Color Me Blue, Red, White, Silver…

Steve Finlay 2

May 29, 2013

3 Min Read
Color Me Blue, Red, White, Silver…

Henry Ford famously said customers could get the Model T in any color, as long as it was black. Ford took it to a monochromatic extreme. But maybe he was on to something.

By not offering a jumbo palette of choices, Ford made vehicle manufacturing easier and cheaper. And at least customers knew what they were getting.

One could argue the industry has swung too far in the other direction of color and trim offerings. Some dealers make that argument, including Wes Lutz of Extreme Dodge in Jackson, MI.

The Dodge Dart debuted last year with much to choose from. That included six trim levels and 12 exterior colors, ranging from Redline Red to Citrus Peel. Add to the plate 14 interior color and trim combos.

There’s more. Prospective Dart buyers could pick from seven wheel, three engine and three transmission choices.

Letting customers choose from columns A, B, C, D, E and F creates a dizzying number of configuration possibilities. More than a dealer could realistically stock. That is Lutz’s beef. In the virtual world, auto makers offer all sorts of things. In the real world, dealers stock a lot less. They would need deep pockets and car lots the size of Delaware to do otherwise.

“Manufacturers can sometimes set up to fail,” Lutz says at a recent J.D. Power & Associates automotive conference. “Dodge drove customers to the Internet to pick from all these Dart combinations.”

Shoppers gleefully used online configurators to customize cars they wanted for real. “People came in jazzed, and then they were disappointed,” Lutz says.  

They became crestfallen upon learning that, despite what they anticipated from their online experience, the dream car they personally and virtually built was not on the lot.

No surprise there. Dealers don’t order cars on consignment. They buy them from auto makers, then retail them. They can only finance so much inventory.

“We have limited resources as far as product, but then the manufacturer offers thousands of combinations,” Lutz says.

Dodge introduced its redone ’14 Durango at the New York auto show. Reid Bigland talked up the new fullsize SUV. He headed Dodge at the time. He now runs Chrysler’s Ram truck brand.

Among the Durango’s ballyhooed selling points are 10 exterior colors, nine different interiors, seven wheel choices and five trim levels.

I ask Bigland if Dodge isn’t putting itself in a tough spot of offering too many combinations, leading once again to unfulfilled customer expectations.

“There always is that fine balance of giving the consumer what they want, but not overwhelming them with complexity,” he says. “In the case of the Dart, we’re streamlining those configurations.”

As for the Durango, “it is not near where we were with the Dart,” Bigland says. “Dealers will quickly get around to the features that work best for them.”

The last comment hits reality on the head. Consumers can build their personalized car online, but it’s really the dealers who pick colors and trim levels based on what they think will sell and what they can afford to spend on inventory floor planning.

Of course, if a determined consumer wants to purchase a car exactingly configured, that’s do-able. The factory can build to customer specifications. But a buyer would need to wait weeks between order and delivery.

That happens all the time in Europe. In the U.S., car buyers tend towards same-day purchases. Such impatience requires adaptability. American car consumers are good at that, if not at postponing immediate gratification.

“Do you know how many times a customer goes to a dealership wanting to buy a white car, and ends up buying a black car?” AutoNation CEO Michael Jackson once said. “It happens every day in America.”

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