|Hi Bob 18 ago, the online used car retailer Carvana had such great prospects that it was worth $80 billion. Now it is valued at less than $1.5 billion, a 98 percent plunge, and is struggling to survive.|
It was a boom that seemed as if it would never end. Tech piled up victories, and its competitors wilted. Carvana built dozens of flashy car “vending machines” across the country, marketed itself relentlessly and offered very attractive prices for trade-ins.
Carvana, like many start-ups, pulled a page out of Amazon’s old playbook, trying to get big fast. Used cars, it believed, were a highly fragmented market ripe for reinvention, just the way taxis, bookstores and hotels had been. It strove to outdistance any competition.
The company, based in Tempe, Ariz., wanted to replace traditional dealers with, Carvana said grandly, “technology and exceptional customer service.” In what seemed to symbolize the death of the old way of doing things, it paid $22 million for a six-acre site in San Diego that a Mazda dealer had occupied since 1965.
Where traditional dealerships were literally flat, Carvana built multistory car vending machines that became memorable local landmarks. Customers picked up their cars at these towers, which now total 33. A corporate video of the building of one vending machine has over four million views on YouTube.
In the third quarter of 2021, Carvana delivered 110,000 cars to customers, up 74 percent from 2020. The goal: two million cars a year, which would make it by far the largest used car retailer.
An eye-catching Carvana car vending machine in Uniondale, N.Y.Credit...Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Then, even more quickly than the company grew, it fell apart. When used car sales rose more than 25 percent in the first year of the pandemic, that created a supply problem: Carvana needed many more vehicles. It acquired a car auction company for $2.2 billion and took on even more debt at a premium interest rate. And it paid customers handsomely for cars.
But as the pandemic waned and interest rates began to rise, sales slowed. Carvana, which declined to comment for this article, did a round of layoffs in May and another in November. Its chief executive, Ernie Garcia, blamed the higher cost of financing, saying, “We failed to accurately predict how all this will play out.”
Some competitors are even worse off. Vroom, a Houston company, has seen its stock fall to $1 from $65 in mid-2020. Over the past year, it has dismissed half of its employees.