Auto Service World
Feature   December 1, 2007   by Allan Janssen

Oil change trends

Consumer behavior is influenced by many factors... how will it impact you?

Are recent increases in the cost of gasoline hurting your oil-change business?

That could well be the case, according to the NPD Group’s 2008 Consumer Outlook. The report, unveiled at the Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo (AAPEX) in Las Vegas last month, says higher gas prices generally mean fewer oil changes done per year.

Don’t see the connection? Well, it turns out most people surveyed told NPD they gauge their vehicle’s need for an oil change by the odometer, not the calendar. And with gas prices rising, they’re driving less these days. Since it takes them longer to go 5,000 kilometers (the most common recommended oil-change interval) they’re doing fewer oil changes.

The impact on the aftermarket is further amplified by lax maintenance attitudes in general.

According to NPD, fewer and fewer consumers adhere to the three-month/5,000-kilometer standard interval for oil changes. Only 59 per cent say they follow the manufacturer’s recommended oil-change interval, while 33 per cent freely admit they don’t, and a further seven per cent don’t know or have no set pattern.

According to consumer feedback, the average interval between oil changes hovers at 3,840 miles (just over 6,000 kilometers), but a spokesman for NPD was quick to point out the actual number is probably significantly higher. People know what they should be doing, he said, and tend to minimize how far off the mark they really are.

The company’s research also shows the reported months between oil changes is steadily increasing. In 2006 it stood at 4.1 months. In 2007, it was up to 4.9 months. In the short term this was influenced by higher gas prices… but the long-term trend is a factor of improved vehicle quality and increased consumer confidence about the reliability of their vehicles – despite their own inattention to regular maintenance.

It’s not all bad news, though, especially for independent repair shops.

The NPD study also reports that consumer trends favor the independent over car dealerships. Based on vehicle purchasing and servicing plans, oil change transactions are expected to be down 0.4 per cent at dealerships, but up 4 per cent at independent repair shops.

Furthermore, about 93 per cent of the vehicles on the road these days are over three years of age (the “sweet spot” for independent repair shops). Compare that to 2004 when the number was about 90 per cent. Those three percentage points translate to about 7 million additional target vehicles for independent shops.

So what does all this mean for shop owners and managers trying to capture their slice of the oil-change pie?

Vehicle reliability, gas prices, and buying preferences are just three of the many factors which play into consumer behavior when it comes to vehicle maintenance.

The bottom line, according to NPD, is that modified consumer attitudes and evolving driving patterns require shops to create new traffic drivers. In other words, you need to figure out new ways to get them back into your facility for regular maintenance.

Certainly, the study confirms the benefits of a recent trend in repair shop management to book in the next appointment. More and more shops are taking the onus for booking work out of their customers’ hands. Like dentists, they’re opening their appointment book at the end of every visit and getting the customer to agree on a date for the next oil change.

The new strategy in top-performing shops is to build the kind of relationship of trust and loyalty with customers which allows them to assume control of maintenance decisions. They’re not leaving it to the consumer to decide when it’s time to bring the car back. They’re being proactive in building an effective preventive maintenance schedule that reflects the type of car, consumer, and driving habits that come into play.

Consumer decisions about vehicle maintenance are influenced by many factors. In order to successfully capture your share of the business, it’s important to be aware of those factors, and have a strategy to counteract any trends that don’t benefit your business.

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