So is it retail revolution or evolution?
That's not just an idle question as thousands of America's car dealers prepare to gather in San Francisco for their annual convention
Dealers and automakers that get the answer right will survive and prosper. A wrong guess could mean the end of the family fortune.
The case for revolution is strong. Look at just a few of the changes that were unimaginable when the dealers last met in San Francisco in 1994.
Dealership consolidation: The top 100 dealer groups sold nearly 2 million new vehicles last year. One group, Republic Industries, has about 250 dealerships.
The Big Public Company: Republic, CarMax and a dozen smaller public groups need dramatic growth and profits to excite investors. Republic has launched its metropolitan-area model, John Elway AutoNation in Denver - 18 stores with one retail system.
Factory control: Ford retail networks are set for five markets, and Ross Roberts is hunting for lots more. Don Hudler will run a Saturn-controlled company that might control a third of Saturn sales.
The end of territory: A Dodge-Chrysler dealership in tiny Kellogg, Idaho, is selling almost two new vehicles for each resident. Dealers can reach out for sales beyond their old, protected sales areas.
The Internet: Customers know more about a car and its pricing than salespeople used to know. And anybody can communicate on the Net; it's a great leveler.
Many of those trends lead to reduced margins or one-price selling.
Revolution? Well, no.
It's one thing to identify problems with the traditional retail distribution system. It's another to create a system that works a lot better. The jury is still out on Republic and CarMax. (Wall Street is voting no.)
The Ford and Saturn retail projects are years from proving they're the model. This is no slam-dunk.
Everything is in play, and there are shocking ideas. But the basic business is evolving. It's still a good business for a dealer principal who pays attention to costs while taking care of the customer - the top 100 dealer groups have less than 15 percent of sales. Bad and unimaginative dealers are threatened. Good dealers will thrive.