Number of service bays not keeping pace with vehicles on the road The number of dealership service bays in the United States has declined over the past decade, despite dramatic increases over that same period in the number of vehicles on the road, according to a study.

About 65,000 light vehicle service bays - including about 26,000 dealership service bays - have been eliminated in the last 10 years, according to research by Lang Marketing Resources Inc., a New Jersey-based vehicle aftermarket research firm. The total number of bays at service outlets repairing cars and light trucks in the U.S. is about 1.2 million.

"Some types of service facilities, such as tire stores and outlets focusing on a limited array of vehicle maintenance, have increased their number of bays since 1990," says Jim Lang, president of Lang Marketing. "But dealerships, and most especially service stations and garages, suffered the greatest declines."

The decline comes during a period in which the number of light vehicles in the country steadily increased, climbing from 170 million cars and light trucks in 1989 to more than 201 million vehicles in operation during 1999.

"The net result is that there are 163 cars and light trucks on the road for every service bay, compared to 131 vehicles for every service bay 10 years ago," Mr. Lang says. "And we expect this trend to continue. By 2003, we predict there will be more than 174 cars and light trucks for each service bay in the U.S. So as a result of that, the bays have to become more productive."

Mr. Lang cites consolidation as a primary cause of the drop in dealership service bays.

"There's been a great reduction in the number of vehicle dealers over the past decade, with the consolidations into megadealers carrying two or three different nameplates under the same operation," he says.

Fred Masheimer, service manager at Bert Weinman Ford in Chicago says he's surprised by the drop in dealership service bays - his shop's size hasn't changed in the past decade - although he is aware of some dealers in his area that have closed for various reasons. He wasn't, however, surprised to learn there are more vehicles on the road per service stall.

"That I would have to believe," he says. "We are doing much more work than we did previously."

Mr. Masheimer says one way his department has made bays more productive is by extending service hours, adding more evening and weekend hours.

He also agreed with one of the conclusions of the Lang study: that computerization and e-commerce will help boost the productivity of remaining service bays to accommodate the growing number of vehicles. He says Ford's on-line "Oasis" system, for example, helps provide technicians with the most current diagnosis information and technical bulletins.

"It's a great system and it's accessible 24 hours a day," Mr. Masheimer says. "That's helped us immensely."

Similarly, Dave Redman, who has managed the service department at Dick Witham Ford-Volkswagen-Kia in Waterloo, IA, for about three years, says his shop is servicing more vehicles without adding bays.

"It's a matter of working smarter," Mr. Redman says. "It's training your technicians to use the tools - like Oasis - that they have at their disposal."

"We've added techs, for another thing," Mr. Redman says. "It used to be that every tech had two bays. Now we have two techs for every three bays."

Other dealers have moved to a team approach to boost production-per-stall in their service departments; two apprentices may be teamed with an experienced technician, for example, with two or all three of them working on a car at the same time. This approach also helps address what both Mr. Redman and Mr. Masheimer say is the real problem: not a shortage of service bays, but a shortage of qualified technicians to man them.

Don Rasmussen Co., in Portland, OR, one of the nation's first Mercedes-Benz dealerships, is among those bucking the trend found in the Lang study. The company this past year doubled the size of its service department with the opening of a second location with two dozen service bays in a suburb 15 miles south of the city.

Mike Noble, the service manager at Mr. Rasmussen's new Mercedes-Benz of Wilsonville store, says he sees little sign of a drop in service bays in his area or in the dealer's others stores.

"Right now, I see the exact opposite," Mr. Noble says. "Our BMW location has just expanded. Our Land Rover location would love to expand if we could find a place for them. Our downtown location would expand if we had more room. Just a miles from us we have a brand new Chevy dealer, a brand new Dodge dealer, and there's plans for a brand new Acura dealer. I see in this area the number of service bays just growing dramatically."

If there are more vehicles per service stall, it's in part because of improvements made by the automakers, Mr. Noble contends.

"Newer vehicles just aren't getting serviced nearly as much as the older vehicles were," he says. "Mercedes, for example, just eliminated the 7,500-mile oil changes; the first scheduled oil change is at 12,000 miles. What we're seeing are more vehicles being sold, but the amount of service that each vehicle requires seems to be less."

Mr. Noble says he hasn't seen computer technology and e-commerce have a dramatic effect on the industry's productivity, but he thinks that will change.

"All of our technicians have a computer terminal at their workstations so they can go in to get service bulletins, electrical wiring diagrams, or whatever they need from there," he says. "They're all computer literate. And all of our dispatching and repair orders are done electronically, no more paper. It will all be more efficient."

Mr. Lang agrees that technology and e-commerce will play a major role in boosting service bay productivity.

"A variety of business to consumer e-commerce programs will make it easier for consumers to schedule and keep track of service, while a multitude of B2B (business to business) offerings will significantly increase shop productivity," he says. "B2B e-commerce will make parts ordering faster and more accurate, improve parts inventory efficiency in the distribution channels, make better technical information more available to mechanics, and provide enhanced shop management systems. E-commerce will act as a `repair capacity multiplier' for service bays in the near future."