European automakers reduce company-owned dealerships

Volkswagen Group has Europe’s biggest company-owned dealership network even as the automaker and its rivals attempt to reduce the number of their wholly owned retail outlets.

VW owns 564 dealerships across Europe, 214 more than Emil Frey, which has the largest number of franchise points among independent dealer groups, according to data from UK-based auto retail analyst ICDP.

Volkswagen gained the bulk of its dealerships when it bought Austria-based Porsche Holding Salzburg in 2011 for €3.3 billion ($4.4 billion) as part of its acquisition of the Porsche car brand. Porsche Holding Salzburg, previously owned by the Porsche and Piech families, has 391 dealers. Most of the stores are in France and central and eastern Europe.

Volkswagen is selling some of its German dealerships to private investors. VW sales and marketing chief Christian Klingler has said the automaker has a long-term strategy to sell off its dealerships in Germany.

Earlier this year, PSA/Peugeot-Citroen said it would sell or close a small number of its German retail outlets to help make the rest of its network profitable. In July, Daimler reached an agreement with labor representatives to sell some of the 213 Mercedes-Benz dealerships that it owns in Germany.

ICDP Managing Director Steve Young said automakers are reluctant owners of dealerships because dealer margins are low. On average dealers make a 2 percent margin, with the best making 5 percent, regardless of the brand sold, ICDP estimates.

“In most cases automakers’ ownership of dealers is largely a quirk of history,” Young said.

Automakers, especially France’s Renault and PSA/Peugeot-Citroen, are unable to reduce their networks significantly because of labor agreement constraints, Young said.

The number of both company-owned and independent dealerships has fallen by 12 percent to 47,500 in western Europe since 2007, according to a Bernstein Research report. The sharpest reduction was in Spain, down 24 percent, followed by Italy, where the country’s dealership network has been reduced by 15 percent. BMW, which cut its network by 13 percent, and VW Group, which reduced its network by 9 percent, “look to have made progress and now arguably have the best dealer networks in Europe,” the report said.