Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2009   by Andrew Ross

A Place In The Sun

Maximizing Your Light Truck Market Potential

To Misquote Mark Twain, Rumours Of The Light Truck’s Demise Have Been Greatly exaggerated.

The pickup truck and the SUV, cornerstones of both the aftermarket and the original equipment business, have nonetheless come under fire in recent times, having been blamed for everything from global warming to wars in the Middle East and the virtual collapse of U. S. auto manufacturing. And yet, as a category, they continue to occupy key territory in the personal transportation landscape.

While the boulevard-frequenting super-sized SUV may be deemed a largely unnecessary excess, its open-bed cousin, the pickup truck, is still very much the modern-day workhorse that is not so easily dismissed–or done without.

“I was looking at the DesRosiers 2009 Yearbook,” says Ron Strain, chassis specialist with Affinia, manufacturers of the Raybestos chassis line, “and [it] says that the passenger car/light truck mix is around 42.7% light trucks in terms of vehicles in operation in Canada.

“From that standpoint, it continues to be an excellent opportunity for chassis parts. There are a lot of moving parts on a light truck. That’s good, because those parts that move are those parts that wear.”

Strain says that because there are so many light trucks and SUVs on the road, they will continue to be an important segment even if current sales figures have declined.

“If you just look to the simple math, the light truck market is going to be pretty good for a while yet.” Consumers may tend to turn to smaller vehicles as fuel prices rise, but that’s not always an option. “All those contractors, and all those plumbers and people in construction–they still need [a light truck].”

“We live in the Fraser Valley–farm country–so it’s definitely part of our market,” says Jeff Fortin, president of Modern Sales shareholder Fortin’s Automotive in Chilliwack, B. C.

“We are seeing from an aftermarket perspective that brake and chassis are some pretty key components for our business.”

And, as a result, the ebbs and flows in the aftermarket parts market have his attention. Currently, says Fortin, he is seeing more than the usual amount of jockeying for position amongst suppliers.

“I hadn’t seen as much up and down on the pricing structure in the last 10 years as I have in the last six months. This is causing some stress and questions as to where the big guys are going to position themselves from a pricing perspective. It’s not that eloquent, but that’s where we are.

“It’s a pretty interesting time, but in the meantime, jobbers continue to deal in the marketplace and to try to find their place, too. It can cause some price discrepancies in the short term, which is confusing some of the customers.”

This is all in the backdrop of what Fortin believes is a market segment that is going to be around for a long time, though not forever, at least in the same proportion as it is today.

“Definitely nothing radical, but talking to people in their purchasing plans, they are looking at going not to light trucks but to passenger vehicles, when it makes sense. In our particular market, we have a lot of farms and a little logging; there is more of a need in our particular area for trucks.

“We haven’t seen any startling decline, but we can’t help but think that there would be erosion.”

What he sees is a general decline in the desire for the largest SUVs–an overall downsizing trend, in fact–which paradoxically could result in an unhealthy upsizing of inventory were the tools to continually hone inventories not at hand.

“We are doing that today, and with the electronic tools, it makes it quicker and easier to manage our inventory–we can analyze slow movers so much quicker. The old way, we’d be out to lunch.”

He says the system does require a manager to really understand its capabilities, but that it makes his business far more in tune with the market.

Change is constant, he says, and complexity is increasing.

“There is more of a desire for premium to mid-on the light truck side,” he says. Consequently, inventories must be in line.

“We stock more of the mid-to lower in the passenger [category] than we do in the pickup. There is definitely more dollar margin in the premium, but today there is also more of a need to carry two lines of chassis. A couple of years ago, that was not the case.

“This is difficult and it makes it more challenging for the jobber. Dual inventory is not a good thing.”

Still, he admits, people want the option of a “value line” even if in the end, their needs–many of the pickup owners in his region are very rough on their trucks–mean they choose the premium option.

John Thody, president of chassis parts supplier XRF, acknowledges that the market has changed–but really only on the surface.

“Our Michigan plant is near Milne Ford, one of the largest Ford dealers on the planet. From 1997 to 2002 their lot was full of Expeditions, then from 2002 to 2008 they had hundreds of Explorers, and now they have a lot full of Escapes. The SUV still lives, just in a more practical form.

“During periods of high fuel costs and–heaven forbid, the most un-American of all–environmental responsibility, the emphasis moves from ‘play vehicles’ to ‘work vehicles.’ Ford has recognized this and is making the new F150 at full speed.

“This shift is of little consequence to us, as these SUVs share platforms with working trucks: Excursion-F350, Expedition-F150, Explorer-Ranger. The same is true for the GM side,” he says.

“Regardless of the shift, there are tens of millions of these trucks on the road, they are aging, and they are kept in service longer, which translates into a huge chassis sales opportunity.”


Light Truck Opportunity Vehicles

Sometimes parts installed on the assembly line don’t last as long in the field as expected. XRF’s John Thody offers these market hints.

• Super Duty Fords have ball joint problems. The OE parts are not strong enough for those trucks that are doing serious work. Life expectancy is about 40 to 60,000 km. Good commercial-type ball joints should get at least 300,000 km.

• S10/S15 Truck/Blazers have a very high failure rate on upper ball joints. Counterpeople should be encouraging their customers to inspect every S10, every time one comes in the shop.

• Dodge Ram 2500/3500 2003 to 2005 MY 4X4 trucks have track bar and ball joint problems. The OE ball joints are failing in as few as 10,000 km. These trucks should be inspected every time one is on the hoist.

• Many of these trucks are raised or lowered or have had larger tires installed. For these trucks, an adjustable track bar is required to align the axle. If the counterperson asks the questions, he’ll get the sale.

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