Franchised Dealers Will Outperform Direct Sales to Consumers

Despite a public image that often disparages dealers, the traditional franchise model will trump the direct-to-consumer model. The direct model has worked well in other industries. But we’re talking cars here, not laptops or tablets that can be delivered to your doorstep.

John McElroy, Columnist

June 28, 2021

5 Min Read
henrik fisker ocean
Noted designer Henrik Fisker is pursuing an asset-light business strategy as an EV startup.Fisker

All the EV startups are saying “Phooey!” to franchised dealers. They’re pulling an end run around dealers and selling direct to consumers.

There are some notable advantages to doing this, but there are even bigger drawbacks. I believe that in just a few years, franchised dealers will come out far ahead.

The startups have logical reasons why they don’t want to use dealers. First and foremost, they believe dealers are a cost burden. Dealers buy cars from the factory, mark them up and sell them. The startups believe there’s more profit by selling those cars themselves, rather than letting dealers take a cut of the action.

Also, the startups don’t like the fact that dealers have acres of vehicles parked on giant lots waiting for customers to come buy them. Until they do sell, dealers have to floorplan those vehicles, which adds more cost. The startups believe they can simply make cars to order and avoid the cost of carrying all that inventory.

Most importantly, the startups want to control the entire sales process. With their own stores, they believe they can deliver a more consistent sales experience than having thousands of dealers who operate independently. I think that’s the one area where the startups got it right.

But here’s what the startups are overlooking: Franchised dealers are everywhere. They’re in every community from New York to California and Montana to Texas.

If you’re a low-volume startup that’s content to sell one or two thousand cars a month, maybe you don’t need that kind of reach. But if you want to sell hundreds of thousands of cars a year, or over a million, you have to have lots of stores located where all your customers are.  

The startups also need lots of local service departments to keep those cars up and running. Not everything can be fixed with an over-the-air update. And roaming service vans can only do simple repairs and maintenance. If it’s pouring rain, snowing hard, or if a car has to go up on a hoist, service vans will not get the job done.

And God forbid, when these startups have a recall – and they will – they’ll need to fix a flood of cars very quickly. So, they’re going to need lots of stores with lots of service bays. Does anyone believe that building all those stores and service centers will be much cheaper than building dealerships?

GettyImages-Elon Musk Sept 2020.jpg

GettyImages-Elon Musk Sept 2020

Traditional automakers like to point out that their dealerships are built with OPM – other people’s money. Car companies don’t pay to build dealerships, dealers do. They have to borrow the money, often from the automaker itself. When the startups build their own stores and service centers, all that money comes out of their own pocket.

While it’s true that dealers buy cars from the factory and mark them up, they have very slim profit margins, the kind of margins you find with grocery stores. Even the biggest, publicly traded dealer groups like AutoNation and Penske Automotive have 3% profit margins or less. And most of that profit comes from selling F&I and service, not from selling cars.

Far from driving up the cost of cars, dealers are caught in a cutthroat competition that keeps a lid on prices. The average Ford dealer doesn’t compete with the local Chevy dealer. He competes with all the other local Ford dealers.

He has to offer customers a better deal so they don’t drive down the road and buy the same car from another Ford dealer at a cheaper price. With factory-owned stores, you don’t get that kind of competition. The factory price is the factory price. Take it or leave it.

People wonder why Tesla is constantly changing its prices. There’s your answer. It doesn’t have independent dealers who are competing against each other and who are constantly juggling prices to close a sale. (Tesla CEO Elon Musk pictured above).

Demand always varies by season and by region, and dealers have the flexibility to react to that reality. A startup that wants to raise or lower prices has to do it across the board. There is no regional flexibility.

Tesla has done a decent job of selling directly to customers. But almost half its U.S. sales have been in California, and it’s going to struggle to boost sales significantly in the rest of the country. There are 18 states that either ban direct sales, or limit Tesla to a couple of stores.

All the other startups will face the same ugly reality. The courts really should overturn this. It’s a blatant restraint of interstate trade. But while Tesla has spent a small fortune in legal fees trying to get this overturned, not much has changed.

John McElroy 1 - Copy.jpg

John McElroy 1 - Copy_2

There are over 16,000 dealerships in the U.S. and they’re no longer the mom-and-pop shops of yesterday. More and more of them are getting bought out by large, publicly traded corporations. And those companies are instilling a higher level of professionalism in their operations. They have massive scale and marketing clout. They are formidable competitors who will deliver a consistent sales experience throughout all their stores.

And that’s why, despite a public image that often disparages dealers, the traditional franchise model will trump the direct-to-consumer model. Yes, I know the direct model has worked wonderfully well in other industries. But we’re talking cars here, not laptops or tablets. You can’t put a car in a box so UPS can deliver it to your doorstep.

John McElroy (pictured, left) is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.

About the Author(s)

John McElroy


John McElroy is the president of Blue Sky Productions, which produces “Autoline Daily” and “Autoline After Hours” on and the Autoline Network on YouTube. The podcast “The Industry” is available on most podcast platforms.

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