While the days of replacing ball joints and bushings are not exactly over, the relatively recent introduction of control arm assemblies is having a huge impact on stocking requirements and sales of control arms.
As OEMs continue to work towards meeting the increasingly tough CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards for better fuel efficiency and lighter weight, modular chassis componentry is becoming standard equipment. Comparatively light unitized control arm assemblies have quickly become mainstream, saddling jobbers with both a sales boon and a SKU challenge.
All-in-one control arm assemblies are mainly constructed of lightweight aluminum, making them more susceptible to becoming banged up than the components they replace, and they tend to wear out more quickly, making them a high-demand item. At the same time, the continued proliferation of individualized types for different vehicles has led to insurmountable SKU growth in this category. With the import car market rapidly closing in on the 50% mark for market share, chassis component manufacturers have responded to fill an increasing number of individualized replacement units.
“Our original strategy was to carry [the primary] control arms that needed to be replaced, either a forged unit or an aluminum unit,” explains John Thody, president of XRF Chassis, a Brampton, Ontario-based manufacturer. “That is what we committed to, but the demand has just been so huge, we’ve now committed to have 1,060 part numbers by April of 2014. This represents a huge tooling investment for us.”
Thody compares this shift in the market to the popularity of strut assemblies, as opposed to shock absorbers and spring assemblies. “Manufacturers keep looking for ways to take the weight out of the vehicles, particularly the unsprung weight,” adds Thody. “But when you change the way the suspension is, it can reduce the weight and strength of the control arm.”
Traditionally, aftermarket manufacturers only carried a couple of hundred control arms, since it wasn’t viewed as a replacement part unless there was an accident that twisted and damaged it. But in the past five years or so, the industry has seen a substantial increase in demand for broader coverage.
“We recently added the ACDelco line along with the Moog and Beck/Arnley lines we already carry, just to keep up with demand,” explains Earl Bakewell, manager, Lordco Parts Ltd. in Osoyoos, B.C. “For Moog we have a new line code specifically for control arms so we can control growth and monitor sales. We also have Dorman available as well.”
Not long ago, import vehicles were specialized and only supported by specialty parts suppliers like Worldpac, Altrom, Auto-Camping, etc. But jobbers have recognized this segment is a growth area for them. “With imports now representing close to 50% of the market, it’s simply too large a segment to ignore,” observes Thody.
The proliferation of vehicle nameplates and platforms has been occurring for several years now, but one of the more significant trends is the rise of Korean nameplate applications that are now entering the aftermarket repair cycle. The good news is that the owners of these vehicles are now more likely than ever to look to the aftermarket service provider rather than the dealer for repairs.
For technicians, replacing a complete control arm assembly can increase productivity. Replacing the complete assembly, instead of taking the arm out and replacing the ball joint and bushing, means less time in the bay.
“If you have a load-bearing arm, the control arm bears the weight of the vehicle, and to replace it requires a lot of pieces to be removed from the vehicle,” says Thody. “So if the bushings are fine, the technician can just replace the ball joint rather than the entire arm. But that decision is in the hands of the technician, who may find it more efficient to replace the entire assembly.”
Often, if a ball joint has failed, there may be fatigue in the control arm anyway, so it would be quicker and probably better for the vehicle owner to restore the vehicle back to an OE-level suspension system, adds Thody.
“Our coverage is good and availability is good. It just seems that with some of the Ford applications we come across, for instance, if you have an original control arm, sometimes the aftermarket ball joint won’t fit so you have to fit in the control arm assembly with the ball joint. There are a few weird things now and then, so you have to make sure you have both applications on the shelf to cover it off,” explains Bakewell.
“We still sell a lot of ball joints, but when the option is available, the shops usually go for the control arm. It’s quicker, easier and you can do a quick alignment and the vehicle is out the door,” he adds.
Statistics show that as consumers hold onto their vehicles for longer periods, when they do have repairs performed, they want the repair shop to use the best parts for enhanced performance and longer life. Additionally, because so many foreign-nameplate vehicles are equipped with lighter-weight suspensions and low-profile tires and wheels, changes in steering response are much more apparent. This makes premium technology the best choice for avoiding an unwanted comeback.
According to Bakewell, his Lordco Parts location carries about 35 units in ACDelco, about the same in Moog, and a little bit less in Beck/Arnley. “I’m in more of a domestic area here with a lot of trucks, plus I can pull availability from our other stores in the immediate area, like Penticton where I get two runs a day or Kelowna where I get one run a day, plus I have overnight delivery from the main warehouse and so it’s pretty good coverage,” he adds.
As far as keeping inventory current, Lordco does a regular annual rotation. “Right now I’m doing my rotor line, so I get rid of all my dead stock and bring in the new numbers. There are going to be numbers that have been sitting on the shelf that you have never sold or maybe sold one of, so you get rid of it and bring the new number in,” explains Bakewell.
“With the foreign nameplates, in most cases you can’t get just the ball joint, you have to do the control arm, and if you look at the suspensions now, you are not just talking the front end; you’re also talking the rear on many vehicles. If it’s got control arms on the back, then you’re doing those as well. The design of cars is changing so I would say this market is definitely growing.
“We do get a fair bit of import sales too, for makes like Saab, BMW, and Infinity, so it’s tough to get in a range of inventory that keeps everyone happy. But availability from other stores really helps with this situation,” he adds.
Having the right inventory in stock is the key to strong sales. “I keep a basic inventory of what’s provided from our head office that is updated regularly, and whatever the popular makes may be within the region, my inventory would be based on this. It’s never perfect but it works pretty well,” says Bakewell.
It’s prudent for jobbers to work with their local repair shops to develop collaborative strategies that will help both parties increase their share of this growing category.
“The shops we supply always have preferences for certain brands, for sure. We also carry the Quick Steer line from Moog, which is an economy line for customers that can’t afford the lifetime warranty control arms. Though I find that most shops will only install lifetime warranty parts because they want to stand behind the work. The lifetime warranty is a big selling feature. Most people are willing to pay extra for this. After all, when you really think about it, why would you pay $25 for a ball joint when you should be installing one with lifetime warranty for $78?” asks Bakewell. “And with the Moog line, a lot if it is comprised of Problem Solver components. So they have actually upgraded the part and solved the problem of the OE’s original part.”
As he concludes, “Over the last couple summers I have sold a lot more control arms than I have in the recent past. And I don’t see that growth slowing down anytime soon.”
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