Ford now wants as much as a quarter of its U.S. sales to come from orders.
"Historically it was much lower than that," Lawler said.
Persuading customers to order rather than buy off the dealer lot gives automakers a clearer idea of what they need to build, helping streamline manufacturing and reduce complexity with model variants.
"It's been a blessing in disguise for us from an operations standpoint," Lisa Drake, Ford's North America chief operating officer, said on the Barclays call. "It will help us drive serious cost reductions in the business."
Cutting model variants has become a concern with automakers even before COVID-19 struck as it looked to bolster margins and drive up pricing.
Unglamorous but effective
Focusing on high margin models during the chip crisis has brought that into sharper focus.
"It's not sexy work," Renault Group CEO Luca de Meo told analysts on the automaker's first half earnings call. "We have cleaned up versions that were not working, we have discontinued engines or products in markets where they were not working."
For example, about 85 percent of sales of the new-to-Europe Renault Arkana compact crossover have been in the two highest trim levels, boosting prices by 3,000 to 5,000 euros from the base 29,700 euro model.
Automakers should learn from Tesla, however, when they build up inventories again following the easing of the chip crisis, analyst Houchois said in the Jefferies report.
Jefferies notes that Tesla offers 60 combinations of the Model 3 including different powertrain, paint and option packages, a relatively small number.
VW has worked to reduce variants with the new ID3 electric compact hatchback but still offers 1,120 combinations.
Some of the most complex are combustion-engine vehicles offered by premium automakers. Jefferies gives the example of the BMW 3 Series, which offers 5,760 combinations of the gasoline model and 9,600 for the diesel.
"Now is the time for automakers to cut underperforming trim levels and reduce complexity, something they have pledged to do," Houchois said. "All automakers have committed to not rebuild inventories to historic levels and most dealers we spoke to and surveyed agree that inventory rebuild will be more disciplined."
The first half's mixture of fewer sales at higher margins has also given a push to the idea of dealer reform.
The direct sales model, where the automaker sells the car and dealer becomes their agent, favors pricing discipline and quality of sales, in contrast to the wholesale model that incentivizes the dealer to push metal out of the showrooms at a discount.
Stellantis, for example, liked the faster turnaround time at dealers and reduced distribution costs seen in the first half of the year.
"It's showing us a way of managing the business that is maybe indicative of how we would like to go forward," CFO Palmer said, adding that the company is looking at more direct sales and build-to-order. "All those are on the table to improve our cash conversion," he added.