Software and stealth: how carmakers hike spare parts prices

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LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) – Carmakers including Renault, Jaguar Land Rover and Peugeot have boosted revenues by over $1 billion in the past decade by using sophisticated pricing software, according to sales presentations prepared by the software vendor, Accenture, and other documents filed in a court case.

The software works, Accenture told prospective clients, by identifying which spare parts in a manufacturer’s range customers would be content to pay more for, how much to raise prices by and which prices should not be hiked.

The latter would include, for example, radiators and body parts that may feature in French automotive insurer group SRA’s basket of parts that measures them for inflation, according to a court filing by the software creator, Laurent Boutboul.

Documents relating to the case were obtained by French news site Mediapart and shared with Reuters and EIC, a network of European investigative news outlets.

The client presentations and court complaints seen by Reuters cover the period 2009 to 2015.

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) acknowledged still using the Partneo software but Reuters was unable to determine which other car makers, if any, currently use it.

Accenture denied its software was unfair to motorists and said its focus was on increasing clients’ efficiency.

“Solutions of this type, which enable companies to assess and manage their products, are commonplace across industries. They help companies analyze spare part visibility and availability,” it said in a statement.

Boutboul is claiming 33 million euros from Accenture over what he says is damage to his reputation because Accenture broke European competition rules.

He says it did this by using non-public information taken from Renault to help configure the pricing systems it set up for PSA and potentially other manufacturers. His lawsuit did not specify the exact information.

Boutboul’s lawyer said Boutboul could not comment on the details of an ongoing legal action. Accenture said it rejected his claims.

Renault, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) and Peugeot said their pricing strategies for spare parts were legal, did not take advantage of car owners and were focused on efficiency and ensuring availability for motorists.

Peugeot said in a statement its replacement parts strategy “consists in offering ranges of spare parts that meet the needs of all customers, regardless of their budget, at the highest level of reliability and safety.”

Renault said it “strives to provide its customers with a wide variety of quality spare parts, the price of which is calculated based on parameters that Renault considers fair and equitable”.

JLR said it used Partneo to “deliver consistency in pricing across our spare parts range to ensure that we are appropriately priced against our competition”.

France’s competition regulator said it had examined the software and did not see a reason to open a full anti-trust investigation, without explaining its thinking.

Renault said it was unaware of any of its non-public pricing information being shared with other carmakers. PSA said it rejected Boutboul’s accusations, but did not answer detailed questions about how its software was configured.

Accenture said its pricing software, called Partneo “does not share confidential or sensitive data between clients”.

“PERCEIVED VALUE METHODOLOGY”

In the past two decades, pricing software has become widely used.

Aaron Roth, Associate Professor of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania, said using software to try and identify the highest prices people were willing to pay was merely an extension of long-established practice among manufacturers and retailers.

“Already, prices for products are set trying to maximize profits,” he said.

In a 2013 presentation to BMW, Accenture claimed its software had, on average, allowed clients to increase parts prices by 15 percent.

But the recommended increases varied widely from product to product. Accenture recommended in presentations seen by Reuters to six clients, including PSA, Honda and Volvo, that prices of many replacement parts should be doubled.

An October 2013 presentation to carmaker Volvo said that the software had led to “yearly gains achieved” at seven car and truck makers of a combined $415 million a year.

Volvo said it did not use Partneo but declined to comment on the presentation. PSA declined to comment on whether or how much it increased prices. Honda did not respond to a request for comment.

Accenture said in its presentations that Partneo relies on a “perceived value pricing methodology”.

While manufacturers often seek a specific margin on parts, the software attempts to identify those parts for which consumers would be happy to pay above the typical mark-up.

It selected these based on a product appearing to a car buyer to be more valuable or expensive to produce, client presentations show.

Accenture noted in a 2009 presentation to France’s PSA that customer perceptions of the intrinsic value of a part are often based on factors like size, weight, and material of an item like a shiny brand badge or a cog.

In one presentation to Mitsubishi, it suggested the Japanese carmaker lift the price of a silvery model badge from 14.42 euros to 87.49 euros, an increase of 507 percent. Mitsubishi declined to comment on whether it used the software or increased its prices.

The car parts business has long been highly profitable, industry analysts say.

While manufacturers struggle to make a profit margin of more than 10 percent when selling a vehicle, “spare parts gross margin can go up to 90 percent,” Accenture said in a presentation for BMW’s South African arm in 2013.

BMW said it decided not to use Partneo but declined to elaborate further.

PRICING SUPERVISION

Although the market for new cars is highly transparent and competitive, the market for spare parts is less liquid and transparent, partly because some components can be protected by trademarks or patents, analysts say.

Car manufacturers have long been accused by insurers and motoring groups from Australia to the United States of charging too much for spare parts.

Partneo mainly focuses on increasing parts prices based on their appearance but it also has a feature that tries to avoid potential insurer reaction to price increases of certain items.

The software categorizes components as those “with or without 3rd party pricing supervision” — prices monitored by specialist publications or insurers — according to three client presentations seen by Reuters.

For example, in France, Securite Reparation Automobile (SRA), a group backed by insurers, measures car parts inflation and publishes this in the hope it will help exert downward pressure on parts inflation.

According to Boutboul’s complaint, Partneo avoided hiking prices of the specific parts whose price is closely followed by SRA. Accenture declined to comment on whether the software still operated in this way.

(Reporting by Tom Bergin; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Reuters
Republished with permission from Reuters
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