For many Chevrolet dealers, ordering vehicles from General Motors has taken on the manic qualities of a futures trading pit.
Every Tuesday at noon, dealers may log on to GM's computer system to request options and trim for vehicles previously ordered from the factory.
But any dealer who waits too long may not get the hot colors, chrome wheels or sunroofs customers demand.
Welcome to the brave new world of VOMS. That is GM lingo for Vehicle Order Management System, a program designed to help GM factories build the vehicles dealers want.
At least, that is the theory. In practice, many dealers, struggling to get vehicles equipped to suit customer preferences, are frustrated and angry. They have been forced to order vehicles up to 90 days in advance, an exercise that requires a crystal ball for forecasting.
'There have been some glitches in the program,' said Roy Roberts, GM's vice president of vehicle sales, service and marketing. 'But we're fixing those glitches, and we're convinced that we're going to stay with it.'
The GM dealers expressed their complaints in telephone interviews, at an Automotive News dealer roundtable in Toledo, Ohio, and in a letter to the editor of Automotive News.
GM is tinkering with the system to make it more user-friendly. Starting in January, for example, GM will shorten the order time from 90 days to 60 days.
Except for Saturn Corp., all GM divisions were phased in over the past year. The headaches may be most acute now for Chevrolet dealers, who switched to the new system last month. Chevrolet dealer John Wolf says the glitches are driving him crazy.
'Unless you are on the computer at 11 o'clock a.m. (Central time), the odds of changing my order for a half-ton pickup to a three-quarter ton pickup is nil,' said Wolf, vice president of Wolf Chevrolet in Belvidere, Ill.
'You end up checking the computer every 15 minutes. You don't want to be interrupted. I'm trying to teach the troops that for a couple of hours on Tuesday I need to be left alone.'
Despite the headaches, GM had good reason to consider a new approach to dealer orders.
Under the old system, dealers did not have to wait so long for deliveries. But GM often produced vehicles that dealers did not want, and those vehicles remained unsold until GM ladled out the rebates. With the new system, GM is trying to balance supply and demand.
However, 60 days still is a long time for GM dealers, who must estimate likely demand for new vehicles before they know what incentives will be available.'My field rep told me I wasn't ordering many cars, that I was too thin,' said Bob Goodman, owner of an Oldsmobile dealership in Ann Arbor, Mich. 'I told him I make money when I'm thin.'
GM is trying to give dealers advance notice of planned rebates. But there are limits to GM's ability to do so. If a rival automaker suddenly cuts prices, GM must respond quickly.
GM also is trying to resolve complaints about its system for ordering optional equipment.
After dealers order their vehicles, GM sets equipment levels for those vehicles. Dealers can accept GM's mix of options, or they can order their own options via computer.
As GM gains experience, it expects dealers' change orders will decline. Until then, however, dealers such as Wolf will have to participate in GM's weekly online mosh pit.
Yet another complaint involves GM's handling of 'sold' vehicle orders. Dealers say GM has trouble delivering cars and trucks customers already have ordered.
In Belvidere, one of Wolf Chevrolet's customers ordered a one-ton chassis cab, but GM refused the order because it can't meet production demand. Wolf spent nearly a month resubmitting the order before it finally was accepted.
GM has no easy solution for this problem. Under the 'turn-and-earn' system, dealers who sell high volumes of cars and trucks - including less popular vehicles as well as hot products - are first in line for popular models. That's not going to change, said Bob Muiter, director of distribution for vehicle sales, service and maintenance.
'We are moving very fast, very quickly,' Muiter said. 'That is driving a little instability into the system. That will settle itself over time. The biggest crunch time is right now.'
Staff Reporter Harry Stoffer contributed to this report.