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Are Low Bid Parts What You Want?

Written by Dennis Tucker

Whether you are putting out a bid for a police vehicle or brake pads, in the back of your mind, you always wonder if the low bid item is the one you really want. This doesn’t necessarily mean the lower price items are inferior. It doesn’t imply that they won’t work for you. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the low price item. But price shouldn’t always be the deciding factor.

We all live within procurement rules. Most of the time, that means purchasing the lowest priced item. If you are a state agency or a cooperative of cities and you are writing a bid, that also means local agencies may purchase from that same contract via the common practice of “joint purchasing,” or “piggybacking.”

Sometimes, the final pricing may be different for state and local agencies, but the actual bid item is the same. In these instances, it becomes even more important to do your homework since others will depend on your knowledge and specifications.

As you and the procurement staff write your bid specifications, it becomes an even touchier situation because perspective vendors may imply that you favored one manufacturer over another. It becomes a fine line to walk, but if you do your homework and stay true to your specific needs, it goes a long way to eliminate any questions of favoritism.

On the topic of low bid parts, Dan Augstin, the CEM, director of fleet management for Bloomington, IL, said, “I do not typically buy low bid. I buy best bid.” This applies to everything he buys for the city of Bloomington. Officials review pricing, quality, performance and availability. He provides his citizens with products that have “the best quality and reliability at the lowest price.”

Obviously, you may not put the same effort in to researching wiper blades as you do in brake or suspension parts or even lubricants, but you are expected to put in your due diligence to get the best part for a fair price. It is not always about buying the lowest priced item but buying the best product for your agency, for the people who depend on your experience and for the residents of your jurisdiction.

What if another part of your municipal government bids and buys all the car parts, tires, windshields and anything else you may need. Why should it matter to you? Even though I worked for a state police agency, most parts and essential maintenance items were purchased by another state agency for use in their state garages. I had a good rapport with that agency and worked directly with them on items I deemed important to our fleet. That included brake rotors and pads, tires, motor oil, engines and transmissions.

Does that mean that I got involved with buying spark plugs, shocks and wiper blades? No. I trusted that agency to provide parts that met OEM specifications. If, for some reason, those parts failed or didn’t live up to our expectations, the contract was cancelled and we re-bid. Ultimately, the people driving your vehicles rely on you to provide the best parts and to keep them safe. You are the person on the front line, not Joe in the parts room. So how do you use the bid process to your advantage?

No doubt you have parts that you favor. They have worked well for you, are within your budget and available easily and locally. Are all parts the same? Absolutely not! That is why manufacturers patent their products…to keep companies from copying them. Companies think they have a better product and they want to protect their investment in that product.

Bloomington’s Augstin also cites doing research on what he buys and availability as important criteria. Both are very important elements to consider. Do your research through publications, computer searches and contacting current users. Don’t forget to use colleagues across the country as a sounding board for their successes and not-so-successful attempts.

When pulling together specs for an item to bid, first, use your previous experience with specific part. If the part worked, why change? Maybe a reason exists, but it needs to be a valid one. Second, strongly consider what the original equipment manufacturer recommends. This is always a good baseline for safety-critical parts or if dealing with parts you have not used before.

Third, check the availability of items on a daily and emergency basis. Obviously, places close to home may be able to get you a part quicker than a supply facility a 1,000 miles away. Even buying parts from a local auto parts store could save time (which is money) and reduce downtime compared to a place across the city or county.

Fourth, do research. Good findings can justify your need to buy a specific brand / model just like bad findings strengthen your position not to buy those parts. Fifth, consider the return policy for defective parts and even more important, consider the type of warranty that is offered. Even for police or severe duty use, some sort of implied or expressed warranty exists.

Frankly, not all parts should be evaluated on the basis of testing. Talk to your officers, service technicians and parts staff. Get their input. Maybe your officers don’t like a certain make or model of brake pad, either because it doesn’t perform well or it makes excruciating sounds. Maybe a tech says the part is difficult to install or it is lacking pieces when taken out of the box. Your parts person can tell you if delivery is prompt and how receptive the supplier is for returned items.

This is just a start on strategy you can use to eliminate sub-par parts or services for your fleet. “You get what you pay for” is an old cliché that you may get tired of hearing, but almost all fleet professionals will agree that this adage is right on. Suppliers will come out of the woodwork telling you their products are the best and the cheapest. However, that doesn’t mean they are right for your fleet. Stand your ground, and fight for the parts you want. Nobody knows your fleet better than you do.

Develop a good rapport with the procurement staff. The procurement staff members know the guidelines, but they don’t have the day-to-day contact you have with your fleet and the technicians who repair your fleet. Invite these buyers to product demonstrations. The next time you bid emergency lights or something, they will know the difference between manufacturers and models. It will be much easier to work with them after being educated, and they will feel like part of the team. They become allies instead of adversaries.

The above approach can also work if you are seeking to bid a contract with a national or regional parts supplier, as well. Include specific requirements on quality of parts and performance standards. If they can’t meet them on certain items, then exclude those from the contract and find another supplier that will. Sure, one-stop shopping may save you time and money, but if the parts don’t live up to your expectations, then what have you accomplished?

Use all your available resources to get the products you want for the best price. In some cases, this means writing the specification so similar products may be eliminated from the bid process. Is this fair? Yes. There is no one product that fits everyone’s need, and you should have the flexibility to choose the product that meets your criteria because you know what works best for your agency. Just like all police departments can’t be grouped together as being similar and having the same needs, neither can parts and products.

So search for that right fit, and if you can get it at the lowest price, that is great. But if not, don’t feel guilty spending a little more. In the end, you have to answer to your command. As long as you can back up your actions, you don’t have a thing to worry about. After all, your loyalty is to your agency and to the officers who trust you every time they get into their vehicle. It is easier to answer to some procurement staffer if you do something questionable than to someone who puts his life in your hands every day.

Dennis Tucker recently retired as police fleet manager for the Illinois State Police with 29 years of public service experience. He is chairman of the Police Fleet Expo hosted by the Hendon Expo Group. He can be reached at dtucker@hendonpub.com.

Published in Police Fleet Manager, Nov/Dec 2008

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