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Seeing clearly with the bubble gone

IT'S TOUGH getting an accurate picture of the future while looking through a bubble.

For those of us who invested in tech stocks and dotcom startups a few years ago, we can see clearly now. The bubble's gone.

And so is the money.

If we didn't know then, we at least know now that the “new economy” was nothing more than new ways to make the “old economy” more efficient; that dotcom companies needed to have a pragmatic purpose to exist; and that “virtual” is still no substitute for reality.

With the bubble burst, we are in a much better position to view technology for what it is — real tools for real companies to accomplish real things.

This month, as part of our annual Aftermarket Parts and Accessories Issue, we take a look at how a couple of companies in our industry are putting technology to use in very practical ways to sell their product lines quicker, faster, over a wider geographic area, and with reduced costs. “Way cool” meets the bottom line.

These and other companies in our industry are harnessing the power that technology promised in the mid-1990s. In this post-bubble economy, it is easier to get a more realistic perspective on what technology can do for our industry's parts departments. The outrageous claims that characterized the dotcom craze aren't around much anymore. Neither are visions of grandeur spawned by all the grand plans. No one we have talked to has visions of being the commercial truck and trailer answer to, but there does seem to be a steady recognition that tech tools can help make “old economy” companies like ours more economical and productive.

We are now in a time where we can objectively view technology and think of creative ways to use it effectively in our parts departments and elsewhere.

Hyperlinks without the hype.

Few of us today have the cash on hand to fund the excessive upgrades that some companies performed in the years and months leading up to Y2K. It is a time where every dollar — including those earmarked for technology — must be spent where it can do the most good.

In the keynote address to the recent National Wheel and Rim Association's annual meeting, ArvinMeritor's Tom Gosnell said that both financial stability and the adoption of technology will be critical for the entire aftermarket.

“Technology has advanced within the past few years and will continue to be an integral part of this business,” said Gosnell, president of ArvinMeritor's Commercial Vehicle Systems and Commercial Vehicle Aftermarket.

He specifically pointed to online parts ordering and informative websites as being the wave of the future. Our two lead features this month illustrate that point. The Internet has a place in the marketing strategy of both companies. In one case, the purpose of the website is strictly to deliver information. The other website, however, also engages in e-commerce with customers halfway around the world.

In the current environment, parts departments will need all the advantages they can acquire. Gosnell said the general economy is sluggish, and the industry may have to sail through another year of troubled waters.

“We aren't facing the same difficulties as we were six months ago, but the market isn't as good as we thought it was two months ago,” he said.

One of the factors affecting parts departments has been the glut of low-mileage used trucks on the market. Gosnell believes that ultimately this will be good news for those who sell truck parts.

“We have begun to see the used truck surplus reducing,” he said. “Trade cycles will continue to extend to about five to seven years, and the overall fleet population will expand.”

Gosnell is not alone in his view that conditions are improving. Mustafa Mohatarem, chief economist for General Motors, said at last month's NTEA Economic Outlook Conference (see coverage, Page 50) he remains optimistic about the overall U S economy. Other speakers shared his view, including Eli Lustgarten (who also described his outlook as “cautiously optimistic”), as did the corporate economist from Caterpillar, the American Trucking Associations' chief economist, and NTEA's director of market data and research.

It's a lot clearer view now that the dotcom bubble is gone. Many of those who hyperhyped technology have gone elsewhere, leaving us with some useful tools that can help us overcome the obstacles in our way.

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