Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2000   by Jim Anderton

Non-stop profit

Making money with brake service isn't restricted to the big banners, if you're willing to add value.


Have “category killers” driven you out of the brake business? Some independents, especially in major urban centres, see the rise of the big box service retailer as the first sign of a margin crunch in brake sales. While it’s true that “lifetime” brakes at a $100 retail pricepoint isn’t going to make the smaller players rich, it’s also true that the independents have several advantages that they may not realize. One is the ability to upsell, or more accurately, to start the consumer at the premium-priced service, then move to the lower price point where the consumer can’t or won’t buy up.

LET THE CUSTOMER DECIDE

As choices proliferate in friction materials, consumer confusion about what constitutes the “best” product for their vehicle isn’t going away, at least not without some education by both manufacturers and installers. Unfortunately, too many technicians still present the service from a lowest price perspective. “Installers now, in my estimation, are selling backwards to the norm of selling in general”, says Dana (Raybestos brand) advertising manager Ted Zahara. “They’re going straight to the bottom, because the guy up the street is pushing a $59.95 brake job, and they feel they have to start out there. I know everybody’s busy, but with a little conversation, if you sell the need as an installer, you’ll win in the long run.”

Alternate choices in friction give the installer some room to differentiate brake service and reduce the commodity thinking which has conditioned consumers to “coupon shop” this important service. The difficulty lies in educating the consumer without confusing them. Platform specific products work from a marketing perspective because the installer can avoid confusing a less technically minded consumer with high-tech, while building confidence that the product is intended specifically for their application. The key for the installer, however, is in getting the consumer to understand that there is enough difference between products to justify the pricing structure.

Another factor is the likelihood of a comeback. Putting butter-soft organic entry-level product on a three-ton sport utility may or may not work, but moving the customer into a higher level of brake will reduce the chances of a strongly dissatisfied customer. In some cases, selecting a specific product can head off trouble before it happens. A simple, but often overlooked element is driving habits. A quick look at the vehicle can tell an important story. A “Plus Three” wheel and tire package, or a Class 3 trailer hitch are sure signs of a consumer who needs to look at premium brake products. A child safety seat strapped into the back seat can be another sign suggesting the upsell for safety and piece of mind. For that very safety-conscious consumer, additional testing certifications, such as the Raybestos D3EA certification, may enhance customer confidence.

Another example is break-in. New pads and linings require a break-in period to heat-set the friction compound for proper performance. Naturally, the experienced tech reminds the consumer about the break-in procedure, but what about the application where the installer knows that proper break-in just won’t happen? In that case, one option is to select a product which doesn’t require a break-in period, for example the Bendix TitaniuMetallic line.

DOES QUALITY SELL?

Name brands with national advertising exposure, platform or vehicle-specific products, and dynamic point-of-purchase merchandising is common in the friction market, but what about the rest of the job? Rotors are an example. Do customers or installers know the difference between good and poor quality rotors? Rotors are components in which installers can’t tell the good stuff by looks alone, especially since rotors are wear parts that are heavily dependent on material properties, such as the grades and type of metals used. Arthur Torikian, vice-president of sales for Roto-Tech Brake Industries Inc., relates quality to both materials and manufacturing: If it’s made in North America, it’s good quality. If it’s made off-shore, in China, it’s relatively poor quality. Most or all of us (in North America) use CNC computerized machines. We don’t know what they use over there. Materials should be SAE (approved), if they use a different type of cast iron, it’s a cheaper rotor.”

Raymond Chung, president of warehouse/distributor Inroble International Inc., disagrees with the notion of off-shore product as poor quality in general: “We’ve had no problems, and our customers are very happy with our products. I think that manufacturers who say that,(Chinese product is poor) are protecting themselves.” While Chung decries the generalization that Chinese equals low quality, he does acknowledge that the perception has some basis in fact: “It’s true that a lot of product from China has poor quality.” Chung declares that by selecting the right suppliers and with their own quality testing, Chinese firms can and do produce reliable product.

From a consumer standpoint, the country of origin likely doesn’t matter, but for an installer the issue is still the comfort factor in using components which will work reliably at a pricepoint which won’t scare the customer away. Again, one solution is to give the customer the choice, with the technician adding a personal recommendation to suggest brands with which he or she is comfortable. If the $59.99 brake job uses entry-level components that make the installer a little nervous, then expressing a preference for name brands can sway the uninformed consumer. Even time-savers such as loaded reman calipers don’t necessarily remove the ability to brand an installer’s work. An example is Canamotive Remanufacturing Inc, who offer loaded calipers with Raybestos friction.

Marketing brake service will always result in a race to the bottom, both in retail pricing and margins, unless service centres can differentiate their operations and add perceived value for the customer. And once customers have been won over, it’s a lot cheaper to keep them than find others. Repeat business doesn’t necessarily mean minimal margins, and brakes are a great place to start relationship building. As Dana’s Ted Zahara says: “If they trust you for a brake job, they’ll trust you for a tune-up, a fuel pump, or even for the gasoline itself.”

Be aware of consumer promotions

Consumer awareness vehicles such as advertising and motorsports sponsorship has been around for a long time, and can be leveraged to generate additional shop traffic, IF the service business does the necessary homework. One promotion running currently is the Federal-Mogul ON TRACK! program, in which some 2000 installers are currently participating. ON-TRACK’s dealer materials include rebate and bonus booklets and shop posters. Making a coordinated program work for installers requires enough exposure to connect the consumer mind with the mass-market advertising it’s designed to complement. And to do that effectively, the material has to be up front and highly visible. Rebates should be promoted early, and both service advisor and technician should mention them to the customer. Writing and reading skills vary greatly, so don’t hesitate to help the customer fill out that rebate form, either.