Hey, who has the remote?

THE truck equipment industry is sort of like watching television.

Used to, broadcast television consisted of three major commercial networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC. To change channels, you got up out of your chair, walked over to your black and white television set, and rotated a knob.

If you had been watching one program and wanted to switch to another, you rotated the knob until you got to where you wanted to go. More often than not, you passed through other television stations in order to get there. You channel surfed in numerical order.

That's kind of how the truck equipment business used to be. It was a linear process involving three major players: the chassis manufacturer, the truck dealer, and the upfitter who installed truck bodies and equipment built by their suppliers.

Everyone knew their place in the system. Manufacturers manufactured. Dealers dealt. Upfitters upfit. Everyone knew the process. In order for the customer to get from where he was (needing a truck) to where he wanted to be (owning a truck), he moved straight through the channel selector.

Things aren't that simple today. When it comes to television, we no longer have to get out of our chair to watch what we want. We hold the remote — a symbol of absolute power and control. We go where we want when we want. To get to Channel 13 (the end of the VHF spectrum), we don't have to pass through Channel 12 anymore. We can call up our program directly by punching in the number from our easy chair.

The way commercial trucks are produced today has changed in much the same way. The customer's single path of buying a commercial truck has been replaced by a range of paths and options, and that has made the commercial truck business much more competitive. Everyone in the chain — truck OEM, truck dealer, body and equipment manufacturer, and truck equipment distributor — is doing what they can to persuade the end user to call their number and tune them in.

How are truck equipment distributors responding to the options that customer now have? Take a look at what has happened in Spokane, Washington. There a 106-year-old company and long-time truck equipment distributor recently became a truck dealer. (details can be found in our story on Washington Auto Carriage on Page 28). Meanwhile, our October cover story was about a Freightliner dealer, also in Spokane, that recently got into the truck equipment business. The roles of these companies and others can change significantly in today's market.

For their part, truck body and trailer manufacturers have been strengthening their own networks in recent years. While trailer manufacturers have a tradition of operating factory branches, several have been particularly active in investing in brick and mortar for their branches. We have stories about two of them elsewhere in this issue.

As for truck body manufacturers, they have acquired entire chains of truck equipment distributors, integrating them into their own network. Manufacturers distribute. Distributors manufacture.

More than ever, truck equipment distributors find themselves competing with others in the channel of distribution to be the starting point for the sale of commercial trucks. Steve Carey, NTEA's new executive director, gave some of the results of a recent NTEA study about what fleets want when they are looking to buy a truck. We will detail that presentation next month when we report on the 2012 Work Truck Show.

The survey reveals several key results. One of those is the customer's acute need for someone in the channel to be the truck expert. This is especially true among large fleets. The convulsive change that the overall truck market experienced during the economic downturn left a distinct void among many truck customers. These fleets have lost many of their internal truck experts, either to retirement or layoffs. When these men and women leave, they take valuable expertise with them. Corporate executives commonly choose not to hire replacements. In a sense, tighter budgets are forcing fleets to outsource their truck expertise.

The truck equipment distributor is the logical member of the channel to provide that knowledge. They know the operation and capabilities of the equipment that does the job that customers want the truck to perform.

To the extent that distributors can understand their customers better than ever before, the outsourcing of expertise should be good news. The truck buyer will gravitate to the company that understands and meets his needs — professionally, thoroughly, and quickly.

The customer has always controlled the channel. But in today's market, a close relationship with him is mandatory. After all, he has a tight grip on the remote. More than ever, it's the distributor's job to offer exactly what the customer wants to see.

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