April 30, 2009

Can Web 2.0 rekindle America’s love affair with the automobile?

As many of you know I made the decision to go back to school this year and have been attending an extended learning program at MIT Sloan School of Business. I have my quarterly meeting in Cambridge coming up and was reading through my assigned case studies this weekend. One of the readings concerned a supply chain situation at Ford that was taken from events earlier this decade. I don’t know if the professor was looking to evoke this line of thinking, but I started wondering if the automobile world could transform itself and convert to the Dell distribution model. So while this is outside the realm of my normal blog topics I am hoping to leverage this forum to get some quick feedback for this zany idea.

The Dell Direct Model has been very successful from a supply chain and margin contribution perspective. Dell Direct is a business model that eliminates the traditional distribution channel and goes directly to the consumer. Traditionally, as is in the case of Ford and others, there is a supply chain that supports the manufacturer (the “brand”); the finished goods are shipped to a variety of distribution outlets and the consumer selects a branded product from one or more of these outlets.

Dell broke this model by using a Web 2.0 enabled business model that removed the traditional hardware distributors and opened a line of communication directly with their customers. They also ensured/marketed that the computers they sold would be customized for each client and delivered to their home. They built a website with a well defined on-line configurator and allowed the consumer to craft the PC of their choice.

Stick with me – I know this may sound crazy, but with the automobile industry in chaos-wouldn’t this model work for cars just as it has for computers?

One of the many problems with the auto industry is over supply. In 2008 manufacturers had the capacity to make 17 million cars annually to support a 10 million domestic car demand. The current cost-to-market structure and low margin of profit per vehicle has collectively rendered auto company business plans not successful at the 10 million vehicles sold rate. Regrettably, the industry has continued to blindly build significantly more than 10 million cars, go deeper in debt and is now financially and credibility bankrupt.

By changing their go-to-market strategy Dell proved they could derive stronger margins, control their inventory costs and nurture a very satisfied consumer base. So what would this mean for the car buying consumer? First the buying experience would change dramatically. Showrooms would be totally reconfigured with more interactive displays and computer simulations but the overall footprint would be reduced dramatically. Sure the auto dealers would need to have a few, very few, new models in stock for the person who just wanted a good, better or best model and wanted a new car today. There would still be used cars, but for a new car the majority of us would configure our new car, do the paperwork and have it arrive 3-4 weeks later. Or, we might never visit a showroom and simply configure and buy the car on-line.

If you let your mind wander a bit and if you have ever configured a Dell system you can begin to think about how this buying experience might work. Packages and promotions would be similar. Like a free upgrade to a XM/Sirius radio instead of an upgrade to a DVD Burner from a standard CD drive. How about custom wheels in lieu of an extended battery? Door to door shipping is a premium option, but a cost-efficient pick up area near a rail distribution hub could provide the lowest shipping cost option.

The advantages of this system could be remarkable. The cost to build and maintain (just think of the property tax savings in some states) a dealership would be significantly reduced. Even rural communities would be better supported with this model. While the assembly-line process would need to evolve to ensure overall vehicle costs do not rise dramatically, the advantage of knowing your exact demand would eliminate excess inventory and floor-plan costs would be dramatically reduced. Because manufacturers are primarily shipping product on demand it is likely transportation costs would improve – the carbon footprint would also be reduced.

I can imagine unique designer packages for interiors that are truly unique. Resale values might hurt downstream with some poor choices, but why not a Martha Stewart, NASCAR, or NCAA interior of your choice? All would add license opportunities and potential additional revenue. Buying online also provides click through revenue from alternative financing sources or custom items from tailpipe extensions to HD-DVD systems made for the vehicle, but not available from the manufacturer.

More importantly, just like Dell, the auto manufacturer would begin to know what motivates the consumer and cars would evolve just as PCs have to meet the usage demands of the consumer. Lower R&D costs, fewer miscalculations (can anyone say Pontiac) and an overall improved track record for consumer loyalty. Can you imagine blogs and twittering by designers, engineers and quality assurance folk who were sincerely interested in market feedback?

There are a number of specific business planning details I will need to construct before going to MIT next week, but help me out with a little informal survey…would you buy a car using a system like this? If not, why not?

THIS JUST IN -- Chrysler files for Chapter 11 (http://tinyurl.com/d3f5kf) -- are they better off dead or alive??

About Me

David Childers
of EthicsPoint

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Favorite Quotes:

Ronald Reagan
There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.

John Quincy Adams
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.

Ray Kroc
The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.

John Maxwell
The first step to leadership is servanthood.