Car Pro Inside Look: How Car Dealers Make Money

Photo Credit: Abscent/
A Car Pro Show listener wanted to know how car dealers make money. He recounted how dealers talk about losing money on new cars all the time. He also knew a new car dealer who lived in a really nice home. It dawned on me that a lot of people might have this same perception.

How Dealerships Make Money

The truth is, rarely does a dealership make money on its new cars. As I have pointed out, the difference between a dealerís net cost and MSRP is getting thinner and thinner. All this at a time when its costs are going up. It costs more to advertise, to hire and train personnel, to pay for insurance and health care for employees. It even costs more to turn the lights on every day.

You have to remember a couple of other things too. Only with cars can you go on the Internet and find out what the dealer paid for its product. No other business operates this way. In addition, it is the automakers who not only set the MSRP (window sticker) of the new vehicles, they also set the price the dealers pay. Itís been a definite trend over the past decade for the carmakers to raise the dealerís cost more than they raise the MSRP every year. This is why the spread between the two continues to narrow.

The honest truth is, other than luxury car dealerships, the big question most car dealers face is how much money do I have to lose to sell a new vehicle?

Consider How Dealerships Are Operated

Inside a dealership, there are multiple departments that operate as separate businesses under one roof. There is the new car department, and as noted above, most dealers lose money in this department. However, there are also used cars, finance, service, parts, and in most cases a body shop. In almost every dealership, all these departments are profitable.

All the additional departments I just mentioned are fed by the sale of new cars. Without new vehicles, there are no trade-ins, there are no cars to be repaired, and there is no money to be made on the financing of vehicles. So, the sale of everything except new cars is the reason that most dealerships make a profit.

Logically, the more new cars you sell, the more the other departments are fueled, especially finance, used cars, and service. Although the dealers would like all the parts of their dealerships to make money like they did for many years, the result of all of this change has been good for the consumers.

Times Have Changed

When I bought my first dealership in 1986, things were much different. Profits per new car sold were actually quite high and that was how you made your money. Used cars were something you had to deal in to be competitive, but it was not your main focus. In service, you made your money from the warranty repairs the automakers paid you to perform. As cars got better and better, that income stream dried up. This, too, was good for consumers as dealers improved their services and had to get competitive on service prices, starting with oil changes and tires.

In Conclusion

Bottom line here is you may know car dealership owners who live in nice houses, and they all drive nice cars. They make good money and most are extremely charitable with their giving. However, their money wasnít made on the sale of new cars, trucks, vans, or SUVs.

If any good comes out of Covid-19 for car dealers, most are actually having a very good profit year. They were forced to cut their costs, their advertising, and they got lean. They also learned, by necessity, how to get really good at selling cars online.
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