Auto Service World
Feature   November 1, 2001   by Paula Ellis

Winter Chemical Update

Colder weather creates problems...and opportunities

The colder weather means car owners will be bringing their vehicles to the shop for the pre-winter tune-up and fluid change. But do you really know what you’re putting in their cars? This year’s winter chemical update gives you a refresher course on antifreeze, and some ways you can go beyond the basic product sell to a higher margin service.

Coolant Class-01

It may have been a while since you caught-up on developments in engine coolants. Here’s what you need to know to contend with the latest OEM specifications.

Long-life antifreeze/coolants are largely the result of General Motors establishing a new standard for their cars in the mid-1990’s. The GM ‘Dexcool’ label is now found on coolants that are certified by General Motors to meet its standards for the long-life product. Several manufacturers make a product that is Dexcool approved. The difference is in the chemistry.

Ten years ago, virtually all antifreezes were ethylene glycol-based, with silicone-silicate technology that would break down about every two years or 40,000 kilometers. Unlike regular antifreeze, the long-life products use a di-acid formula that is silicate and phosphate free. Also, those older formulations with phosphates and silicates are almost useless beyond North America. Gord Robertson, vice-president, business development, Honeywell’s consumer products (Prestone), explains:

“In Europe, phosphates can create a problem with minerals naturally occurring more heavily in their water. So European standards have always been low or no phosphate. In Japan and Asia, they’ve always asked for low or no silicate chemistries. As the North American new car makers became global companies, they wanted to achieve a global standard.”

The long-life products met this global standard, while also achieving extended protection in newer cars. As for older models, you can put long-life antifreeze in a car designed for the conventional product, but mixing it with the standard coolant will effectively neutralize the extended life benefits. A complete coolant change is recommended for the upgrade.

There are several antifreeze/coolant issues that aren’t fully understood by consumers, who may turn to their serviceman for answers. For instance, regarding the ‘low-toxicity’, propylene glycol coolants, there is a good deal of confusion about what they really are. The propylene glycol coolants are about half as toxic as the standard, ethylene glycol formulas. But given how poisonous this stuff is, that’s not the big difference consumers often think it is.

Says Robertson, “Propylene glycol is in certain food products like pet foods, and in beauty aids like lipsticks–but in very few parts per million. It’s safer, so it’s been approved as the preferred product, but it is not safe.” In other words, you can’t slosh the stuff all over the driveway and walk away with the dog loose. Even garages still have to flush any spillage thoroughly if there’s a risk of contact.

Another misconception is that the “low-tox” products are somehow environmentally friendly. In fact, the older ethylene glycol product will eventually biodegrade, whereas the propylene glycol formula will not completely break down. This is not a ‘green’ product.

As for which product to buy, the proliferation of brands with different formulas has generated confusion. Consumers should follow the recommendations in their owners’ manuals. Diesel truck owners should be aware that heavy-duty antifreeze, often called “diesel antifreeze”, is actually designed for tractor trailers and other commercial vehicles who put in ten times the mileage of the average driver. These products are designed to be “reinhibited” to get five times more life out of the chemical under hard use. The average truck owner can use a standard antifreeze.

Better Margins Through Chemistry

Understanding the chemistry of coolants, while useful, won’t make you rich if it means a twelve dollar sale. The real margins are in services, like flushes, that add labor value to the invoice. Even a two bay garage can pay off basic coolant flush equipment in a year, maybe sooner if you really promote the service. The customer who has the car in for an oil change understands the value in basic maintenance, and is likely receptive to the idea of preventative maintenance. That’s where a transmission or coolant flush can be introduced.

Start by making it clear to your customer that the products you use are not the ones they use. Says Ross Ayrhart, national sales manager, Wynn’s Canada Ltd., “We are concerned that the average consumer can overdose their system, so all the products that we offer under the Wynn’s brand are of a more consumer friendly formula. We assume that our Xtend brand products are being used by technicians in service stations or dealerships. In our case, that’s one of the reasons we have branded them differently, so that you don’t have that cross-over with the consumer.”

In other words, your customer is paying more for your chemicals because they are professional, heavy duty products that have a greater impact on the car and need to be used by a trained technician. Price equals value here.

As for promoting your services, think value, and you’re on the right track. “They’ve [garages] got to be proactive in bundling services,” says Valvoline Canada’s marketing manager, Dennis Favaro. “I talk to guys who charge $59.95 for a flush and fill and $59.95 for a fuel system service, that’s $119 dollars. I tell them to offer it for $99.99 because you’ll get a lot more people biting on both services. You’re not going to sell both separately.”

The average car owner will perceive two jobs at two prices to be a big expense. Somehow, one price turns it into one job, which is easier to sell. Plus, the “volume discount” is a good hook. There’s another way that can work. If the car is in for a brake job, offer, say, a discount on a fuel injection cleaning. Make it seem that you value their business enough to give them a bargain. Everyone loves a deal.

Says Favaro, “Even if it’s just a $49.95 fuel system treatment and you add a snow brush to it, it may cost you $0.99, cents, but to the consumer it’s a nice little bonus. Whether he’s getting five bucks off or a snow brush or something off his next visit, you’ve got to bundle services.”

Bundle services, offer incentives, and advertise. Advertising could mean a coupon mailout or flyers. It could mean a radio spot, or it could simply be a special board out by the curb where drivers can see it. You don’t have to spend a bundle to sell your bundle. At the very least, make sure customers already in your shop have a menu board to look at. Ask your product representative or your distributor for posters, menu boards, anything with a logo that will catch someone’s eye, and make sure your staff promote the service at every opportunity.

“The onus is on the service writer, or the individual taking the order,” says Ross Ayrhart. “When a vehicle comes in for a brake job, etc., find out how many kilometers are on that vehicle, then point to the menu board and say, ‘hey sir/madam, you have this much mileage on your vehicle, we normally recommend that this service also be performed. Here’s the attributes, here’s what it’s going to do for you, etc.'”

Take Ayrhart’s advice: “You’ve got the consumer standing in front of you. They’ve already determined that some work needs to be done on their vehicle. Here’s the opportunity to justifiably upsell them on some work.”

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