SLEEPER SALES STIR DISTRIBUTION DOUBTS

SLEEPER SALES STIR DISTRIBUTION DOUBTS

If you're looking for a place to sleep in a new International 8300, you'll have to stand in line.

There are so many truckers trying to buy one of the new aerodynamic tractors with a sleeper box on the back, the company that builds the sleepers for Navistar International Transportation Corp. is building a new factory.More than that, the surprise rush for long-haul versions of the new truck has been a rude awakening for marketers whose dreams of new regional distribution patterns and shorter hauls were largely responsible for the new model in the first place.

The reception for the new shape with a nose like an electric shaver is heartening for Chicago-based Navistar. But it also demonstrates how a company can be right for the wrong reasons.

Navistar officials concede that since its debut last August, demand for

sleeper and non-sleeper versions of the truck has been exactly backwards from the company's pre-release marketing forecasts.

The forecast said about 75 percent of the 8300s would be sold without a

sleeper. But now, about 75 percent are being sold with a sleeper, and it's enough to keep the sleeper-makers awake nights.

It's a real exciting mistake, said Richard Bentz, vice president of Bentz Metal Products Co. in Fort Wayne, Ind., which makes the sleeper boxes.

Mr. Bentz said Navistar officials first told the company they might need only about 50 sleepers a year for the new model, at most 200 a year. Now, Mr. Bentz predicts his company may build 3,000 in a calendar year. His plant has added an extra shift, 40 new workers and is now building a whole new plant in Springfield, Ohio.

This is one time they missed the boat, and it's just a wonderful thing, Mr. Bentz said. They've got a real winner here.

Navistar laid the groundwork for introduction of the 8300 over a year ago in publicity that made a strong argument for the regional haul vehicle.

A host of modern trends, such as hub-and-spoke distribution, just-in-time production, the emerging service economy, and long-haul intermodal competition, were ganging up to promote smaller shipments and shorter hauls. It was the same argument used to promote the Baby 8 or small Class 8 tractor by other manufacturers.

But Navistar officials insisted that their new model was a full Class 8, not a baby. What they had defined, they said, was a market for a shorter duty- cycle truck, one that would serve regional hauls, occasional longer hauls if needed, but specifically without a sleeper for overnight over-the-road use.

Truckers bought the truck but not the concept. A Navistar official made the case that truckers are making the small additional investment in sleepers to keep the capability of going long haul.

It's a great explanation, but it doesn't make much sense in light of the economic pressures of deregulation. There are very few truckers left who dream of buying anything they don't absolutely need, especially if it's an option as expensive as a sleeper box.

Mr. Bentz said that the demand for the new truck as a long-hauler quickly became apparent. As soon as it hit the market, the company started getting calls for 60-inch sleepers and 60-inch walk-in versions, which Navistar couldn't accommodate because the truck's wheelbase wasn't long enough.

I could just sell those things like hotcakes, Mr. Bentz said. Now there are rumors Navistar will bring out a long-wheelbase version 8300 to expand beyond the current 42-inch sleeper.

A Navistar official would not concede that the shorter-haul concepts might have been overblown, but he indicated that the trend might be a little further in the future than the company anticipated. In other words, it's a

sleeper.