Suspension testers have been in use in Europe for more than a decade, but have yet to find widespread acceptance in North America. Their utilization could boost ride control sales.
The battle to get consumers and professional technicians thinking about ride control has entered a new phase.
Beyond just the desire by various ride control suppliers to capture market share, the push to increase awareness on the part of the consumer towards the simple fact that ride control doesn’t last forever is being coupled with efforts to ramp up awareness campaigns within the trade.
ArvinMeritor Light Vehicle Aftermarket, maker of the Gabriel line, for example, has recently launched its checkyourshocks.com website, directed largely at building consumer knowledge of the function of ride control.
That site, which is largely unbranded save for a link to Gabriel.com, walks consumers through the functions of ride control, what the effect of degraded ride control can be–i.e. extended stopping distances–as well as how to perform simple inspections. Those who have been in the aftermarket for some time will recognize the importance of raising the awareness of the consumer.
They will also recognize the importance of raising the awareness of the professional technician. As part of its Light Vehicles Aftermarket University, ArvinMeritor offers professionals an on-line course in “Selling Shocks and Struts,” which features information about the shock and strut market, the most common reasons to recommend product replacement and other tools they need to communicate to their customers.
“We are pleased to offer our customer a valuable learning tool that they can access any time, anywhere,” said Marlen Silveri, vice president, Global Strategies, ArvinMeritor Light Vehicle Aftermarket. The on-line training also covers training on catalytic converters, air filters, OBD-II systems and performance exhaust.
The aspect of training can be handled in a variety of ways, and Tenneco Automotive–which supplies the Monroe brand–has opted for the hands-on approach with its Ride Safe Tour, a series of ride and drive events.
While the consumer aspect of that tour has perhaps received more attention, the trade aspect walks professional installers through a role-playing exercise that puts answers to a consumer’s ride control questions close at hand, as well as giving them an opportunity to practise their skills.
That program, which will run through dozens of cities in the U.S. and Canada, was launched in 2002 and will have put some 20,000 technicians through their paces by the end of this season.
It is probably fortunate that there is activity on a number of fronts, as the ride control market continues to decline.
In figures attributed to the Motor Equipment Manufacturers Association, the North American ride control market dropped from 33 million units in 1998 to 24 million in 2002. Vehicle aging should have had a positive effect on the market, but has not generated the expected upturn in demand.
Making consumers aware that ride control is not for the life of the vehicle–it is interesting to note that both ArvinMeritor and Tenneco have begun promoting an 80,000 km interval for ride control replacement–actually convincing them to do it is another.
There are, of course, two approaches to this. The first is to build the communication skills and tools of the service provider. To this end courses, such as the aforementioned ArvinMeritor on-line variety, help. But with voluntary replacement it is also important to convince the service provider to pursue the service opportunity.
“If the installer isn’t carrying any inventory, he is going to wait for that car to come into the bay,” says Bill Dennie, director, ride control channel, Tenneco Automotive. Out of sight, out of mind. “People aren’t just coming in for struts. They have to be sold.”
Of course, the idea that consumers would be forced to address degraded ride control through a government inspection program seems impossible. While those programs have been in Europe for more than a decade, they have failed to make inroads in North America, at least until now.
When New Jersey recently upgraded its safety and emission testing program, it chose to add inspection lane technology. In addition to emissions testing, the state also included brake and suspension testers. The test equipment can detect degraded ride control and other suspension anomalies by putting the car’s suspension through a series of high- and low-frequency oscillations, then reading the effect side-to-side as well as whether the tires lost contact with the road.
“Testing is probably the Holy Grail,” says Mark Christiannse, director product management, Tenneco Automotive. Prospects for expanded testing are not helped by the need to develop a database of vehicle performance. “Though I think the way they’re looking at it, they’re setting the parameters so wide that if you fail, you’ve got serious problems.”
Short of an expansion of mandatory testing, intelligent talk and a compelling safety argument is the best way for the aftermarket to smooth the road to increased ride control sales.
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