Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2013   by Noelle Stapinsky

Premium Sales

Ceramics dominate as the industry shifts its focus to more premium brake lines

When it comes to routine brake jobs, what installers want is pretty simple — an easy way to install quality product that won’t be coming back to the shop because of noise or excessive vibration. Besides, fixing such issues means a lost profit on the job.

This is why technicians are gravitating towards more premium brake products such as Better and Best lines with ceramic and semi-metallic (semi-mets) friction materials. And since today’s vehicles are rolling off OE assembly lines factory-equipped with ceramic or ceramic-enhanced and semi-mets, the aftermarket has followed suit by nixing organic friction material and offering ceramics across the board in Good, Better and Best categories.

“Raybestos follows a ‘vehicle specific’ strategy, which means our friction material will follow OE [specifications]. In most cases, we’re finding organic materials are being replaced with ceramic,” says Brian Kowalski, vice-president of branded sales, Canada, for Brake Parts Inc.

Although organic brake pads may have been a great replacement material for asbestos as the industry started to evolve into more environmentally conscious products, some drawbacks to organics included “more dust, shorter life expectancy, and the inability to work properly in aggressive stopping, high performance, and on trucks due to the material being more soft,” says Dean Weber, vice-president, sales and marketing with ProForce. “We now recommend a true ceramic pad that includes hardware and will produce less dust and better stopping power.”

Certainly, when Akebono came out with ceramic brake pads more than 12 years ago, it was revered as a truly quality product. Since then, it’s become somewhat of a buzzword, growing in popularity for its quality features, such as reduced heat, less brake dust and performance characteristics. “One of the major trends we’re seeing is the overwhelming demand for higher quality ceramic brake pads, which have solved a lot of issues like noise, fade and dust accumulation on the wheels or wheel covers,” says Ernie Fields, sales manager for Promax Auto Parts Depot Ltd.

Today, about 60 per cent of brake pads sold are ceramic, with the remaining 40 per cent being semi-mets, according to Stephen Spivey, automotive and transportation program leader for consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, who is currently developing a “North American Brakes Aftermarket: Friction Parts” report.

In both Canada and the U.S., there is vast variety of options and quality when it comes to brakes, but they all basically break down into three categories — manufacturer brands, private label store brands and original equipment parts. “You’ll find those options in both countries,” says Spivey. “The only difference between the two is that the U.S. has more large distributors and will have a higher percentage of discount brands.”

Indeed, many technicians are sensitive about using low-level segment products, “but when you talk about Good, Better, Best, it can also mean different things to everyone,” explains Spivey. “So when I talk to people about category sales, everyone tends to have a different idea of what brand should be in those categories.”

For example, one of the top selling brands in the U.S. aftermarket is the Wagner ThermoQuiet. “Some might think it competes against a service grade and other brands in the Better category,” says Spivey. “But if you ask Wagner, they’ll say ‘no, we have Guardian, QuickStop and ThermoQuiet as Good, Better, Best.’”

So, even if the manufacturer considers a product to be in its best category, the market might not see it that way, which may alter sales numbers depending on who’s reporting them. For the study Spivey is conducting, the numbers are coming directly from the manufacturers in terms of what they’re selling to distributors. Although the research is still in progress, preliminary results for North America show that the Good segment represented about 16 per cent of units sold and 11.2 per cent of dollar sales (U.S.) in 2012. Better segment products came in at 45.8 per cent of units (41.9 per cent of dollar sales), and Best ranked at 37.8 per cent of units, representing 46.8 per cent of dollar sales.

“The Best segment has come up quite a bit and is the highest share of dollars, but that’s because of the price point associated with it,” says Spivey. Raybestos believes there’s a need for all three levels in the market place. It offers its service grade line for the older vehicle and the budget conscious segment, a full coverage professional grade line for the everyday driver, and its advanced technology line for the performance market segment and service fleets.

For installers using Better and Best, Kowalski says, “Using quality part replacements to bring the system back to ‘like new’ condition will result in higher profit dollars for the installer and reduced costly comebacks.” Installers are also leaning more towards premium products for what’s included in the box — more hardware, wire wear sensors, noise reduction kits and longer warranties. Some manufacturers are catering to this demand by including shims, slots and chamfers to reduce noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), for instance, across all three segments.

At ProForce, Weber says they are focused on the Better and Best lines, while still maintaining affordable pricing. “We want to ensure the installer makes the most possible profit, while incurring fewer comebacks. Our return rates run at one quarter of one per cent, so it’s almost nonexistent. We offer hardware and all the features and benefits of a best product because that’s what the customer demands today.”

Promax Auto Parts Depot Ltd.’s new line of “Ceramic Plus” brake pads, include stainless steel hardware, as per customer request, according to Fields.

For other brake component parts, one of the biggest emerging trends is in premium rotors. “Rotors are almost commoditized … throw-away type items now,” says Spivey. “There has been information in the aftermarket press on what’s called lightweight rotors that don’t have the same metallurgy of the original part, and they’re wearing thin and wearing out. A set of rotors used to last two or three brake jobs. Now it’s one or two.” Rather than smoothing the rotors out or turning them, as many shops have done in the past, more are just replacing the part.

“In rotors, we’re down to Better and Best,” says Spivey. “No more than 20 per cent of the market has gone for premium rotors and the other 80 per cent is a standard replacement part. Some suppliers are trying to change that to make a margin play on the category.” And the pendulum is starting to swing back a bit, where more people are willing to pay more for a premium rotor. Weber says that ProForce is seeing a strong demand for coated rotors, which resist rust and provide a more attractive appearance for the open wheel. “Electrocoating or E coated rotors provides a cool appearance and OE equivalent look and weight. The black hat and fins are coated inside and out and the crosshatch finish provides smoother stops. They’re also environmentally friendly, cleaner and do not contaminate the ceramic brake pads.”

The new premium “RotoMax” line by Promax includes more pure steel in the manufacturing process to deter premature rust problems and extend the lifespan of the rotor. Much like all maintenance and repair opportunities for shops today, education is key to building customer loyalty. With the arrival of spring — wh
en many seasonal tires are changed over — this is the perfect time for brake inspections and repairs. And educating customers on the advantages of using more premium products will not only ensure the longevity of the part, but also maximize a shop’s profit margin.