Have you heard of this company? Carvana (CVNA)

image: Carvana website (link).

From time to time, we highlight specific companies which we believe fit the profile of a classic Taylor Frigon growth company. These are companies which meet specific criteria which indicate that they are well-run businesses operating in fertile fields for future growth, as discussed in previous posts  (such as this one) describing our investment philosophy.

Fertile fields for future growth often involve a paradigm shift in a business or industry -- and while companies involved in the technology industry may be the first that come to mind for many investors looking for paradigm shifts, transformative paradigm shifts are taking place in other industries all the time. Sometimes these shifts involve the application of new technologies to industries that might seem to have little to do with traditional "tech names" at all. Investors looking for growing businesses should be alert for such opportunities.

One industry that might seem to be far removed from the transformative power of technology is the used-car business. Over a trillion dollars a year are spent in the US alone for the purchase of used automobiles, but it is an enormously fragmented market, with many of those transactions taking place between private individuals or at small used-car dealerships, and some of them at new-car dealerships. The market is so fragmented that the largest used-car seller in the country, CarMax, makes up less than 2% market share.* An even more revealing statistic pointing to the extreme fragmentation of the market is that the top 100 players account for less than 10% total market share.

Into this trillion-plus-dollar marketplace, Carvana brings an entirely different approach, with the goal of transforming the car-buying experience using technology and a scalable logistics operation which enables them to cut costs, lower prices, and (perhaps most importantly) eliminate some of the biggest pain points in the used-car buying experience for their customers.* 

Carvana's approach is to use technology to eliminate the physical dealership and the used-car salesman altogether, enabling the buyer to shop for and purchase the vehicles entirely online, similar to any of the other e-commerce business models which have transformed retail. However, because an automobile purchase is so much larger than the typical e-commerce purchase, the auto-sales industry is not easily disrupted by the same forces that have so radically transformed (and continue to transform) other areas of retail. Among other reasons, auto purchases are very high-dollar (typically the second-most expensive purchase for any household), the sheer range of products is overwhelming (in terms of make, model, body style, year, mileage, special features, etc., about which different potential customers will have very different feelings, often strong feelings), the purchasing process itself is complex (and often involves the trade-in of another vehicle), and an automobile is obviously too large to send through the mail or leave on your doorstep in a cardboard box.

In order to create a buying experience which enables the purchase of something as complex, personal, and challenging as an automobile, Carvana has built a well-planned logistics infrastructure to enable them to acquire, stage, and deliver used cars to buyers all over the country. From the buyer's perspective, the process is extremely simple -- they can go online to Carvana's website, choose from an inventory of nearly 10,000 used cars and trucks, select the one they want, obtain financing if necessary, and buy the vehicle without ever setting foot in a dealership. The buyer schedules delivery, and Carvana then delivers the vehicle to the buyer's home or business, on a single-car carrier, as soon as the following day (depending upon the location of the vehicle they selected). Carvana also picks up the trade-in vehicle (if any), and takes it away to sell at wholesale auction (Carvana is not re-selling trade-in vehicles).

The purchased car comes with a warranty, and the buyer can return the vehicle to Carvana within seven days if they change their mind or find something about the car they didn't like.

The entire process is designed to be superior to other methods of buying a used-car by offering better selection (nearly 10,000 vehicles, with greater variety than can be found in a single local market or at a single physical dealership), better value (due to the elimination of traditional dealership costs, including the cost of real estate and the cost of paying a salesforce), and a better experience (making the purchase of a car as easy as other e-commerce purchases, and eliminating the pressure and haggling that is typically associated with buying a used car, whether from a dealership or from a private individual).

The entire online purchasing process takes about twenty minutes -- and some customers go through the process in as few as ten minutes. Additionally, by eliminating the costs associated with the traditional model, Carvana can save the buyer an average of about $1,400 versus the conventional used-car model. 

Carvana's logistical network consists of staging lots which do not have to be located in prime retail locations (they can be located "out in the woods" somewhere, in order to save on real estate costs, since customers do not come to these lots), as well as a fleet of multi-car carriers to move inventory between different staging areas around the country, and a fleet of single-car carriers to deliver vehicles within each selling region (each local market in which Carvana presently operates needing only two such single-car carriers, to take the purchased vehicles from the staging lot to the customer's home). 

Because Carvana owns their own trucks, and knows how long it takes to get a vehicle from one part of the country to another on its trucks, it can confidently tell a buyer when that buyer's vehicle will be delivered to them, and control the process to ensure that the car is delivered on time.

Carvana acquires (or "sources") their inventory at auctions, using their own proprietary algorithms based on what characteristics and features they believe will be the most marketable, and what they learn from the data they accumulate from their own business records. Unlike other buyers at auction, Carvana saves money by not sending human reps to these auctions, but instead relies on their algorithm, and then sends the acquired vehicles to centers where they will be inspected and reconditioned before being put up for sale. 

At the heart of this logistics system are these inspection and reconditioning centers, or IRCs -- a concept pioneered by CarMax and adopted by Carvana as well. At the IRCs, the vehicles acquired at auction are prepared for sale, and they are photographed from all angles, inside and out, so that they can be displayed online. Any flaws or dings are noted and listed, so that potential customers have a level of confidence and transparency that rivals what they could see in person at a dealership. 

Carvana's logistical network constitutes a barrier to entry for competitors trying to duplicate their system -- particularly the large-scale inspection and reconditioning centers that create the capacity to power a national used-car brand. It is important to recognize that the used-car market has previously been a local market. By creating the logistical backbone necessary to sell cars online nationwide, Carvana has created a scalable business -- one in which the number of potential buyers for their entire 10,000-car inventory grows with each new local region that they enter. 

Because they do not have to purchase or rent expensive real estate or pay expensive salespeople the way a traditional dealership would, it is relatively inexpensive for Carvana to open up operations in a new region -- they just need a staging lot to receive vehicles, and two single-car carriers with local customer-service personnel to deliver vehicles to their customers.

Instead of having a vehicle delivered to their door, the Carvana customer can also opt to pick up their purchased vehicle at one of Carvana's signature "vending machines," which they have built in selected markets. These machines are fully-automated (see this video) and are stocked with vehicles that have already been purchased by customers who choose to pick them up there instead of having them delivered. The image at the top of this post shows Carvana's newest such machine, a nine-story platform in Phoenix, Arizona -- their largest yet, capable of holding up to thirty-four vehicles at a time.

If you want to buy a vehicle from Carvana but live in an area where they do not yet have local deliveries, you can fly to a city with a vending machine to pick up your car and drive it home -- and Carvana will pay $200 towards the cost of your airline ticket (as well as pick you up at the airport to take you to your car, where it will be waiting inside the machine).

The vending machines are largely a marketing tool -- but they are a cost-effective form of marketing, usually built in a high-visibility location, visible from major freeways, and they help build awareness among the car-buying public of the Carvana brand.

Of course, any company involved in the auto industry will be subject to changes in market sentiment surrounding the perceived outlook for auto sales. However, investors should realize that when prices go down, Carvana is able to acquire vehicles for lower cost as well (and the opposite holds true in an up market). As we have written in other previous posts about our investment philosophy, we believe in owning a business through the market cycles, if it is a well-run business which is positioned in front of fields for future growth.

We believe that customers are becoming more comfortable with making even major purchases online, and that Carvana has created a well-conceived model to enable the online purchase of used cars -- a model which could transform the way many people buy cars. For this reason, we believe it is the type of company that investors should be looking for, and that it fits the definition of a Taylor Frigon growth company -- which is why we own it for our investors, as part of a portfolio of other companies from many different industries and sectors, in our Core Growth Strategy.


* At the time of publication, the principals of Taylor Frigon Capital Management owned shares of CarMax (KMX) and Carvana (CVNA).

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