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The Double Edged Sword
A survey of 250 police departments was conducted during the mid-1980s. It consisted of a single multiple-choice question: What are the reasons for why you select your police cars, from most significant to least significant?
What makes this survey so relevant to 2011 is the variety of police vehicles that were available then. All three automakers were in the police market, all three police sedans were about the same size, all three performed about the same, and all three were priced competitively. The market share was closely split: 45 percent for Dodge, 30 percent for Chevy and 25 percent for Ford.
That is exactly the situation we find ourselves in now, except for the unknown future market share. While the upcoming police vehicles are not as physically identical to one another as those from the mid-1980s, they will be functionally identical. They will have “about” the same passenger and cargo space, “about” the same performance and fuel economy, and they will be priced competitively.
Looking back at the survey, why did fleet managers from the 250 departments across the U.S. select the police cars they did? No surprise that the number one factor was bid price. Law enforcement will not pay extra for what the automakers consider a “premium” vehicle. It doesn’t matter how cool, how technically advanced or how apparently task-perfect the particular police vehicle is.
In the recent past, automakers of police vehicles have tried to price their “premium” vehicles accordingly, only to quickly and quietly lower the price when sales to police departments faltered. Price matters, period.
Given equally competitive pricing, what was the next reason for selecting one car over another? Not performance—all the police sedans in the mid-1980s had the same mediocre acceleration, braking and cornering. Nor was it driver/passenger room—while the Ford and Chevy were bigger than the Dodge, the Dodge outsold the others.
It also wasn’t trunk-cargo volume—just like interior room, the Dodge was smaller than the Ford and Chevy, but that didn’t seem to matter. Nor was it fuel economy, because all three sedans had identical EPA city ratings, and all three sedans were available with smaller, more fuel-efficient engines.
The tie-breaking reason, close behind bid price and far ahead of any other factor, was a strong local dealership. The brutal facts are that while police cars are “sold” nationally, they are “bought” locally. Even with state bids, regional cooperative agreements and piggy-backed contracts, the local dealer still matters. In fact, with almost as much infl uence as bid price, the local dealer carries a great deal of weight.
A great local dealer, one who knows something about fleet pricing and police car maintenance, will be the trump card as long as prices among the makes are close to competitive. A poor local dealer, meaning one who doesn’t know the difference between a retail car and a police car, will be the joker. Almost regardless of state bid price, a poor local dealer will torpedo the purchase decision for that make.
That amount of influence on the local decision-making for future vehicles is a double-edged sword. The V8s and twin-turbos aside, cylinder shut-off s and $4 gas aside, the local dealer (good or bad) will be the primary influence. Research your local dealers, and don’t make assumptions.
Ford has had 80 percent of the market for the past 15 years, and that means you have had the most experience with your local Ford dealer. That is promising for Ford if the experience has been good, and not so much so if it has not. Regardless, as a part of due diligence, look at your local Chevy and Dodge dealers. If you don’t run these makes of police cars, talk to chiefs, sheriffs and fleet managers who do.
Learn from fleet managers of the “field wide open”/“level playing field” era of the 1980s. Each car company makes vehicles that will fill the void left by the Ford CVPI. Each car company has strong and weak local dealers. Find the dealer who knows what a police car is.
Published in Police Fleet Manager, May/Jun 2011
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