Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2002   by Jim Anderton

Feature Story: Safety First, Profits First

You don't need white-box products to lock in solid profitability in brake service

In our business, it’s not a term of endearment: “White Box”. It goes by other names like “off-brand”, “no-name”, or, erroneously in many cases, “off shore”, but whatever the handle, the meaning is the same: cheap. In brake service, a staple for many shops, the temptation to build in a little extra margin, or to give a customer a “break” leads many to order unknown components, especially friction, for this most safety critical service. For many, there is a belief that there is no difference between no-name and name brand products. “White box programs can consist of low cost, entry-level product”, states Crystal Reynolds, brand manager, under car products for Federal Mogul (Wagner), who adds, “in many cases, these products may come from a variety of sources with variable levels of quality, consistency and performance. With first-line or ‘premium’ brands, the customer already knows and expects a higher level of quality and performance. Premium products tend to have upgraded features, performance benefits and sometimes extended warranties or guarantees.”

“It’s all about safety; they are better performing products. It’s not just as mystique”, says Carroll Warner, vice president of sales and marketing, for Performance Friction, adding, “it’s a compound with better stopping performance and pedal feel. Without (premium friction products) the driver may experience a ‘long pedal’.”

The long pedal may extend all the way to the floor for motorists who use modern sport utilities and light trucks to their very high towing capacities. With may “half-ton” chassis carrying payload ratings higher than three-quarter ton vehicles of the previous generation, and towing capacities that exceed the towing machines’ GVW, competent braking is a given. The infrequent use of most of these light trucks for heavy hauling, however, means that dangerous fade or long stopping distances won’t show up until the boat is on the trailer. Vacations and utility hauls may be a long time after the brake service, and acceptable braking performance when lightly loaded may convince consumers that quality just doesn’t matter.

Getting the message across to consumers

First line manufacturers spend millions on consumer advertising to build brand awareness, and although effective, the installer or service writer’s opinion is extremely important. Can shop personnel move consumers into better products? “Yes, and we encourage it,” says Wagner’s Crystal Reynolds. “End consumers are becoming more and more educated, especially when it comes to safety related products, like brakes, being installed on their vehicles. Some manufacturers supply merchandising/point-of-sale materials and design promotional programs targeted at the installer. It is up to the installer to display prominently the POS materials (such as banners, posters, counter displays and counter mats) and participate in the promotional programs AND encourage their customers to participate. One thing that installers can do more of is contact the local sales representative for the manufacturer and ask them for ideas on how to promote the product in the local market.”

While it’s relatively easy to explain the difference to technicians, at the consumer level, where “$99 per axle” sounds like a reasonable price, there is still a challenge. “Their first plan of attack should be to sell safety. It’s safety first, and selling the fact that the consumer can have reliable braking far into the future”, declares Ted Zahara, advertising manager for Dana Brake and Chassis (Raybestos). “Poor pads will wear out good rotors faster than good pads. There are specific formulations designed for specific applications. It can affect fade, recovery, and even balance front to back.”

And it’s not about falling below O.E.-level performance, either, as many in the industry feel that some of the heavier sport utilities come from the factory with marginal braking performance. An industry executive who wished to remain anonymous stated that the use of one compound for any platform on which the backing plate fits happens on ht assembly line, too: “We see it from an original equipment standpoint. Some of those applications are much more severe than the material used (by the manufacturers) when you start putting trailer and towing packages on; they’re pretty big trucks. 11,000 GVWR is common. If you’re coming off a mountain, hold on.”

The ability to offer a consumer of large sport-Ute’s and light trucks an additional safety margin over the factory fit is another marketing and merchandising opportunity that can simultaneously drive traffic to your bays, and defuse the white-box argument. “Better than new” is possible, and can be an upsell opportunity. For consumers who trailer in mountainous areas, for example, slotted and cross-drilled rotors teamed with premium semi-metallic, (perhaps platform-specific) pads can add significant fade resistance, and coincidentally have a premium, expensive look that aids the perceived value of the service.

Premium parts need premium procedures

Moving consumers away from bargain basement pricing in brake service means more than national brands. Installation has to match the quality of the parts to realize the promised longer service life. A classic case involves premature wear of front disk systems on vehicles with rear drum brakes. As Ted Zahara relates, pulling the drum to verify lining thickness simply isn’t good enough as a diagnostic procedure:

“The system has to be balanced. It’s important to check things like wheel cylinders. For example, you can mark shoes with a felt marker, go for a test drive, and see if the marks are worn off. If they’re not, there is a problem.”

Naturally, OBD codes on ABS-equipped cars are a must-address issue, and brake fluid should be checked for moisture content. Consider loaded calipers, which save time better used for value-added brake service such as parking brake adjustment or an ABS system scan.

When the customer’s car or truck won’t stop, can a technician installing premium friction with proper procedures guarantee a minimum of O.E. level stopping performance?

Absolutely. Basic brake service may be a high-volume business for most businesses, but it shouldn’t be a loss leader. Proper installation of premium components need not affect profitability, and can in fact enhance it. Higher customer satisfaction, fewer comebacks, the availability of manufacturer clinics and technical seminars, plus the “halo effect” that smart merchandisers can realize from being a shop that only installs first-line parts makes the use of uncertain components at best a lost opportunity. And at worst an unwanted liability.

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