Technology has changed that. Although most parts distributors still use an outside sales force, much of the parts ordering by fleets is now done either online or automatically, generated by maintenance or enterprise software systems. Many shop management systems include modules that track inventory and issue automated orders when stocks fall below a certain level. In some cases, fleets may allow their vendors to handle their inventory, completely automating the ordering process.
For instance, Vipar Heavy Duty, with more than 500 locations in its network, provides proprietary e-commerce solutions that link distributors to their fleet customers. This saves fleets time and costs associated with managing purchase order and invoice transactions while allowing Vipar HD to provide necessary reporting to help fleets better manage their parts consumption.
"We have to be able to provide the technology - it's pretty much a requirement to get into the game now," says Jim Pennig, vice president business development.
"Automation hasn't completely taken the distributor-salesman/fleet relationship out of the equation," Pennig says, but technologies have reduced the face-to-face element. "I think if you drilled down, you would find that fleets like the technology, but there is still some of that sales relationship effort out there. They like to see their salespersons as well."
"The customer interaction is not just a visit or a phone call to the office," says Steve McEnany, vice president marketing and technology at Midwest Wheel Companies, Des Moines, Iowa. "Electronic communications have become the norm."
A member of the Truck Pride service network, Midwest Wheel's sales force carry smartphones, laptops or both, McEnany says, so if a customer calls the office and their salesperson is out of the office, the company's VoIP (voice over internet protocol) phone system contacts them on their cellphone. This technology gives customers simple, fast access when they are looking for information.
McEnany says these and other technologies, especially the Internet, have improved their customer communications efforts. "Whether it's getting our message out to our customers about who we are, what we do, where we are, how to contact us or what products we sell, our website is a perfect source of information to our customers and suppliers."
Midwest Wheel's Web presence also allows the company to focus on specific trends or products, McEnany says. "For example, with all of the CSA questions, we dedicated a section of our site to information and links to CSA information. The website also highlights products that we stock and helps guide the customer to the product they are looking for to keep their fleet running."
Parts info online
When it comes to buying parts, technology has made fleets better consumers by giving them more information. "The Internet has improved fleets' accessibility to information about parts," Pennig says. "It helps them make better buying decisions."
"Fleets now have a library of information about a product as close as a click of a mouse," McEnany says, "as websites from both manufacturers and warehouse distributors allow for much faster research into issues a fleet might be running into in the field."
Information about new products can get to customers much faster, he says. "When something new hits the industry, websites have become the fastest way to get the message out."
In addition to finding information and comparing prices online, ordering parts on the Internet has "really moved to the forefront in the past few years," McEnany says, with customers placing orders or checking stock 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Scott Tetz, president of Truck Parts Solutions in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada offers websites such as www.truckpartsinventory.com, www.partseek.com and www.truckpartsurplus.com. "I can tell you from our experience, we see Internet traffic increasing steadily on all our websites," he says. "Five years ago, we averaged 5,000 users a month. Now, we average 2,200 users a day. We find more and more, end users are becoming educated buyers and know the part number."
In addition to end-users buying parts online, a small segment of the company's traffic is WDs looking for hard-to-find items on www.truckpartsurplus.com. "Typically it will be for their good customers," he says. "That's been steadily increasing, too, since lead times from manufacturers have been longer."
Nick's Truck Parts in Dickson City, Pa., may date back to a blacksmithing operation from 1929 that handcrafted equipment for motorized carriages, but today they sell parts online through a website developed by eCity Commerce. The site offers products such as suspension and steering parts, air brake and wheel-end components, filters and lighting, exhaust products and body accessories. Orders totaling $2,500 or more get free ground shipping.
Performance Truck and Trailer is a heavy-duty truck, bus, motor home and trailer parts Bulk Warehouse based in Ontario, Calif., boasting more than $12 million in parts inventory. It sells truck parts on its website, including online-only special offers.
Kevin Cope, vice president of fleet maintenance at Transystems LLC in the Kansas City, Mo. area, is glad to see suppliers and local distributors using the Internet for parts orders. "This is a time-saver for reorders of known part numbers," he says. "I wish that more companies would put this in place."
There are many options for distributors that want to set up an e-commerce site, from general offerings such as eCity Commerce to trucking-specific solutions from companies such as AutoPower and Karmak. Karmak says its distributor customers see a significant boost in orders in the first six months of adopting the solution. There are also sites such as www.heavytruckparts.net that act as an intermediary between the parts seller and the parts buyer.
More than the Web
There's more to technology and parts-buying than research and online shopping. Pennig says Vipar Heavy Duty has invested millions of dollars during recent years on its systems. The result is the ability to do central billing for fleets, no matter where they buy parts. The system also can generate end-of-week, end-of-month or end-of-quarter reports that show fleet managers what parts were purchased and what price was paid.
"It's good information for the fleets," Pennig says. "As a national program, the more information we can provide fleets as a distributor network, the better."
In addition, because the Vipar system does central billing for its national accounts, it is designed to find pricing errors. For instance, if a part on a national program with a fleet is priced at $10, but a distributor charged $10.10, the system will automatically change that price before a bill is sent out, so the fleet still gets the price it negotiated. Then, the system sends a message to the distributor letting them know about the pricing error.
The ability to quickly find parts puts pressure on distributors to respond quickly as well.
"Fleets, in general, are not stocking the inventory they once did," Pennig says. "They rely on distributors to deliver parts (JIT) when they need them."
From the April/May 2012 issue of HDAJ