Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2000   by CARS Magazine

Selling the Season

Season "Winterization" has different meanings across the country, but it's still about maintenance and customer service.

“Winterization” used to be the Canadian expression for anything that prepared cars, homes, RV’s or cabins for the rigours of the cold season. These days however, the drama of winter seems to have lost some of its impact, at least in auto maintenance. The motivation may have diminished in the consumer’s mind, but the need for seasonal maintenance still exists in this era of computer-controlled driving. It may, however, take a little “consumer persuasion”, especially for drivers who expect 160,000 Km before their first tune-up.

What is “Winterization” these days?

The term may be going out of fashion, but the mainstay of winter prep service is still cooling system service. Bob Crocker, of Crocker’s Automotive in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland, says it simply: “Oil and filter, and antifreeze”. In Crocker’s part of the country, as elsewhere, there is a gap between what consumers need and what they believe they need: ‘It depends upon how far they want to go and how much money they want to spend. You pretty much have to talk them into what they are going to need. Wiper blades will also be checked; a lot of people will want winter wiper blades.”

Ford Matthews, owner of Colborne Auto Service in Colborne, Ontario deals with a similar attitude: “They usually come in and say ‘winterize it’. They don’t know what they want. We do oil change services; when it’s fall, we tell them if their antifreeze is weak, etc. We do get the odd call and individuals will say ‘get my car winterized’. And when they come in, I say ‘what do you want me to do with it’? At one time you used to tune it up, but you don’t need to do that now. So basically all you can do is check the antifreeze. And you upsell wiper blades and bulbs. We check belts and hoses.” Gerry Anderson, of Tom & Gerry’s Service in Lethbridge, Alberta agrees: “Most customers are price conscious. There’s not really any winterization that we do anymore.

The cars are getting so they’re all-season. Basically it’s just an oil change, get their fluids checked and antifreeze tested. Some get a tune-up. Most expect to spend about $100 to get it ready for winter. Especially the older folks, who still do that. I think we’re still acclimatized to the old days when cars were winterized because you had to put different oil in them, and even when they used water in the summer. Younger people are more aware that their cars are built for all-seasons these days.”

What will consumers pay?

Where service centres are fortunate enough to have a customer base with knowledge, money, or both, fall season service can generate respectable business. Frank Richards, of Frank Richards Auto Service in Sydney, Nova Scotia has that well-heeled consumer: “For winter service, it’s normally just a general check of everything.

I have a lot of return clientele, so they bring their cars nowhere else. I keep a record of what’s been done on it, and I’ll check their maintenance book and see what’s been replaced in the last six months, and then I will go through a sequence of checks. I’ll check their brakes, tires, front end, antifreeze, belts, hoses. I’ll check everything, really. I can’t say I single out anything in particular.

I also put the scan tool on it to see if any codes come up, like faulty emissions. But generally winter service for anybody is a complete checkover for the whole car, which usually takes no more than 45 minutes to an hour, with a car that you’re familiar with.

And if I find something that needs to be repaired on the car, I advise the customer and it’s really up to him as to what he does as far as repairs go. I don’t give a 22-point check for $19.95, I just don’t get into that sort of thing.” Doug Welsh of Welsh’s Auto Service in Swift Current, Saskatchewan however, does, and makes money with the strategy: “I charge them $31.34, taxes paid. It’s a loss leader. The idea of it is to generate other stuff, like ball joints, tie rod ends, and brakes. If they need a tune-up, talk them into it. We show them everything we do so they know we’re not trying to screw them.

Most people think ‘I should get it serviced and that should do for winter’. We check everything, make sure antifreeze is up to snuff, everything. We do the same thing on every service, year round.”

Just how much will consumers pay? Montrealers would seem to have deeper pockets, suggests Sylvio Antonucci, a technician with that city’s GT Auto Service: “$250. Let’s say it’s a six cylinder: maybe some plugs, a gas filter, air filter, oil filter, check all the fluids and check the Prestone.” Despite the relatively extensive service performed by GT Auto Service, Antonucci feels that the market is softening: “Winterization is not as good a business as it used to be, now that the dealers are saying that the cars don’t need service for 100,000 km.

Then you have to remove the cylinder head to get the plugs out. The good customers, you explain to them, and they understand. If it’s the customer’s own car, they care, if it’s a leased car, they don’t give a damn.”

Leased vehicles, owner apathy and mild weather all conspire against some markets when it comes to fall season service. Cy Hanus, of Cy’s Auto Service in Winnipeg, Manitoba describes a typical reaction: ” ‘It’s broke, so fix it’.

I find most people wait too long to get their vehicles serviced, especially the computerized vehicles. By the time they drag it in to you, it needs more work than if they brought it in sooner.”

Allan Conway, owner of Big A Auto Service in Abbotsford, British Columbia simply doesn’t see the kind of cold that cripples unprepared cars: “I used to live in Manitoba, and there we used to winterize. Here, people don’t. They change antifreeze. If it snows, they put snow tires on. They may change oil, but that’s about it. In the lower Mainland, it doesn’t snow. In the winters here it’s about 10 above, or it might go as low as 10 below.”

Is “winerization” in the traditional sense dead? Perhaps, but more important is the ability of the service industry to take the rigid notion of service based on the calendar, and replace it with consumers who service by the odometer, too.

Seasonal service may become a thing of the past, but regular service won’t, at least in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, promotion, pricing and alternate services are still key to keeping your customers coming back. SSGM

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