Consumers once shopped predominantly at their local stores; but first mail order catalogs and today the Internet have created new ways to shop for and purchase a wide range of goods and services. Similarly, consumers once arranged for taxis by hailing one from a street corner or by calling a dispatcher; yet today, smartphones and new software applications are shaking up the transportation industry, creating new business opportunities and new services for consumers.
In buying cars, however, these new ways to shop may not be available to consumers. For decades, local laws in many states have required consumers to purchase their cars solely from local, independent auto dealers. Removing these regulatory impediments may be essential to allow consumers access to new ways of shopping that have become available in many other industries.
This very question has been raised across the country, as a still-young car manufacturer, Tesla, pursues a direct-to-consumer sales strategy that does not rely on local, independent dealers.
In this case and others, many state and local regulators have eliminated the direct purchasing option for consumers, by taking steps to protect existing middlemen from new competition. We believe this is bad policy for a number of reasons.
American consumers and businesses benefit from a dynamic and diverse economy where new technologies and business models can and have disrupted stable and stagnant industries, often by responding to unmet or under-served consumer needs. When that occurs in an industry long subject to extensive regulation, existing businesses—like automobile dealers—often respond by urging legislators or regulators to restrict or even bar the new firms that threaten to shake up their market.
Out of 15 million cars sold in the U.S. in 2013, Tesla accounted for a little over 22,000. This hardly presents a serious competitive threat to established dealers. What it could represent is a real change to the way cars are sold that might allow Tesla to expand in the future and prove attractive to other manufacturers, whether established or new ones that have yet to emerge, and consumers. Efforts to litigate, legislate, and regulate to eliminate Tesla’s perceived threat have forced it to battle jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction for the simple right to sell its automobiles directly to consumers.
When the automobile industry was in its infancy, auto manufacturers recruited independent, locally owned dealers to reach consumers in localities across the country. State laws progressively embraced wide-ranging protections for these dealers due to a perceived imbalance of power between the typically small local dealers and major national manufacturers. Dealers persuaded lawmakers that they needed protections from abusive practices by manufacturers. Federal laws, too, developed to protect auto dealers from abuse.
These protections expanded until in many states they included outright bans on the sale of new cars by anyone other than a dealer—specifically, an auto manufacturer. Instead of “protecting,” these state laws became “protectionist,” perpetuating one way of selling cars—the independent car dealer. Such blanket bans are an anomaly in the broader economy, where most manufacturers compete to respond to consumer needs by choosing from among direct sales to consumers, reliance on independent dealers, or some combination of the two.
Dealers contend that it is important for regulators to prevent abuses of local dealers. This rationale appears unsupported, however, with respect to blanket prohibitions of direct sales by manufacturers. And, in any event, it has no relevance to companies like Tesla. It has never had any independent dealers and reportedly does not want them.
FTC staff have commented on similar efforts to bar new rivals and new business models in industries as varied as wine sales, taxis, and health care. We have consistently urged legislators and regulators to consider the potential harmful consequences this can have for competition and consumers. How manufacturers choose to supply their products and services to consumers is just as much a function of competition as what they sell—and competition ultimately provides the best protections for consumers and the best chances for new businesses to develop and succeed. Our point has not been that new methods of sale are necessarily superior to the traditional methods—just that the determination should be made through the competitive process.
Change is a critical dimension of that competitive process. Manufacturers in a variety of industries now reach consumers directly through websites, providing extensive information that was once only available from dealers or by phone or mail inquiry. And consumers routinely turn to the Internet as a convenient way to comparison shop and buy products and services.
Such change can sometimes be difficult for established competitors that are used to operating in a particular way, but consumers can benefit from change that also challenges longstanding competitors. Regulators should differentiate between regulations that truly protect consumers and those that protect the regulated. We hope lawmakers will recognize efforts by auto dealers and others to bar new sources of competition for what they are—expressions of a lack of confidence in the competitive process that can only make consumers worse off.
Andy is the Director of the Office of Policy Planning, Debbie is the Director of the Bureau of Competition, and Marty is the Director of the Bureau of Economics. The views expressed are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Commission or of any individual Commissioner.