Auto Service World
Feature   October 1, 2007   by Dennis Mellersh

Chassis Parts Aftermarket Opportunities

Within the aftermarket chassis parts segment, there are several challenging issues that jobbers and their installer customers can turn into opportunities. These include the fact that there is a significant degree of under-performed maintenance in the chassis parts category; a general lack of consumer awareness of the critical role in vehicle safety played by chassis parts; and poor consumer understanding of the product differences in brands and the value chain within the chassis parts category.

Whereas most consumers will make sure their vehicles have regular oil changes and “under-the-hood” inspections, asking their local service provider to check their vehicle’s steering and suspension systems, for example, is not generally top-of-mind. And yet from a safety perspective, checking ball joints, bearings, tie rod ends, idler arms, control arm bushings, springs, shocks, struts and other chassis components is critical. Failure of these parts can lead to a highly inconvenient and expensive repair, or even an accident. As John Thody, president of XRF Inc., told Jobber News, “About 60% of aftermarket chassis work is transient. More often than not, failure of a ball joint, for example, will occur while driving on a trip, such as from Halifax to Montreal, for example, rather than when just leaving the driveway.”

Thody says that one of the reasons potential chassis parts problems are not caught early is that many vehicle owners today are getting their vehicles’ oil changes and lubes at instant lube outlets rather than at a traditional service provider/installer, thus missing the opportunity for a qualified undercar inspection.

Chassis parts failure is largely a result of such under-performed maintenance, and this is both a marketing and safety issue. In a Safety Initiatives overview, General Motors says, “According to the Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association, under-performed vehicle maintenance in the American automotive aftermarket industry is more than $50 billion annually. Brakes, shocks, struts and chassis components–all located under the vehicle–are among the most neglected parts… Chassis parts are out of sight and out of mind to most vehicle owners. Sometimes it’s not until a noise is unusual that it tends to get the motorist’s attention and motivate him/her to have the vehicle checked.”

Says Joe Stephan, global marketing director, steering products for Moog Chassis Parts, Federal-Mogul, “Today’s more demanding driving styles, increased annual driving mileage, and comparative shortfall in new road construction means there will continue to be a strong market for replacement chassis components. Tie rods, ball joints, idler arms, and other components play key roles in delivering the steering and handling precision expected by today’s consumers. Degraded steering and handling will be noticeable to many drivers, and jobbers and service dealers can tap into this opportunity.”

He adds that Federal-Mogul sees a growing demand for components that improve on original designs to enhance performance and durability and/or ease the installation process. “Jobbers who leverage the differentiated value of their chassis parts line, especially the value to the technician, will be able to forge stronger customer relationships,” Stephan says.

Discussing the value differentiation equation regarding the safety issue with chassis parts, Stephan says, “White box chassis parts deliver little value to the technician or vehicle owner. Because chassis parts are safety-critical wear components, you’re putting more than just your reputation on the line by offering an off-brand, which might not represent the right technology or quality needed for the application.”

“Chassis parts play key roles in protecting driving safety and preserving the ride and handling quality expected by most drivers. If consumers try to address ride and handling concerns or uneven tire wear by having an alignment performed, they need to remember that it’s impossible to properly align a vehicle without replacing worn or damaged chassis components. Jobbers should continually remind their shop customers to perform complete chassis inspections every time a vehicle is in for tire, brake and/or alignment service,” Stephan emphasizes.

Bill Dennie, director, ride control channel management, Monroe shocks and struts, Tenneco, says, “Ride control service is a huge, largely untapped opportunity for jobbers and service providers. Replacing worn ride control components can lead to noticeably improved ride and handling characteristics, which will help lead to a more satisfied and more loyal customer. It has been estimated that 50% of the vehicles on North American roads have at least one worn shock or strut.”

“The presence of a single worn ride control unit can degrade stopping performance by up to a full vehicle length and negatively impact steering precision and vehicle stability in certain driving conditions. Shocks and struts are safety components, above all, but are often wrongly perceived by consumers as ‘comfort’ components. Monroe recommends that shops perform ride control inspections on every vehicle that is in for an undercar repair of some kind,” Dennie says.

“To help jobbers and shops break through this perception problem, Monroe developed what is known as the ‘Safety Triangle’ initiative, which captures and communicates the key role of ride control parts in delivering safety-enhancing steering, stopping and stability. This Safety Triangle message and bright-yellow icon can be seen in billboards, on the Internet, and in leading consumer media. Monroe also developed a non-brand-specific consumer Web site,, which provides video demonstrations of the importance of periodic ride control inspections and replacement,” Dennie says.

“If you want your shop accounts to sell more ride control, ask your supplier to conduct on-site diagnosis and sales training for the shop owner, service writer and technicians. Monroe has found that its technical training clinics and ride-and-drive workshops often result in double-digit increases in ride control sales for participating shops,” Dennie says.

Ron Strain, program manager, chassis at Affinia Canada, notes that one of the reasons for the lack of consumer attention to developing chassis problems is the fact that wear is usually very gradual. So incremental effects, such as the alignment being slightly off, are often hardly noticed by the consumer because they gradually get used to the change in the steering. At the installer level, however, Strain says, “If the vehicle is not properly aligned, it will result in specific wear patterns on the tires and this alerts an installer to the alignment problem.”

Describing chassis parts in general as a significant and growing market, Strain says that the increasing popularity of light trucks presents some additional market opportunities as these vehicles seem to be moving towards more of a passenger car type of ride, a trend which involves changes in chassis systems and therefore new parts.

The bearings component of the chassis parts category is the fastest-growing aftermarket undercar segment, according to Doug Curliss, Canadian sales manager aftermarket for Schaeffler Canada, which markets the FAG and INA lines. One of the reasons for the growth is the proliferation of new car models, Curliss says.

According to Curliss, Schaeffler uses OE components in its lines. “Three-quarters of your headaches with bearing problems, such as return rates and revisiting of repairs, will go away if you use OE components. The public must be aware of the quality of parts that are going on their vehicles.” In terms of value, he says that although there are some good offshore lines, some offshore products can be prone to diagnostic problems due to incorrect readings, whereas “you do not have these problems with OE parts.”

Curliss says that most bearing sales result from replacement on demand, but that from a maintenance perspective, bearings should be chec
ked every 20,000 kilometres. Although bearings are constantly improving technically and the majority of them are now sealed, problems can still develop, such as water intrusion into bearings, particularly with trucks. Bearing maintenance is not on most vehicle owners’ to-do lists, and you can have bearing breakdowns if you don’t do proper maintenance, Curliss says.

“We are seeing a trend back to premium products in bearings. Over the years there has been a tendency to try to save money,” Curliss says. Now, however, there is a growing realization with consumers and installers that when quality is in the box there will be fewer problems and expense in the long term, he says.

Reviewing the gradual wear/consumer perception factor, automotive market expert Frost & Sullivan reports that “Ride control parts such as dampers and springs deteriorate imperceptibly and comprise a significant proportion of the total under-performed maintenance market. Serving this pool of undone maintenance represents a promising opportunity for manufacturers and distributors to propel industry growth. The companies’ challenge is to motivate technicians and consumers to perform justified maintenance on important suspension parts. Doing so can improve ride safety and extend a vehicle’s life. Given the volume of vehicles in North America, even capturing a fraction of the under-performed maintenance segment can boost industry revenues dramatically.”

Another Frost and Sullivan study on the North American steering hard parts market notes, “The industry suffers from low end-user knowledge about steering system parts… Many consumers and technicians are unable to recognize or appreciate salient differences between part brands, and this circumstance shifts their buying habits toward economy products. Low consumer appreciation enables the value tier to flourish, but inhibits the growth of the overall steering parts category. Unit prices fall, and the growth of the value tier is at the expense of premium tier sales… Only companies that manage their brands effectively can thrive under the stiff competition. Brand acceleration will be an important distinguishing factor in transforming the chassis parts market.”

Looking to the future for chassis parts, there could be significant opportunity for the aftermarket as OEMs turn to increasingly advanced and sophisticated systems and improvements in base suspension technology. For example, Frost and Sullivan notes, “Vehicle makers, to differentiate their products, are increasingly offering suspension enhancement technologies such as ride levelling, sports suspension, air suspension, and active suspensions systems in their vehicles…[in addition,] continuing improvements in base suspension technologies, especially where advanced materials and design concepts are incorporated, will ensure the growth of systems such as McPherson strut, double wishbone, and multi-link suspension systems through installation in volume vehicle models.”

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