Auto Service World
Feature   April 19, 2010   by CARS Magazine

THE STRAIGHT GOODS ON ALIGNMENT

Some shops steer clear of investing in the alignment business due to the steep cost of entry. But theres money to be made in the caster/camber/toe business.


Wheel alignment might sound somewhat simplistic, but this automotive service actually entails the measurement of complex suspension angles and the adjustment of numerous suspension components. And as far as Shant Ghazarian is concerned, he “loves” wheel alignments.
Ghazarian, president of the Mars Tire Group (which consists of four Toronto-area shops), offers a full range of automotive service at his shops. But it is the alignment component of the business that he finds especially appealing.
“It [alignment bay] is actually the most productive bay in the shop when it comes to pure profitability,” says Ghazarian. “It’s just labour, no parts, and there’s money to be made.”
Currently, each shop in Ghazarian’s chain averages about two alignments per day. But he readily admits that the potential exists to do three alignments daily.
Much like other automotive service, the key to successfully pitching an alignment to a customer typically comes down to the person at the front counter merely suggesting a wheel alignment and then clearly explaining what the service entails and why it’s important.
“We do a good job here when it comes to that [consulting with customers] but we can always to better,” says Ghazarian, who notes that it never hurts to ask. “When we suggest an alignment check, the majority of our customers say, ‘OK.’”
Automotive aftermarket consultant Bob Greenwood notes a four-wheel alignment averages $94.22 in Ontario, $108.13 in Western Canada and $69.95 in Atlantic Canada.
While some smaller operators don’t offer wheel alignments – typically because of the cost of the equipment or because the facility is inadequate – Greenwood feels alignment service is important to provide “if they [shop owners] want to make sure they are serving their tire clientele properly.”
Darcy Tallon, the Canadian Operations Manager for the Hunter Engineering Company, says being equipped to perform wheel alignments delivers “excellent profitability.” For example, based on a frequency of four alignments per day, the full equipment payback can be achieved within 150 days (see chart.)
Hal Sparrow, who runs a KAL Auto shop in Sedgewick, Alta., agrees the payback justifies the investment.
“We’ve always been known as a wheel alignment place,” he says, noting alignment requests typically come from motorists complaining about vibrations emanating from the steering column.
And although Sparrow notes that the equipment in his shop “isn’t cheap” (namely, his aligner cost $40,000 while an additional $24,000 was spent on a hoist with alignment capabilities), Sparrow notes he will indeed recoup the cost of investment before the equipment wears out.
Another reason for offering alignment service: this differentiates Sparrow’s business given that the majority of shops in his trading area “are incapable of doing alignment service.”
Still, Sparrow notes the going rate for an alignment is $100 but he feels that such a service should “really cost” $250 given the investment in equipment and the labour required to do it properly.
“Some guys will say they can do an alignment in 20 minutes, but it really takes about 90 minutes to do a proper job,” he says.
To boost revenues, Sparrow says he’s toying with the idea of introducing a “lifetime wheel alignment deal.” In other words, the customer would pay $250 upfront and if the vehicle ever requires another wheel alignment, the service would be performed free of charge. Sparrow feels the shop would still come out ahead on such a deal because “if you do it [wheel alignment] right the first time, it’s just a matter of a little tweaking the second time.”
Keith Taylor, National Sales Manger for Hofmann (a manufacturer of wheel alignment equipment), notes shops offering wheel alignments also tend to attract other repair and maintenance work.
“When you do alignments, it’s all about the peripheral service you do,” he says. “And it’s all the mechanical repairs and the suspension repairs that will really justify the investment in the equipment.” (A Hofmann alignment system ranges from $15,000 on the lower end to about $40,000, while a rack ranges in price from $15,000 to $25,000.)
As well, thanks to technological advances, modern alignment equipment has vastly sped-up the alignment process. For example, Taylor notes that due to new 3D technology, an alignment check can be done in just two minutes (whereas the machines of yesteryear required 10 to 15 minutes to perform the same service.)
And, he says, the equipment itself is far more durable.
“Today’s modern equipment should last about 15 years,” whereas a 10-year lifespan used to be typical, he says. “Thanks to new technology, even the heads can be dropped on the ground without any fear of damage.”
Meanwhile, Greenwood says educating consumers about the benefits of wheel alignment is crucial to boosting alignment business. In other words, never assume the average motorist is savvy about the art and science inherent to a wheel alignment.
“A driver can throw the alignment of his car completely out of whack by hitting a curb sideways or hitting a pothole hard, which isn’t all that uncommon,” he says. “But they [consumers] may not understand the importance of wheel alignment and what it does to the drivability of a vehicle. The skill is explaining [wheel alignment] properly so that customers will understand it’s a really good idea to get this service done.”


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