Hey, Follow that Car

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In rural Casper, Wyo., auto dealership Greiner Ford serves increasingly sophisticated customers who can get everything from product information to competitive price quotes via the Internet.

The access to information may have made car shopping more convenient for many shoppers, but it doesn't necessarily decrease the amount of time a buyer must wait to take delivery on a vehicle.

In response to dealer and consumer frustration, Ford Motor Co. launched Autogistics last month. The regional pilot program, developed jointly with UPS Logistics Group, is a new Web-based vehicle tracking system. Cars are tracked from production to destination using their vehicle identification numbers and UPS provided bar codes.

The goal is to whittle the plant-to-dealership time fromthe 16-day average to about seven days, says Tom Kolakowski, Ford's manager of North American logistics.

"It's an absolute win-win for Ford and the dealer organization. It provides a level of total credibility to customers, so they can get exact logistical information as to where their vehicle is in the system," says Peter Greiner, owner of Greiner Ford since 1973 and a member of the dealer subcommittee. "It's definitely a competitive advantage."

The tracking system was created to expedite the delivery process and help dealers to restore customer satisfaction.

"It just can't get any worse. It seems like there's no accountability in the transportation system," says George Benson, owner of Benson Lincoln-Mercury. .

The current system requires the factory to deliver vehicles to regional holding sites instead of directly to the dealership. The sites were created to make delivery more efficient, but Mr. Benson says he and other dealers don't see much improvement.

"If you eradicate customer trust, one thing you won't have is credibility," Mr. Greiner says. He says vehicle deliveries can take a month or more in his region and that puts dealer credibility and customer trust to the test.

Customers lose trust when they order a car or truck they love -- the second biggest purchase in their life -- and they can't get it on time, Mr. Greiner says.

Pinpointing an accurate vehicle delivery time has become a sticky wicket that has caused undue frustration, especially for dealers and customers. Vehicle delivery is sometimes delayed by a variety of transportation factors such as That can add weeks to the delivery process, Mr. Greiner says..

In some regions, such as the upper northwest and Vancouver, dealers complain of waits as long as 60-days for their vehicles, Mr. Benson says.

All that is supposed to change with the new tracking system.

"We're coupling lightning speed Web-based technologies with leading-edge distribution network design and execution to deliver cars and trucks to customers faster," says Frank Taylor, Ford VP-material planning and logistics. "The proof of the pudding is in execution. We're laser-focused on execution."

Ford's rollout calls for a 15-month trial in the South and West, including southern California, Texas and Wyoming. The system eventually will be available to more than 6,000 North American Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealers. Ford expects the logistics system to be fully operational within two years; it will be able to monitor more than 4.5 million cars and trucks annually.

After the pilot, dealers and eventually customers, will be able to learn exactly where the vehicles are in the distribution pipeline via the Internet.

Ford is promoting Autogistics primarily through its dealer communications network. A corporate consumer advertising effort may be considered after the pilot.

"No advertising plan is [being put] in place until [after] it becomes a national program," Mr. Greiner says. "I'm sure that dealers will push through the Dealer Council process to advertise it, just for [customer] credibility purposes, once it's rolled out in 12 to 18 months."

Meanwhile, Ford is trying to develop an internal communication strategy by developing dealer videos and broadcasts on FordStar, Mr.MDNM Benson says. He adds that promoting it to customers is part of the e-business strategy once the program is fine-tuned and working the way Ford wants it.

The system was developed in concert with an advisory Dealer Delivery Subcommittee which met in February to focus on delivery issues. The committee is part of the influential 29-member Ford Dealer Council.

"Were not disclosing all the ifs ands or buts about the agreement. It's not a typical customer-supplier relationship. The alliance is an entity all unto itself," Mr. Taylor says. He would not disclose costs, but says Ford expects to see "significant savings" in its multi-billion dollar vehicle transportation and distribution network through selling vehicles faster, reduced dealer inventories and increased cost efficiencies. A dealer who asked not to be identified contends that Ford's cost to ship vehicles hit an estimated $1.5 billion last year.

"Speed is a parameter that most people and entities are just beginning to understand. We think it will markedly reduce inventories in the pipeline and improve the overall experience to the end customer," he says.

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