Join Date: May 2005
Location: Cincinnati, OH
2002 WRX + NSX
Silver + Green
^ That is almost useless, lol.
To break into the commercial van business in the United States, Nissan North America Inc. plans to do something it rarely does: attack Detroit head-on.
That is because there is no way around it.
When it comes to workhorse vans -- those large, boxy cargo vehicles favored by house painters, electricians and florists -- there are really only two players: Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co.
Ford and GM together controlled 96 percent of the U.S. full-sized commercial van segment in 2010 with the Ford E series and the GMC Savana and Chevrolet Express. Daimler AG holds the remaining fragment with the Sprinter van, which has variously shown up as a Dodge, a Freightliner and now a Mercedes product.
That bothers Nissan Motor Co. CEO Carlos Ghosn. Nissan's commercial vehicle business delivers 20 percent of its global volume, and Ghosn wants a comparable contribution from Nissan's North American commercial vehicle sales.
But in North America, half a century after Nissan arrived, its commercial vehicle share is zero. And to get in the game, Nissan's new full-sized NV van must pull market share from North America's biggest and most entrenched players.
As it launches the NV this month at about one-fourth of its 1,100 U.S. retailers, Nissan says it is up for the challenge. The source of its confidence? Nissan's van is a new design, while Ford's and GM's vehicles are using older van platforms.
"I will admit that I was skeptical when I heard Nissan was getting into the segment," says Harry Criswell, a third-generation Chevrolet dealer from Gaithersburg, Md., and a Nissan dealer for the past three years. "But they've done this right. They went out and heard every complaint the owners of vans had, and then they fixed them all."
Criswell, whose multifranchise Criswell Automotive sells about 470 Chevrolet Express vans a year, says he believes the NV will take away a little of that business -- "But more than likely, it will take business away from the Sprinter," he speculates. "They're both tall vans.
"The Express is a good van, and people like it," Criswell adds. "But they haven't done all the creature-comfort things that Nissan has done. They just haven't faced the competition."
Nissan planners scrutinized the segment to learn what their Detroit competitors are doing right and wrong. Now the Japanese automaker plans to market the van as a comfortable alternative for drivers and small-business operators with design elements such as adjustable seats that make spending hours in a truck more bearable.
"There is no more dissatisfied customer than the people who drive this segment," says Larry Dominique, Nissan North America's vice president of product planning. "Our research shows us that they absolutely hate their vans. They hate them. So we believe there's an obvious opportunity for a new van."
Damoni Hurt takes exception to that idea.
"We've been in this segment for 50 years," says Hurt, Ford's marketing manager for the E series and the smaller Transit Connect van. "We've sold more than 8 million vans over the years. And we're confident of our market position. There is a lot of brand loyalty in this business."
He acknowledges that "although the bones of our van haven't changed much over the years, we do continue to update the product." The Ford van received a new front grille in 2008 and interior changes in 2009.
Nissan faces another obstacle. Work-van buyers tend to be price sensitive -- especially large fleet buyers, where Nissan hopes to get 40 percent of its volume. And skimping on comfort features can save money.
One automaker source who asked not to be named said he had been negotiating recently with a large parcel delivery company to buy a fleet of new commercial vans. The fleet operator allowed its drivers to choose between two feature options: automatic window controls or air conditioning.
The NV will start at $25,570. Chevrolet's base-model Express starts at $25,840, the GMC Savana at $25,635, and the Ford E series at $27,035. The least expensive Sprinter sports a $36,990 sticker price. All prices include shipping.
But Nissan also knows it must market the NV differently from other vehicles to gain a toehold.
Nissan marketing managers have been touring the country to call on potential buyers. In February, the tour showed up in company parking lots in warm-weather cities such as Los Angeles and Phoenix. In May, the tour will go to potential customers' office buildings and warehouses in New York, Chicago, Boston and other markets.
Cristi Brown, Nissan North America's senior manager for fleet and commercial vehicle marketing, says she and her staff are calling on small businesses and large fleet owners. Potential buyers are allowed to climb through the van and sit in its seats.
Nissan is touting these features:
-- A tall-roofed version of the NV allows someone well over 6 feet tall to walk around upright in the back of the van.
-- The NV's cargo doors easily swing open around to the sides of the van.
-- A convenient step-up enables a driver to walk up easily into the cargo area.
-- The body comes with pre-drilled holes so that customizers can more easily install racks and shelving. Because no holes will be drilled into the van's body, there is less chance for rust on the exterior, says Mike Hobson, Nissan's director of light commercial and fleet vehicles.
Nissan plans to break with traditional auto-marketing practices to focus the van's advertising most heavily on radio spots. Hobson says that is where commercial van owners are reachable: "sitting in their current vans with the radio on."
New sales strategy
Nissan is challenging three heavy hitters that control almost all of the U.S. market for full-sized vans. From left: The Ford E series, Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana.
Nissan also is asking its dealers to sell the NV differently. To reach commercial van buyers, retailers will have to cold-call potential customers and not wait until they walk into the showroom, Hobson says.
Most dealers who agreed to sell the vans have spent money on their service shops, adding heavy-duty lifts and dedicating service bays to commercial owners needing quick repairs.
As NVs reach dealer showrooms this month, Nissan will be taking on not just Detroit, but the U.S. economy -- amid evidence of a market shift away from large vans in general.
In 2007, U.S. commercial van sales totaled 325,744 units. In 2009, the total was just 168,189. Last year, it rose to 218,170 -- still far below the 2007 level.
Steve Latin-Kasper, director of market data and research for the National Truck Equipment Association, says the van segment's first challenge is rising fuel prices.
"That segment began to shrink back when gas first moved toward $4 a gallon," Latin-Kasper says. "The customer base for vans is a lot of people who are working out of their garage or their basement.
"They are very cost-sensitive. And for some of them, a van as such is really optional. Faced with higher fuel prices, they might very well opt for a smaller vehicle."
Hobson says Nissan is aware of the lower sales but believes that many traditional van buyers have temporarily moved to other vehicles.
"We believe a lot of customers in this segment have migrated out of vans and are now driving pickups," he says. "But we think they should come back. And they will come back if offered something new and fresh."
Latin-Kasper believes that the rise of alternative vehicles is itself a challenge for a newcomer such as Nissan, giving commercial drivers smaller, more fuel-efficient choices. The Mercedes Sprinter comes with a four-cylinder engine option in Europe and South America and has a 3.0-liter diesel option in the United States. Ford is turning heads with its imported compact, front-wheel-drive Transit Connect van.
Maybe a compact van
Nissanís NV van comes in a tall-roofed version that will compete with Daimlerís Sprinter.
Nissan also is contemplating a compact van to sell next to the NV. It sells such a model, the NV200, in Europe, and Dominique says Nissan could introduce the smaller van in the United States, redesigned for U.S. commercial customers. It is planning a second compact commercial van, an electric vehicle based on its new Leaf electric sedan.
Meanwhile, Nissan forecasts a rise in U.S. commercial van sales to 285,000 units in 2013, an increase of almost 67,000 sales from 2010.
"There are a lot more commercial customers out there who want vans," Hobson says. "They want that enclosed space to store their tools or their products. They can't get that from a pickup. So we think they will come back -- as soon as someone gives them a good reason."
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at [email protected]