DETROIT - It is a familiar story. General Motors dealers can't get hot product.
Ask them why, and most have a one-word answer: VOMS.
But GM hopes the repairs it makes next week to its Vehicle Order Management System, or VOMS, will make it easier for dealers to order fresh inventory.
The changes, in theory, will get vehicles to dealers faster, including hot vehicles such as the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, and eliminate the hours dealers waste in front of computer screens.
Dealers use the VOMS computers for three main functions: They order vehicles; they change equipment for those vehicles and they trade vehicles with other dealers on the system's online bulletin board.
Beginning Aug. 5, GM will quadruple the number of vehicles on the bulletin board by making about 5 percent of its weekly production available, including big-selling trucks and sport-utilities.
GM also will end the mad dash to the bulletin board at noon every Wednesday by eliminating its first-come, first-served nature.
However, the expansion of the bulletin board, which GM is renaming 'Pattern for Trade,' draws attention to a bigger problem with the ordering system. Dealers are using the bulletin board because in many cases the system fails to give them the vehicles they want the first time around.
Part of the problem, at least with fast-selling trucks, is GM's supply cannot meet demand. However, many dealers aren't even satisfied with how the ordering system allocates the less popular vehicles.
Todd Strange, owner of Cobb Pontiac-Cadillac in Montgomery, Ala., knows that no distribution system can give a dealer everything he needs exactly when he needs it.
'But you need a higher number of matches than you've had (with VOMS),' said Strange, who sits on a dealer task force for the ordering system.
NOON RUSH HOUR
GM switched to VOMS last year for dealers with Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, GMC and Oldsmobile franchises. Cadillac and Saturn dealers still use their existing distribution systems and are not expected to switch to VOMS.
Through the ordering system, GM wanted to speed delivery times and better match production to customer demand. It also wanted a single system, instead of different ordering systems for each division, as it had in the past.
But the system quickly frustrated dealers. Every Tuesday morning, GM dealers check the allocation list VOMS sends them. Then at noon, they try to change those orders as fast as they can.
'We change every order,' said Sammy Reagan of Reagan Oldsmobile in Omaha, Neb., echoing a chief complaint at other dealerships.
But dealers have to be quick, since hundreds of them could be fighting for the same vehicle. And if they can't change their orders, they turn to the bulletin board on Wednesday to see what other dealers are willing to give up.
Bob Muiter, GM's director of distribution who oversees VOMS, says the problem stems from the use of pattern orders by the system. The system equips vehicles according to national trends and not regional demand. The result: The system comes up with vehicle packages that may work for a Dallas dealer but not for one in Chicago.
Muiter said GM is trying to work with dealers to create market-based patterns. He suggested GM could make it easier on dealers by continuing to reduce the number of vehicle combinations it builds.
Until pattern orders are improved, GM will put more vehicles on the system's bulletin board. Eventually, GM could make as much as 30 percent of weekly production for some brands available on the bulletin board, Muiter said. He did not say when this might happen.
GM also will make it easier to order a vehicle from the bulletin board. Currently, vehicles typically go to the quickest typist. Spend too much time inputting your order, and you could miss out on that GMC Denali.
Beginning Aug. 5, dealers will be able to submit their orders all day on Thursday and rank each according to priority. That night, VOMS will look at each order and allocate the vehicles based on dealer need (day's supply) and performance (turn rate).
Muiter said dealers will get the bulletin board vehicles in 42 days on average. This compares to the 60 days it takes to get the vehicles from the system's Tuesday allocation list.
'It's going to be more fair and more equitable,' Muiter said. 'More importantly from our standpoint, it's going to be performance driven. We're interested in replenishing product in those markets and at those dealerships that are selling product quickly.'
Even the dealers who have been hurt by the new system acknowledge its potential to even the playing field between large and small dealers and to take the subjectivity out of distribution. Computers, unlike past zone managers, do not play favorites.
But at the same time, a wide communications gap exists among Muiter's office, the recently reorganized field staff and dealers.
For example, VOMS has always had a function that prioritizes sold orders - when a customer puts money down on a vehicle not in dealer stock - for 90 percent of GM vehicles, although not the hot vehicles. But several dealers contacted for this report did not know the sold-order function exists.
Muiter is trying to overcome that problem this week by sending out pamphlets and videotapes to all dealers. GM also will intensify training on the ordering system for its dealers and market area managers in August.
Dealers welcome the additional information.
Said Strange, the Alabama dealer: 'VOMS is a very, very complex situation. And I'm not sure any of the manufacturers have the right ingredients in their distribution systems.'