I have always owned cars with American nameplates. I drive an old Ford Taurus to and from work because it gets decent gas mileage and has proven itself reliable over 203,521 miles. When I bought it 12 years ago, I was simply looking for an American-made vehicle that delivered quality — nothing big or pretentious. But now, with a new purchase looming, I am not sure where to go.

I can’t figure out why Ford pulled the plug on the Taurus a few months ago. At one point in the early 1990s — when I bought mine — Ford had people lined up to buy them. It seems that when you have a winner, you should keep promoting it, but Ford decided to promote trucks and SUVs instead. Now, with higher gasoline prices, that strategy appears to have backfired.

Whether selling cars or widgets, if you give the consumer what he or she wants, you will be successful.

So, it resonated with me when I heard Tom Gallagher, CEO of Dairy Management Inc., speak on “unmet demand.” If you give the consumer what he wants, where he wants it and how he wants it, you will sell more dairy products. That was the core of Gallagher’s message at the joint annual meeting of the National Milk Producers Federation and DMI held recently in Las Vegas.  

For example, the advent of plastic, re-sealable containers of milk in fast-food restaurants, schools and other venues will allow consumers to grab more than 1 billion plastic containers of milk in the next 12 months that they couldn’t have grabbed three years ago, he said. Just think about it: More milk sold simply because it is presented to consumers in a better way than paperboard cartons or a more convenient way than gallon jugs.  

Give the consumer what he wants — it’s an underlying principle behind many successful companies.

The car manufacturer, Toyota, learned years ago that it needed to structure its manufacturing process so that it was delivering exactly what consumers wanted. It realized it couldn’t just “push” inventory onto the market regardless of demand. Rather, it decided to let demand “pull” the production process along.    

“In the Toyota Way, ‘pull’ means the ideal state of just-in-time manufacturing: giving the customer (which may be the next step in the production process) what he or she wants, when he or she wants it, and in the amount he or she wants,” writes Jeffrey Liker in “The Toyota Way.”         

Dairy processors could apply this principle not only to inventory, but also to coming up with new products in innovative packaging.

Meanwhile, I face a dilemma. Should I continue to buy “American” cars, or switch to Japanese? (I do admire Toyota’s business strategy.) Should I buy a sedan, truck or SUV? Will gasoline prices rise again to $3 or higher?  Maybe I’ll just wait a while.

It’s not easy being a consumer who is waiting for the right product to come along. Now, I know what “unmet demand” is all about.