Having long lines of customers waiting for your new products is not always a desirable position for a carmaker to be in, says Jurgen Hubbert, DaimlerChrysler board member responsible for Mercedes-Benz passenger cars and Smart. In fact, he says, delays cost sales. 'This is where customer demand has really changed,' he said. 'Today, everybody wants to have it now.'
Mercedes recently invested about A1.3 billion in an all-new C-class, which is going on sale in Europe now and debuts in the USA in September. Much of that investment was aimed at reaching peak production - an annual rate of about 250,000 sedans per year - in six months, instead of the normal 12 months. Said Hubbert: 'What (sales) you don't get at the beginning, you never get.'
Hubbert spoke to Automotive News Europe's Jim Henry at the C-class introduction in Frankfurt.
Are you doing anything to reduce the time it takes for a customer in North America to custom order a car? It seems as if you want to be able to offer customization, but it is not something you are encouraging in a big way.
I have to ask, is this really a problem? In the USA, a customer wants to come into a showroom, see a car, and say, 'I want this one.' I get a feeling we can do a lot by ordering the right cars at the factory (ourselves).
People custom order their cars in Europe, right?
In Germany, we still build cars based on customer orders. It is much more important (for European customers) to choose the colors, the materials. There is absolute acceptance that it takes some time. It is not a question of whether it takes three, or five or 10 days, or three weeks, or four weeks, to deliver. In North America, it takes longer because the pipeline is long. But if the American customer wants, they can custom order, sure. Last year, we also made available all the options that we have in Europe.
But Mercedes-Benz USA charges extra for custom ordering, right?
Yes. But we have totally different problems to solve. What customers want, and what we have the flexibility to do, is to do everything to reduce lead times (between introducing a car and when it becomes widely available). In Germany, some dealers already have to tell customers that if you want a C-class, you will have to wait until the end of the year, or early next year, and we have to do something about this.
What about the Maybach (Mercedes' Rolls-Royce fighter, due in 2003)?
Every car will be built to customer order and only to customer order. It will be like buying a big boat. The designer will meet with individual customers, and the customer will be able to pick virtually the entire interior trim - not the basic shape and size of the vehicle but virtually everything else.
Will it have translucent body panels, where you can change the color, like the concept car (shown in Tokyo in 1997)?
How do you add capacity without adding factories? Add shifts?
In the past, we tried to maintain a steady, even production flow in the factories as long as possible. But today, everybody wants to have it now. My problem is to fill this gap (where the sharp peak is higher than the traditional curve), maybe by adding some additional capacity at certain times. Then, later in the product life cycle, to add colors, features, significant changes, to try to fill up this gap, where the sharp peak declines sooner.
Is this a permanent change?
This is where customer demand has really changed. We saw it with S-class; we saw it with the CLK and the CL; and now we see it with the C-class. We don't want to go back to the 'good old days,' where you had to wait one year, two years. What you don't get at the beginning, you never get.