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The books cannot keep up with the speed of vehicle appreciation.

Auto Dealers Face Pre-Owned Market’s Ups and Downs

It’s like the wild, wild West. Here’s how to ride through it.

In March, I wrote a piece, “Reasons for Pre-Owned Optimism.”

It was a sparsely shared sentiment at the time and admittedly, my finger was twitching before I hit “send.” I knew if I was wrong it would be there forever, but I felt I had to give my glass-half-full opinion.

Industry Voices bug (002).jpgAt that time, the world was looking bleak as COVID had basically shut down the entire auto industry, and others for that matter. Pessimism was rampant and everyone in the industry was filing for PPP loans faster than the government could print the free money.

Sure, pre-owned wholesale prices had plummeted 15% below pre-COVID levels, which was the same as saying a $30,000 vehicle had lost $4,500 in value before most dealers could get it through reconditioning. The situation wasn’t good, and there were plenty of reasons for pessimism if you looked at everything at face value.   

Over the last few months, I’m pleased to say that optimism paid off. I’m not gloating, but I’m glad I wasn’t wrong. Not because I’m trying to build a reputation as a fortune teller, but because the dealers who adopted an optimistic outlook and managed their inventory accordingly were able to capitalize as retail prices held steady while wholesale prices plummeted.

The brave souls who took advantage of the disparity and didn’t dump inventory but bought aggressively ended up with healthy profit spreads.

Where Are We?

Currently, we’re seeing an historic spread between the wholesale value guides and the prices vehicles are bringing in the lanes. Simply put, the books cannot keep up with the speed of vehicle appreciation.

CarOffer’s analysis of two wholesale guides found that for an average $25,000 vehicle, the difference between average book price and actual auction transactions is nearly $4,000. This presents a host of problems, not the least of which is loan-to-value for retail transactions.  

But the problem of inventory remains the same as does the solution: If dealers don’t have inventory, they can’t retail cars. What isn’t the same is how dealers manage inventory.  (If they’re doing it the way they’ve always done it, they’re falling behind.)

I spoke to a dealer who normally carries 60 retail units. He’s so apprehensive of wholesale prices that he’s currently stocking 16 vehicles. We must be smart, not fearful, in this environment. 

The New Normal

These aren’t normal times. We all recognize that. But we’re still seeing dealers operate under the same set of retail pricing rules that applied to normal times. This needs to change.

Dealers who were buying during the height of the shutdown enjoyed wide retail spreads as retail prices didn’t fall as fast as wholesale prices. Now however, the situation has reversed. Wholesale prices have risen so rapidly that if dealers try to price at 97% to 100% of retail market, they aren’t going to realize any gross and perhaps price the vehicle at a loss.

We’ve never been in a situation where wholesale prices have risen so explosively.  As a result, it’s counter-intuitive to raise retail prices. Why? Because they’ve always gone down!  

Looking Ahead

When I speak with dealers, I advise them to price up with a profit target in mind for the first 2½ weeks, regardless of what they’ve always done in the past. The reason? It’s simple supply and demand. Pre-owned inventories are as tight as we’ve seen them in decades.

bruce thompson.jpgPrices likely will stabilize late summer to early fall as off-lease and rental fleets begin to hit the market.

New-car inventory will also start arriving from the OEMs, and healthy incentives are likely to accompany them. As this happens, it is critical that dealers are disciplined and hold a tight 30-45 day supply of used-car inventory. (Bruce Thompson, left)

Bruce Thompson is founder and CEO of CarOffer, a trade platform provider. 

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