Auto Service World
Feature   February 1, 2014   by Tom Venetis, Editor

The Changing Oil Change

Should we still talk about the traditional  oil change?

Should we still talk about the traditional  oil change?

It is a question worth asking as changes happening in engine technologies are leading many to rethink oil drain intervals and how to position the oil change to vehicle owners. Still, it is not a question that can be answered in a simple black or white way. Looking at the issue more closely, there are nuances to the question that independents and drivers need to keep in mind.

David Pollack, sales and marketing manager with Liqui Moly USA says North America is undergoing the same changes that Europe went through a while back as more advanced vehicle technologies started to appear with extended maintenance intervals. “Due to extended oil change intervals, many car drivers get their oil changed when their scheduled maintenance is done. The need to change oil between these scheduled maintenance intervals is decreasing.”

Ian Hutchison, brand manager, Castrol Automotive with Wakefield Canada Inc. adds there are other factors that are pushing these longer maintenance intervals when it comes to the oil change. “It’s known that Canadian consumers are choosing to extend their drain intervals, while at the same time, manufacturers are recommending longer intervals, and in some cases, consumers are relying less on installer recommendations and more on oil-life monitoring indicators. In some cases, OEM recommendations have been extended to as high as 25,000 km (BMW/MINI) and consumers are readily accepting that. Unless they are automotive enthusiasts, consumers are generally less engaged and less focused on the traditional seasonality of an oil change.”

While new vehicle technologies have pushed the oil change interval into new realms, that does not mean the traditional oil change has disappeared or will disappear. The reality is the average age of vehicles on the road today in North America is a little over 11 years with the majority having more traditional oil drain intervals.

“So the short answer is ‘No,’ the ‘Traditional’ oil change is still alive and well, and based on the older vehicle’s manufacturers recommendations, even after their warranty period has expired,” says Robert Skaggs, vice-president, sales and marketing, Blue Water Group, distributor of Mobil Lubricants.

Thom Smith, vice-president, branded lubricant technology at Ashland Inc. agrees the traditional oil change has not begun to radically change right now and the recommended drain intervals in a vehicle’s manual is still the best option. But even the manual can sometimes be a little perplexing for some drivers.

“Often, the manual will give two recommendations: one for ‘Normal’ driving and one for ‘Severe’ driving,” Smith adds. “If you look at how they classify ‘Severe’ driving, you will find that most drivers are severe drivers: idling, stop-and-go driving or operating in cold or extreme heat, humidity or repeated short trips. So if you fall into that category, you need to change your oil more frequently.”

Traditional oil change intervals have risen since pretty much the switch by European car manufacturers from API products to ACEA products, says Laurent Siret, national director, automotive and distributors with Total Canada Inc. “We have been seeing manufacturers going from regular oil changes between 3,000 to 5, 000 miles, to now at least some 7,500 miles.” He adds in Europe, it is common to see vehicles with change intervals of near 12,500 miles.

So with a combination of new vehicles coming onto the road with longer maintenance intervals and quite a number of older vehicles with traditional oil change regimes still on the road, how is an independent to frame and sell an oil change? Do those signs advertising a $19 oil change work or should they be abandoned entirely?

The first thing everyone agrees upon is the need to abandon selling on price and focus instead on quality of service and product. Many OEMs will recommend using premium synthetic oil. And the same should be used for older vehicles as well. Today’s synthetics provide a higher degree of protection for critical engine parts and additives to ensure the smooth engine operation, an obvious advantage to drivers who are looking to preserve the investment in their older vehicles. Studies have shown that vehicle owners will pay a premium price for a product that gives demonstrable benefits.

“Interestingly, while consumers will always say price is a factor, it might be less than the industry may have previously thought,” says Hutchison. “Through formal consumer research (Ipsos Reid) we now know that price is far down the list of reasons for consumers to choose an oil change facility. This means that using a low-cost oil change to drive traffic and generate additional services may not have the same effect as in years past. Research would indicate that focusing on quality and customer experience and creating customer trust is more likely to drive additional sales and return visits than using a low-cost oil change.”

Skaggs adds shops must do a better job of focusing on the benefits of today’s synthetics and move the customer away from fixating on the price which can in some induce sticker shock.

“When someone says, ‘Whoa! A hundred dollars for an oil change! Isn’t that a bit steep?’ the key here is accentuating what the synthetic oil does,” he adds. These include keeping an engine running like new, better protection in extreme temperatures and reduction in oil consumption.

“With conventional oils, they break down much quicker both with their base stock and additives, and are simply not designed to truly extend their drain intervals much past 5,000-6,000 km,” Skaggs continues. “When this happens, sludge forms and creates an environment where it is harder to move the oil around the engine, resulting in decreased fuel economy. The additives wear down quicker which results in all sorts of issues from water; acids and hard carbon deposits that can result in increased engine wear.”

Smith says today’s synthetics have additive packages, detergents and cleaners to improve engine performance, “as well as dispersants to suspend contaminants and combustion by-products, and extra anti-oxidants to prevent thermal and oxidation breakdown of the oil.”

“Of course $100 versus $19.95 is quite a contrast,” adds Pollack. “But you have to take into account the oil change intervals. Let’s say the $100 motor oil is capable of 20,000 km and the $19.95 motor oil of 5,000 km — then you need three additional oil changes with the cheap oil. So in the end, it is not $100 versus $19.95, but $100 versus $79.80 . . . [and] you benefit from the superior performance of high-quality oil which protects and lubricates the engine better than cheap oil does.”

Hutchison adds service operations should not get hung up on price as the higher premium on an oil change using quality synthetic oils can be rationalized: many new vehicle makers stipulate that only synthetic oils be used during the mandated oil and filter change, as that is what the engine demands to operate properly.

“The installer could get into a discussion around how decreased frequency of oil changes demands more of the oil [used], and therefore a higher quality of motor oil . . . and we know that consumers are willing to pay more for a high-quality oil change, so installers shouldn’t be afraid to charge an appropriate amount for an oil change.”

“A better question would be, what does the consumer prefer,” adds Total’s Siret. “To go to the lube shop four times per year and spending $20 with the full complexity of making an appointment losing at least half a day? Or do consumers prefer to go to the garage for a complete check-up and spending a $100? I don’t need to think too long about this one.”

Thom Smith adds independents should also build around the oil change a set of other services as well, moving the oil change away from a single service visit to one that is part of a larger service package. Valvoline’s Instant Oil Change has service technicians review each customer’s vehicle’s service schedule recommended by the vehicle’s manufacturer. The technicians and service writers will let the customer know what services are due and walk the customer through what services the team can perform right away to keep the vehicle running at its peak performance, such as a transmission flush, tire rotation, transmission, radiator, gearbox and air-conditioning services, tire rotation, wiper blade, air filter, light bulb and serpentine belt.

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