Auto-dealer groups are fighting Tesla Motors' direct-sales model in a state-by-state battle, fostering legislation to outlaw the electric-car maker's company-owned stores, and claiming they're bad for consumers.

However, that doesn't mean these dealers aren't also learning from Tesla.

Tesla Stores may have proven controversial, but the electric-car maker is far from the only entity trying to change the traditional buying process--a process consumers tend to dislike.

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The "Tesla of dealers"

It may share its name with a small Chevy, but Sonic Automotive was dubbed the "Tesla of dealers" in a recent Morgan Stanley research note (via MarketWatch).

That comparison stems from the expectation that Sonic will have just as profound an effect on the automotive status quo as the carmaker from Silicon Valley.

Tesla Store opening in Westfield Mall, London, Oct 2013

Tesla Store opening in Westfield Mall, London, Oct 2013

The dealer chain promises a 60-minute turnaround when buying a car. Headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, it includes over 100 dealers in 14 states, representing 25 car brands.

On its website, Sonic promises a new era in car buying--literally.

The company invites buyers to join it in the year 1 A.D.--"after dealerships"--through a streamlined buying process that it says cuts down on paperwork and haggling.

A single "Experience Guide" works with a customer through the entire sale, and online tools are intended to let customers browse before setting foot on a dealer lot.

Tesla Store Los Angeles [photo: Misha Bruk / MBH Architects]

Tesla Store Los Angeles [photo: Misha Bruk / MBH Architects]

Online shopping

Online ordering is another key component of Tesla's sales model--as well a cornerstone of life in the digital age--and there's another dealer chain that may copy it.

AutoNation is the largest dealer chain in the U.S., and it's invested $100 million to increase brand awareness and tool up for online sales, according to The Car Connection.

A new website will reportedly allow buyers to make down payments, orchestrate trade ins, and arrange financing online.

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The service will be offered initially through 30 AutoNation stores in Florida beginning December 11, but customers will only be able to choose options and make down payments.

The full online shopping experience will launch next year--and could mean customers will only have to visit a physical dealership to pick up their cars.

Tesla Store opening in Westfield Mall, London, Oct 2013

Tesla Store opening in Westfield Mall, London, Oct 2013

Putting company ownership aside

While these dealer chains are adopting some of Tesla's tactics, they're still independent from carmakers--and thus don't threaten the traditional franchise model that's made Tesla a target of dealer ire.

So perhaps the changes being implemented by Sonic Automotive and AutoNation will prove more palatable--assuming customers find them to be appreciably better than the current buying process.

Most people don't like buying a car--and with Tesla battle inviting a wider reappraisal of car-sales practices--it's in the interest of dealers to change that.


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