Bolstering its service offerings at a time when inventories of new and used vehicles are tight, AutoNation is focusing more on aftermarket tune-ups and tightening relationships with its base of some 10 million U.S. households.
The company’s pivot to service has been a bonus as consumers continue to hold onto used vehicles longer and new car inventories return slowly after the supply chain issues that began in 2020.
On a first-quarter earnings call Thursday (April 20), AutoNation CEO Michael Manley told investors that mixed economic signals call for “a more cautionary approach than the past few years” but added: “The consumer in our opinion is in no way tapped out, and the industry is benefiting from lower unit sales over the past few years and an aging vehicle part which has historically supported demand within the industry.”
Manley said inventories of new vehicles remain “well below historical levels, and we have seen some recovery, but there is a wide variation amongst brands and models.”
“Even with the recent increase in sales, the industry still remains at or near recessionary levels,” he added.
Used vehicles will be “a key theme this year,” Manley said, as lower sales of new units during the pandemic years have led to a scarcity of late-model new vehicles. He said that at the end of 2022, the population of vehicles five years and less of age was down roughly 10% from 2019 and vehicles three years and less were down more than 15% from 2019.
“In addition, the turnover of younger used vehicles, which are more of our sweet spot, has also declined as consumers are holding onto their vehicles for longer,” he said. Used car sales revenue was down 21% from the same period last year, at $2 billion, a decrease of $540 million.
Given the ongoing tight supply of new and used cars, the dealer has been focusing heavily on service and building relationships with consumers, which was part of the strategy behind the January acquisition of the RepairSmith full-service mobile solution for automotive repair and maintenance, based in Los Angeles, and with a major presence in the western U.S.
On deepening recurring service relationships with its U.S. customers, Manley said: “The approach is centered on the broader needs of our customers and the nearly 10 million households we serve. During the first quarter, we brought on nearly 100,000 new households, and we’re focused on enhancing our relationships with active customers and reactivating lapsed customers. We’ve taken a number of actions to extend the value creation of our core business by increasing the depth and breadth of our product and service offerings while providing a convenient, trusted and transparent customer experience.”
In Q4 2022, AutoNation took a minority stake in online vehicle marketplace TrueCar, saying at the time that it “signals the company’s continued commitment to emerging technologies and its constant focus on providing peerless customer experiences. TrueCar provides an end-to-end, transparent and efficient way for consumers to navigate the car-buying journey.”
One area AutoNation continues to focus on is connecting consumers with more lending sources with credit tight. AutoNation acquired CIG Financial last year to expand credit options for car buyers.
“We have great relationships with existing lenders, and we’ll continue to work with them,” Manley said.
As for the internal repair and financing capabilities the company has been building out over the past year, he added, “it will be a slow expansion” for the new finance offering “as it earns its business with its customers, and for Repairsmith, we’re in the very early days having acquired them earlier in the first quarter.”
“Over time we expect our actions will garner a larger share of wallet from consumers, thereby reducing our relative exposure to the more cyclical parts of the business, namely new auto sales,” he said.