Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2001   by Jim Anderton

Stopping power

Premium friction is better for both consumer and installer. So why doesn't it sell better?

Application and platform specific, ceramic, semi-metallic, organic, the types and sub types of possible options in brake friction materials are many, and are growing all the time. Most are designed to deliver better than OE levels of stopping power, fade resistance and durability, and deliver those consumer benefits with better margins for consumers. Why then, are so many installers selling “white box” front and centre, without offering their customers a better option?

Th answer to that question revolves around two basic issues: cost and need. Premium does cost more, and in the age of the 99 dollar per axle (or even less) brake service, the temptation to let a customer walk has driven many independents to play the loss-leader pricing game, to the detriment of both installer and motorist. The question of need, however, is a little more complex. Does your customer need premium or application specific friction? It depends on many factors, such as price sensitivity, vehicle type and usage, as well as driving style. So what’s a “good” pad or shoe? There is currently no government standard to define quality in friction materials, so consumers are at the mercy of their installers’ preferences.

Why choose upsell friction?

The old adage of “you get what you pay for” is as true in brake friction as in everything else in the industry, meaning that customer satisfaction and the likelihood of comebacks are related to the quality of the pads and shoes installed. The difference now compared to twenty of thirty years ago, however, is that the vehicles have changed, and their braking systems have changed too. An example is ABS. Line pressure limiting at the rear wheels has been around for decades, and became especially important with the increasing popularity of front-wheel drive cars in the “Eighties. With upwards of seventy percent of the vehicle weight over the front wheels, rear lock sensitivity was addressed with inertia valves and mechanical proportioning valves linked to the vehicle’s rear suspension. In either case, braking caused the vehicle to pitch down and decelerate, and the proportioning valve choked off rear line appropriately.

If an installer fits organic product where semi-metallic is specified, however, trouble can develop, as Colin Philip, manager, technical services, for Honeywell’s Bendix brand relates: “Higher line pressures are going through the combination valve to the front. Put a higher coefficient of friction material such as asbestos on the front and you have a high rate of wear and fade as well. People look at brake systems and say it’s got the same size pad or shoe, so I can save twenty bucks with an organic brake pad.”

The problem can also work in reverse, where a customer wants to upgrade, but insists on an inappropriate compound. “Hot rodders can run into problems too”, says Philip, “They buy an older car, one that’s supposed to have organic brake pads on the front. He wants the best, and puts semi-metallic disk pads on the vehicle. The semi-metallic has a lower coefficient of friction, but the proportioning valve sends less line pressure to the front, because it was meant to have organic pads. All of a sudden you have a rear wheel lock up problem, and you think you have a brake problem.”

For the installer, the key things to remember are that physical fit isn’t the same as interchangeability, and that the type of compound doesn’t necessarily define a “good” pad or shoe. Organic and semi-metallic both have their place, and are an appropriate choice, as long as they’re quality products. Ceramic compounds are another option, although at the time of writing questions remain about safety surrounding the manufacture of ceramic lining materials. Another potential issue is dust, especially for finicky luxury and performance car owners. “Low dust” is a possibility, but “no dust” simply isn’t realistic, says Philip: “Some advertise products as low dust or no dust. If a brake produces no dust it’s not working. Brakes are consumable. If you’re not wearing off friction material, you’re not creating friction, or dust. All brakes dust.”

To sell, suggest the upgrade

So you know how to “spec” a friction application, and have an upgrade option available. Can you sell it to the consumer? The other side of the argument of “organic for organic applications and semi-metallic for semi-met applications” is the possibility of upselling better braking by installing upgrade product. ABS is a major advantage in selling upgrades that usually involve replacing organic linings with semi-metallics. ABS regulates line pressures with greater precision, and although it won’t reduce pedal effort, it will deal with the lockup issue, something the fixed proportioning valves of non-ABS cars may not handle. The ability to offer enhanced brake performance, however, won’t increase customer satisfaction of the bottom line if they’re only given one option. That option, unfortunately, is too often the entry-level product, relates Brian Fleming, marketing manager for Dana Brake and Chassis: “Part of the problem is that some installers forget the business side of the equation. With the number of bays out there competing for the same vehicle base needing repair, each installer is fighting for as much business as they can get. Unfortunately, they’re fighting on price.”

The price war may not subside for the foreseeable future, but within the shop, there are merchandising tools that can leave an impression with consumers. Will installers take full advantage of the resources available to them? According to Ted Zahara, advertising manager for Dana Brake and Chassis, “That’s the million-dollar question. I believe that most consumers will opt for safety over price, if they’re presented with the alternative. This means that the installer must sell from the top down rather than from the bottom up. We’ve created point-of-sale displays that demonstrate the difference between the bottom and the top brands.” Cutaways, posters and stand up “merchandisers” are first steps in an upgrade brake merchandising strategy, but in the end, it’s still about asking for the order. If the service writer or technician suggests the possibility of reduced fade and longer life, consumers will accept the value proposition. It’s good for everybody. SSGM