The belt and hose market still represents a lucrative opportunity, according to Roger Donovan, sales and marketing manger for R. K Buzzell Ltd., a 90-year-old Atlantic Canada wholesaling operation based in Moncton, N.B.
“And it is one of the few product categories that dealers [service providers] are still willing to stock–certainly with belts, though not so much with hoses,” he says. “There are just so many part numbers you need in hoses now, and things are such a tight fit under the hood that you pretty much need the specific hose for that application.”
However, the belt segment of the market has seen some strong growth recently, notes Donovan. He credits education on how to inspect belts, particularly serpentine belts, which do not show aging in the same way as those made of previous- generation materials.
“Unfortunately, it is the kind of hidden thing that you have to look for. They just don’t crack the way they used to.” Nowadays, the signs of imminent failure are more subtle.
“But now they have that [wear inspection] tool. That has become a real asset to the guys, and again that is something that all of the dealers and their technicians should really be trained to use.”
Donovan says that much as the tool has been a boon to those businesses using it, there remains room for improvement.
“It is a lucrative market, but service providers really have to be trained to look for that business. The consumer would surely be grateful if they did. If they’re not told about a worn belt and it breaks, they’re not happy. Usually when they let go you’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re stuck.
“Technicians should be checking every time their car’s hood is up.”
Capturing those somewhat hidden, but necessary, belt and hose sales has long been the mantra of this market. Even before the serpentine belt adopted the ethylene propylene diene, or EPDM monomer, failures of other rubber components have been seen as difficult or impossible to inspect.
Electrolytic degradation was revealed years ago as the cause of much hose weakening and failure, but it too was an inside- out failure process, making detection (and therefore the necessity for replacement) difficult. Fissures that formed on the inner surface would gradually work their way through the hose until internal pressure overwhelmed the remaining thickness and, without any outward warning signs, you had a leak.
Jeff Fortin, owner of Fortin’s Auto & Machine Shop in Chilliwack, B.C., says that there are a number of factors affecting how, and how well, jobbers can serve a market in the newly expanding part-number universe.
“The market is changing. Basically you have the name brands and you have the white box, and there seems to be an intermediate market. The strategy that the jobber picks is going to be a reflection of how he sees the market and how he wants to be seen by the market.”
This represents a significant change from the days where jobbers could effectively serve cornerstone product categories with one brand.
“It appears today that in many cases, you have to carry two brands: top and low, or top and mid. That makes it tougher on the jobber from an SKU perspective.”
Fortin says that, alongside the need to improve market penetration by offering different products at different price points, today’s jobber needs to have better coverage than ever.
While he agrees that the sentiment, “you can’t sell from an empty shelf,” is not new, the need to have product on hand is increasingly acute; customers simply won’t wait.
“Either you are in the game or you are not. If you don’t have the inventory on hand, the customer will not wait; many are on one e-catalogue or another, so with a few clicks they can check everybody in town’s inventory.”
Fortin also urges jobbers to take a more sophisticated approach to pricing. His Home Hardware business has provided him with insights into how much market research other sectors can do just to stay competitive.
“It is more important than ever for jobbers to use intel- ligence to know where their competitors are in regards to pricing. The jobber can’t go blindly into the market now. He has to go into the market knowing where he needs his pricing to be.”
No more “standard mark-up”; pricing needs to be based on competitive forces and the jobber’s need to deliver a bottom line.
“There is a very fine balance to being where you need to be to compete, and having enough profit margin to keep your doors open.”