Global economic uncertainty and sluggish economic growth in Canada have taken their toll on Canadian’s spending habits. Studies are showing that Canadian consumers are curtailing their previous debt-driven buying sprees, pruning impulse buying on everything from electronics to eating out. One area which has taken a hit this year is spending on automotive maintenance. According to the J.D. Power and Associates’ 2011 Canadian Customer Commitment Index Survey, annual spending on vehicle maintenance has declined from 2010. The survey is based on responses from more than 19,500 vehicle owners across Canada, with vehicles ranging in age from four years to 12 years old. They study was conducted between January and February 2011 and June and July 2011. What this year’s study found was the annual service market for four- to 12-year old vehicles contracted to $8.4 billion in 2011 from $9 billion in 2010. According to the study’s authors, this decline came about both from a drop in the average amount spent per service visit and the number of service visits. “Overall, the number of service visits has decreased by nine per cent (2.9 visits per vehicle in 2011, on average, vs. 3.2 visits per vehicle in 2010). In addition, annual spending across all vehicle ages has declined by an average of $23, with the largest changes seen among eight- to 12-year-old vehicles. Average annual expenditures among this vehicle group declines to $736 in 2011 from $821 in 2010.” Ryan Robinson, director of the Canadian automotive practice at J.D. Power and Associates in Toronto said this decline reflects a trend of owners with older vehicles de-prioritizing vehicle maintenance and repair, a casualty of the economic uncertainty gripping the country and the world at large. “What we are seeing today are people with limited funds and vehicle maintenance is bumping into other spending priorities competing for those limited funds,” he added. The result is a growing competition for those shrinking service dollars amongst Canadian service providers, with a greater focus being placed — both by independents and dealership-based service providers — on customer service and education of customers in order to attract and keep customers for the long-term. The J.D. Power study found several key factors play into long-term customer retention rates amongst service providers. These include being attended to promptly by a service provider, having that same service provider put the customer at ease during the whole of the service operation and providing helpful service advice. The study found independent service providers scored highly in these areas: • Fifty-eight per cent of vehicle owners visiting an aftermarket facility reported receiving immediate attention. • Eighty-five per cent of vehicle owner reported being put at ease by the service advisor in an aftermarket facility, compared to 80 per cent in a dealership operation. • Seventy-three per cent of vehicle owner to aftermarket facilities reported that they received helpful advice from the service provider on hand as compared to 66 per cent at the dealership operation. All of this comes down to building trust amongst consumers, “such as providing helpful advice, being respectful of the customer’s time, keeping in constant communication with the customer and letting them know the status of their vehicle when it is in the shop,” said Robinson. “It includes being prompt in answering questions and getting the vehicle back at the time you promised. All of those things build that feeling of trust and lead to customer retention.” “We have a responsibility as a consumer brand to listen, ask and retain our customer by delivering exactly what they need and want,” said Christopher Thorne, national sales and marketing manager with NAPA AUTOPRO. NAPA AUTOPRO was ranked the highest in the survey’s overall service experience and satisfaction index. It was followed by Great Canadian Oil Change, Pennzoil, Goodyear Auto Service Centre and Midas. “We have a responsibility as a consumer brand to listen, ask and retain our customers by delivering exactly what they need and want. This takes a willingness to change and evolve and work continually on getting better,” added Thorne. Thorne believes this commitment to the customer involves an ongoing commitment on the part of NAPA to training, for technicians and front-line service writers. “Our NAPA AUTOPRO membership are very proud of the investment they have made in training and equipment and they are very dedicated to fixing it right the first time,” Thorne said. He agreed with Robinson that today’s vehicle owner is looking for assurance from their service provider and to get information about their vehicle that is easily understood. “Most consumers are looking for guidance on how to properly take care of their vehicle, so when expertise is backed-up with clear communication and consistency, people tend to trust that.” J.D. Power’s Robinson said the greatest challenge that will be facing service providers in the next few years is the lengthening out of the service window on vehicles. Vehicles being manufactured today are of a higher quality than years before and the times between mandatory services are getting longer. It is not uncommon for some new vehicles to have service windows of some 35,000 km between visits. This translates into fewer service visits over the year, impacting shop revenues. These extended service intervals are also changing the nature of the service to be done, with more work added onto the times the vehicle comes into the bay. Where once an oil change and quick tire rotation would have been standard, that same visit may now include a full tune-up, fluid flush and a recommended replacement of a part. All this adds to the cost of a service visit that may be off-putting to some vehicle owners. As well, because these service intervals will require more work to be done, there will be growing competition from dealer-based service providers who will push to have that service done in their bays as competition heats up for those service dollars.