning” sounds nice, will the benefit of an ecommerce boom ultimately be conferred on Vroom? We’ve previously noted this with Tesla. Despite being the buzz-worthy poster child, Tesla isn’t the only company with online retailing or electric vehicles. Carvana, Vroom’s most direct comparable in terms of online car retailing, IPO’d in 2017 and has about triple the revenue and gross profit margin. Carvana’s public life began with a rather inauspicious start; it opened trading at a 10% discount to its $15 IPO price and finished the day at $11.1 for a 26% decline. However, just over three years later, the stock is now trading 683% above its IPO price (as of June 26th). Carvana rode triple-digit quarterly revenue growth for 23 consecutive quarters, a feat unlikely to be duplicated by Vroom.  However, Vroom is hoping their business model differences will be persuasive to investors.

Vroom CFO Dave Jones acknowledges the similarities between the companies from the consumer perspective, but he emphasized their asset-light approach as something that materially distinguishes the two from an investment perspective. This approach has been taken in other industries, and such companies benefit from staying out of the fray when difficult operating environments depress margins. It remains to be seen whether Vroom will be able to navigate this effectively.

Investment Thesis from the S-1

Vroom used its S-1 to make the case for the growth of ecommerce in the auto space, particularly for used vehicles.

While their asset-light approach helps distinguish them from Carvana, Vroom used its S-1 to make the case for the growth of ecommerce in the auto space, particularly for used vehicles. Vroom highlights industry fragmentation (42,000 dealers), millions of peer-to-peer transactions, and dissatisfaction with the status quo as reasons its ecommerce platform can continue to grow. The Company calculates the Used Auto market as the largest consumer product category with $841 billion sales on approximately 40 million units in 2019. This surpasses both Grocery and New Auto sales, which are $683 billion and $636 billion, respectively. Vroom pitches the current used vehicle business model is broken, with “limited selection, lack of transparency, high pressure sales tactics, and inconvenient hours.”

Vroom also highlights the gross profit advantages inherent in used vehicles. From 2007 to 2009, the S-1 notes gross margins for new vehicles fell from 6.9% to 6.7%. Not only were gross margins higher for used vehicles, but they actually increased during these troubling times from 8.9% to 9.4%. While careful to explicitly make this forecast, Vroom heavily implies its ability to capitalize on COVID, a story that investors seem to be buying, at least for now.

Financial Realities of Vroom

Under “Use of Proceeds,” Vroom intends to use the $468 million in fresh capital (excluding certain underwriting costs) for general corporate purposes, including advertising and marketing, technology development, working capital, operating expenses, and capital expenditures. This should help fuel future growth as the company burns cash. Like many companies going public in recent years, Vroom is not turning a profit as it intends to “invest in growth to scale our company responsibility and drive towards profitability.” Advertising expense in 2019 was $72.5 million, which is 6.1% of revenue and more alarmingly, 125% of gross. With advertising consuming only about 40% of its SG&A expense in 2019, Vroom is spending about 3 times gross on SG&A. The company will be hoping that scale will eventually allow them to throttle back advertising spend without giving price concessions on its gross.

A red flag for Vroom and its ability to draw future investors is its gross margin. In 2019, gross margin declined to 4.85%, down from 7.11% in 2018. While the company would likely point to its superior ecommerce margins of 6.1%-6.4% over the past two calendar years, it is notable Vroom’s gross margins are well below average margins (11.3%-11.4%) for used vehicle for these years. The asset light approach, one they have used to differentiate, may become a cause for concern as well due to the cost of outsourcing much of its critical operations.

Future for Vroom, and Other Auto Retailers

Will Vroom be able to carve out a place in the market? There are plenty of examples of duopolies such as Pepsi and Coke, Lyft and Uber, and Republican and Democrat. Uber and Lyft are hot auto-adjacent tech companies, but their service has been commoditized as many of its gig drivers opt to drive for both companies to increase their opportunities for trips and tips. The gig economy has spawned other fast-growing tech companies with many competitors in the food delivery space (DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, Postmates, etc.). Again, these companies have been forced to compete heavily on price despite not offering all of the same restaurants (not a complete commodity if you want a specific pizza only carried by DoorDash). Consolidation talks have already taken place in this industry, and it begs the question of how online auto-retailing will shake out. There are plenty of examples of tech subsectors having one giant player that is the go-to option for consumers (Amazon for online retail, Google for search engines, etc). Vroom, and the industry more generally, will be hoping that there are many seats at the table. For now, no single party owns more than 2% of the market.

How will younger consumers who grew up with iPhones and tablets in their hands prefer to shop?

The S-1 highlighted ecommerce penetration in the industry sitting at just under 1%, compared to about 16% for total retail (thanks, Amazon). Vroom’s long-term value proposition likely hinges on your view of the future of car buying and the Internet’s role in the market. Consumers were forced online during recent stay-at-home orders, but will these necessary precautions breed long-term shifts? How will younger consumers who grew up with iPhones and tablets in their hands prefer to shop?

The ability to seamlessly browse across brands seems appealing, but traditional franchised dealership executives have voiced concerns over how much of the transaction can really take place fully online. Analysts have also frequently questioned the incremental costs associated with delivering cars and whether or not they are covered by the cost savings on retail. With its asset-lite approach, Vroom will provide a good case study.

State of the IPO Market

After high-profile IPO flops in 2019, including Uber, Lyft, and WeWork (who couldn’t even make it to IPO), the tides appear to have turned in 2020 as exemplified by Vroom and to a lesser extent, Warner Music. Companies such as DoorDash, Lemonade, Airbnb, and others are looking at potential virtual IPOs, which may shed more light on whether Vroom was the anomaly or the precedent.

Stock Market Volatility

COVID-19 has led to significant market volatility with certain industries hammered (cruise lines, restaurants, and airlines to name a few) and others soaring (consumer durables such as cleaning supplies and virtual communication like Slack and Zoom).  Speaking of the latter, a case of mistaken identity sent Zoom Technologies (ticker: ZOOM), a thinly traded Chinese wireless communications company, stock up 47,000%. Investors meant to be investing in the popular Zoom Video Communications (ZM), which has overtaken other platforms such as Skype as the dominant player during stay-at-home orders. Trading was halted to fix this issue, but this has not been the only curious case in the market over the past few months.

COVID-19 has led to significant market volatility with certain industries hammered and others soaring.

As a further example of the fluid, volatile nature of the current stock market, consider Hertz, the established rental car company. On the same day Vroom was publicly listed, Hertz saw its share price jump to $5.53. Yes, the same Hertz that filed for bankruptcy protection on May 22nd. The pandemic-induced demand shock on car rentals and air travel, that begets more rental cars, compounded years of problems including competition from ride-hailing services. The share price increase represented a nearly 900% rise from a May 27th low and an even more astonishing 80% higher than the day before it filed for bankruptcy protection. The sharp increase prompted Hertz to consider tapping the equity markets for one last bite at the apple. Despite the stock being theoretically worthless, the company was seeking to take advantage of the market’s exuberance after gaining bankruptcy court approval on June 12th. However, Hertz ultimately scuttled these plans as the SEC balked at the company’s filing which included a statement that the company’s shares could “ultimately be worthless.”

There are theories abound as to what caused Hertz’ unfathomable increase. Central bank liquidity has no doubt fueled the risk-off mindset as the S&P index has increased nearly 35% since a March 23rd low (as of June 26th). The broader market reversal began when the Fed announced it would be buying individual corporate bonds, a promise they only started to make good on nearly 3 months later. Specific to Hertz, they appear to have benefitted, at least in part, from retail investors bidding up the price. As of June 15, data from Robintrack indicated more than 170 thousand Robinhood users held shares in the company. It was the #1 traded stock on the popular retail investor app that doesn’t charge commissions on trades. Some have taken it a step further to connect it to the dearth of gambling options with professional sports on hold.  A more nuanced view might be that strategic investors are seeking to exploit the structure of the company’s debt. In the past, equity holders threatened to hold up the process, pressuring credit holders to pass on some of the value during bankruptcy proceedings. Hertz’ debt is largely held in asset-back-securities which fragments the voice of creditors and may ultimately weaken their bargaining power. While Hertz and Vroom are on the opposite ends of their time as a public company, each exhibit reasons to be wary of what the market might or might be telling private business owners.

Conclusion

So, what does the stock price of Vroom mean for the value of my private dealership? Virtually nothing. While dealerships, like all businesses, require careful analysis in order to determine a reasonable indication of value, the value of your dealership probably did not double in a day. However, the public market does offer the opportunity to gain valuable insights from companies that operate all over the country. Vroom’s S-1 and successful IPO should signal what many dealership owners already know: digital platforms will become increasingly important, inherent margin advantages in used vehicle retailers are attractive, and growth captures the eye of investors.

Contact a Mercer Capital professional to discuss the effect the dynamic auto dealership industry is having on your business today.