Arnold Clark Automobiles
, Europe's largest independent car dealer, operates 145 dealerships throughout the United Kingdom. The company, based in Glasgow, Scotland, represents 21 new car franchises, and promotes used car sales at large "car supermarket" sites that are branded as Arnold Clark Motorstores.
These sites, which house more than 500 vehicles, are generally custom-built. But plans for the company's flagship store in Stafford, England—a 12-acre site with a 74,000-square-foot showroom and more than 1,000 vehicles—were more challenging. The firm needed to address the customer service issues associated with operating such a vast site, says Conal Furie, Arnold Clark's group IT manager. "If you line up all the cars in the site, they stretch over four miles, and you cannot have customers or staff manually searching for cars," Furie says. "It would take all day."
The Arnold Clark Motorstore in Stafford, England
Arnold Clark wanted to ensure that its sales process was as seamless as possible. Market research conducted by the company, Furie says, showed that when a customer is left waiting for more than 10 minutes while salespeople locate a car, he or she is more likely to move on to another dealership.
Another key challenge for the company was stock control. "On such a large site, we need to keep an eye on stock levels and stock turnover," Furie explains. "To ensure that our stock is turning over efficiently and effectively, developing a new system for this was essential."
In addition, vehicles would constantly move around the site, particularly while advancing through the purchase cycle. "We knew that building such a massive site catering to such a huge quantity and range of vehicles could potentially bring logistical problems," Furie says. "At full operating capacity, the site is capable of holding 1,500 vehicles."
Furie says he had known about RFID's potential for vehicle location management for some time. "We realized we had to implement a system that would not only tell us where any vehicle was at any given time to minimize time wastage generally, but also to give us key performance indicators, to monitor and identify any bottlenecks in the vehicle life-cycle procedure," he states. "We also understood that vehicle stock control would always be a time-consuming exercise at such a huge site, so RFID would be a good tool to assist us."
As Arnold Clark planned the new site's construction, it worked with its long-standing technology partner, Boston Networks
, a U.K. provider of turnkey network infrastructure solutions and services, to identify the technology that would meet the auto dealer's requirements. Boston Networks ultimately recommended Wi-Fi RFID tracking technology from AeroScout
and networking equipment from Cisco Systems
Arnold Clark wanted to ensure that its sales process was as seamless as possible at its new site, so it implemented an RFID vehicle-management system.
"Both technologies offered us a number of flexible options where we could integrate the positioning data into our internal software systems," Furie says. What's more, Arnold Clark was familiar with Cisco technology and found its products to be reliable and easy to work with. "Although there is a lot of good RFID technology available today," he adds, "we believed that Cisco and AeroScout were very much at the forefront of RFID development."
It took approximately six months to implement the entire RFID system—from planning to design, installation and testing. "Once Boston Networks had come up with a solution that they reckoned would meet our needs," Furie states, "we all sat down and started the design and integration of the technology in terms of the physical site and our internal software systems. Boston Networks worked with us right through the project development, from inception to our go-live." The planning and design took most of the time, he says. The RFID system had to be integrated with Arnold Clark's internally developed vehicle point-of-sale system.
Arnold Clark and Boston Networks performed a test to ensure that the base technology would provide the company with the data it wanted. All networking and Wi-Fi systems were installed during the store's construction. Final testing was completed in October 2008, just prior to the Motorstore's November opening. "Boston Networks did a superb job of delivering a very large project on time, and to our requirements," Furie says. "This was doubly impressive considering this was their first RFID project."
How It Works
Boston Networks installed a Cisco indoor and outdoor wireless network at the site, which supports AeroScout's Wi-Fi RFID vehicle-tracking system. "We had to ensure we had equal coverage throughout the whole site, which is slightly irregular in shape, in terms of its boundaries," Furie says. "In addition to this, we had multiple vehicle entry/exit points to consider."
When a vehicle first arrives at the Motorstore, a worker applies an AeroScout Wi-Fi tag, enters the vehicle details into an inventory-management system and scans the tag's bar code using a Wi-Fi-enabled handheld computer. The moment the vehicle record is completed and saved, that car is considered "live" and known to all Arnold Clark's other internal systems, including its stock databases and Web site.
AeroScout Exciters, which trigger tags to send a message, and Location Receivers, which receive the messages, are installed at various points around the facility.
The vehicle then begins its journey through the workshop, stopping at various stations for servicing. The last station is the valet bay, where the car is cleaned and prepared. AeroScout Exciters, which trigger the tags to send a message, and Location Receivers, which receive the messages, are installed at various points in the building. The information is transmitted to Cisco's Context-Aware software, which determines the car's precise location in real time, and continually updates the company's internal systems. The system also records the time when a vehicle enters and leaves a designated area.
After final preparation in the valet bay, the vehicle is relocated to either the showroom or an outdoor lot. Arnold Clark's salespeople can search for a specific car by entering the key customer requirements into the inventory-management system, which can instantly locate all relevant vehicles on the Motorstore premises. The system also allows the sales team to quickly locate the cars customers have shopped for on the company's Web site.
"Given that a customer may wish to view three or four vehicles that are geographically dispersed on the site, the system will assist the sales team to locate the vehicles extremely quickly," Furie says. "That minimizes customer waiting time [and] maximizes customer satisfaction."
As the vehicle is relocated—for test drives, for example, or for further mechanical or body work—the system records all movement. Once the car is sold, the Context-Aware software calculates the amount of time taken for each step through to the final valet visit, until it reaches the delivery area for the customer to take ownership. At this point, the Wi-Fi tag is removed from the vehicle and returned to an administration area for reuse.
One technical challenge Arnold Clark had to overcome during the implementation was ensuring complete coverage throughout the Motorstore site. "This meant using a combination of external wireless location receivers and internal wireless access points to provide optimal positioning," Furie says. "We also had to include a reasonable number of external Wi-Fi points, as part of the system requires the use of wireless handheld computers."
The exciters, which detect the presence of a moving RFID tag, needed to be individually configured according to the environment in which they operate. "For example, we had to compensate for access ways of varying width and height," Furie says. In addition, he says, the exciters also had to be configured to allow for variances in type and size of vehicle, as well as the corresponding impact on tag signals.
Quickly locating cars that customers might be interested in buying goes well beyond improving customer service. Given that vehicles depreciate in value every day they sit on a lot, being able to move them out quickly has had a huge impact on the business.
"We have recently come through one of the worst periods in the history of the U.K. motor industry, where used car values were almost in free fall at the tail end of 2008," Furie says. "By accurately tracking vehicles through the sales process, we could increase the stock turnaround times, which was vital given the monthly depreciation rate of used cars at that time."
The company used a combination of external wireless location receivers and internal wireless access points to provide optimal positioning, and also included external Wi-Fi points.
One of the system's biggest benefits is that it enables Arnold Clark to determine which vehicles are not moving off the lots. "We realized that this system would allow us to set warnings in our software to notify us of any highly depreciating vehicle that hadn't made it out of the compound," Furie states. "This way, the system would help us to monitor higher-depreciating vehicles through the life-cycle process to minimize 'dead' time."
Another key benefit, Furie says, is increased inter-departmental communication. "For example, valet departments can see where vehicles are in the building, so they know in advance how many vehicles they will be receiving and the vehicles ETA to their area," he explains. "Sales advisors can see where customers' vehicles are in the pre-delivery inspection process, so they don't have to keep phoning through to the workshop to find out."
What's more, Furie adds, "The system will also allow us determine bottlenecks from the vehicle time record. In peak times, we may need to increase staff numbers. We can use the real-time vehicle data for pretty much anything we can think of."
Arnold Clark also uses AeroScout's vehicle-tracking technology to locate customers' cars that are brought into the dealership for maintenance and repair service. The company can track any vehicle throughout the service process, improving staff efficiency and customer satisfaction in its service department. Initial results reported by the firm show that 3 percent more cars are being serviced each week due to the increased efficiency provided by the tracking system.
"It helps to identify potential bottlenecks within the aftersales process, and allows staff and customers to accurately identify where the car is in the servicing process," Furie says. "This, in turn, helps customer satisfaction and our overall aftersale productivity."
The system also helps Arnold Clark prevent inventory shrinkage and theft. It can alert personnel when an unauthorized car leaves the dealership, and notify security if a vehicle is being moved after operating hours.
Arnold Clark declines to disclose the amount it invested in the RFID and networking technology. According to Furie, the company had hoped to see an immediate return on investment, but due to the extreme downturn in the U.K. motor industry, the ROI has been affected.
The company can track any vehicle throughout the service process, improving staff efficiency and customer satisfaction in its service department.
"This system will work best with a high volume of used car stock passing through," Furie says. "The reason for this is that processes within the business can become strained when there are high volumes of vehicles to deal with. Evaluating the real-time data from the system will highlight which inefficiencies are developing and where further process bottlenecks are occurring."
Currently, Furie says, volumes are lower than normal, thereby making measurement of the system difficult. "As the market is becoming more buoyant and stock volumes are improving, we firmly believe that the system will become even more valuable," he says. "The feedback from the dealership is that the system is easy to use, making the sales process more efficient and effective."
Future plans call for using the tracking technology at other company dealerships. "We have a number of high-volume sites that have been earmarked for this technology," Furie states, "and we hope to see the RFID solution introduced to some of these locations in 2010." Ultimately, he notes, Arnold Clark plans to standardize on the technology companywide.
The auto dealer is also exploring new ways to leverage RFID to improve business. "Going forward," Furie says, "we hope to use the technology to allow customers to view the progress of their car during the sales or servicing process from the comfort of their own home, reducing customer waiting times and improving customer communication, efficiency and overall satisfaction."