Used-car online startups lure buyers from dealer lots

Polina Noskova
Bloomberg News

Transactions in the used-car market have always been a bit unpleasant. Dealerships typically make low-ball offers. And buying or selling on your own can create the angst of getting stuck with a lemon or a bounced check.

Enter the new wave of used-car companies.

Four of them — Shift Technologies Inc., Beepi Inc., Vroom Inc. and Carvana LLC — have piled into the business in the last few years, aiming to carve out a middle ground: providing much of the transaction security associated with dealerships and price competitiveness found online. They’ve attracted more than $850 million in venture-capital funding from investors including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Redpoint Ventures and General Catalyst Partners. Their challenge is securing a big enough slice of a highly fragmented U.S. industry that includes franchised and independent dealers and individual sellers.

Beepi, in Mountain View, California, and San Francisco-based Shift are essentially peer-to-peer networks, facilitating transactions between buyers and sellers. Phoenix-based Carvana and Vroom, in Grand Prairie, Texas, operate more like traditional dealers, purchasing models directly from owners and reselling them. All do detailed inspections, list offerings online, deliver vehicles to buyers and provide financing choices and some type of money-back guarantee.

Those services help distinguish them from other online options — including Craigslist, eBay, TrueCar and Kelley Blue Book — and from brick-and-mortar independent retailers and franchised new-car dealers.

Shift said it sold 1,702 used vehicles in the San Francisco Bay Area during the first half of this year, more than any Bay Area franchised dealer. The company projects revenue will increase sixfold this year from 2015, without proving details. It has raised $73.8 million from investors.

CarMax Inc., the largest U.S. seller of used vehicles with more than 160 stores, doesn’t see the online competitors as a threat, but it’s watching them to see what customer needs they’re serving, says Chief Marketing Officer Jim Lyski. The company is testing online tools, including one to pre-qualify for financing. With an inventory of 40,000 to 50,000 cars and trucks, it also is testing home delivery.

Northcoast Research analyst John Healy expects used-car sales will remain mainly a brick-and-mortar business, though traditional retailers might adopt more digital functions and services, as CarMax is doing.

“The auto-purchasing decision, especially in the used-car market, is very unique,” he says. “Consumers and dealers want to touch and feel and check that vehicle out before they transact it.”

Some respondents to a Harris Poll study for Beepi would disagree. Forty-two percent across all age groups said they would be comfortable buying online without a test drive if they had a money-back guarantee. Eighty-two percent of 18- to 32-year-olds and 65 percent of those 55 or older would rather do “anything else unpleasant” than negotiate with a car salesperson.

Beepi assumed its typical customer would be a 25- to 39-year-old professional woman, according to co-founder Owen Savir. To his surprise, the first buyer was a 72-year-old man.

Savir called him up: “Wow! You bought a car online, sight unseen, how exciting is that?’”

“Ah, I buy everything online,” Savir says the man responded. “Then I knew that we had something.”