In the face of expanding emissions testing, particularly in Ontario, jobbers and their counterpeople would do well to tune up their merchandising skills as they apply to emissions-related chemicals and fuel system cleaning.
While the AirCare program has been operating in B.C.’s Lower Mainland area that encompasses Vancouver for many years now, Ontario drivers are just learning about emissions testing. The province’s Drive Clean program debuted in April of 1999 and Phase 2 is set to go into effect in January 2001.
While Phase 1 covered the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton-Wentworth regions, Phase 2 expands the program to include 13 other areas. Drive Clean Phase 2 covers Peterborough, Barrie, Guelph, Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, Brantford, Niagara Falls, Welland, St. Catharines, London, Sarnia-Clearwater-Point Edward and Windsor and their commuter areas.
Jobbers who are doing business in any of these areas may have already seen some activity in response to notices sent out to car owners.
In truth, the experience of jobbers in areas where emissions programs are in place varies widely. Some have found a strong expansion in the interest level of consumers in chemical solutions, or insurance, prior to having their vehicles tested, while others have found that growth has been in mechanic-installed approaches.
John Ricketts, who owns and runs The Partsman in Oshawa, Ont., was onboard with Drive Clean early and admits that he had to put aside his preconceived ideas about chemical solutions, ideas he developed from working as a technician and garage owner for several decades.
“You can’t buy a wrench in a can, yet there is a market for DIY people and we sell a lot of it,” sells Ricketts. “We were very skeptical about all the guarantees, but we actually did have some before and after tests, and had printouts and it did work.”
Ricketts says that he puts more stock in the ability of professional, equipment-based fuel system cleaning, which stands to reason, but even some installers have built in the in-tank chemical as part of a tune-up package that can get a vehicle through a test. “The guys who might handle the whole transaction for the customer–the tune-up, the oil change–they’re recommending that it may clean the emissions up enough to get them through the test.”
Doug Coates, vice-president sales and marketing for Lordco Auto Parts in B.C., says that the advent of emissions testing has been very good for chemical products targeted at customers concerned about their vehicle’s ability to pass.
“I think AirCare made the consumer aware that there were those types of products and that those types of products can make a difference.” He says that the positive impact has been on both the retail and the wholesale side. He says that the retail approach has been to put the products in high-visibility locations, not just lumped in with all other chemical products. He says too that the products aren’t proving to be price sensitive.
“I don’t think people are necessarily looking for bargains. It’s part impulse, part upsell, and I think that there are some brand loyalties. I don’t think price is a factor.” A strategy that has also worked for the company on the retail side is providing incentives to counterpeople and encouraging counterpeople to recommend fuel system cleaners and emissions-reducing chemicals when a customer comes in to purchase other tune-up items, such as an air filter.
Retail sales can be an opportunity for even the jobber without much walk-in.
Paul Barber, co-owner of UAP Auto Parts associate store in Milton, says that even though his store only does about 10% of its business over the counter, he makes sure that customers who do walk in have a good view of the products available. He carries three different brands of packaged fuel system products, and when it comes to emissions reducing products, it’s an easy sell. “We get people asking for it. We keep a display on the counter all the time and we have a chemical display up front.” He says that hard parts sales have increased–EGR, catalytic converters and other tune-up products–but says that chemicals have also increased in popularity. “Usually they buy it because they don’t want to take the chance on whether their car will pass. I guess it makes people feel better.”
Ron Rayner, general manager at Warden Automotive in Toronto, says that most cars seem to pass the testing if they have been properly maintained. “I think the guys are getting the most success using the proper injection system cleaners. I think they get better results than the products that go into the gas tanks.” But the professionally installed injection system cleaning also has a higher cost than the off-the-shelf chemicals.
Consumers don’t need to be facing possible failure to want to avail themselves of a little extra insurance. This is why it is important to place these products in high visibility locations.
It is also important to provide some degree of outside exposure, whether that be through flyers, newspaper advertising, or store signage visible from the street.
In Ontario, since vehicle registrations are keyed to the month of an individual’s birthday, most drivers wait until the last minute to get their cars tested. It may be helpful to create some promotions that run in the second half of a month. This way you can be efficient about where you spend your promotional dollars.
Jobbers have also found that performing a little bit of research about the products they sell can be helpful in having a credible discussion with a walk-in customer. If you have done some testing yourself, and can say that it has helped, it will go a long way to convincing the customer. Of course, you don’t want to over-claim about what such in-tank products can do, but nor should you characterize them as snake oil. There are just too many tests out there to prove that they do provide some benefits, though they can’t fix serious problems. If you, as a counterperson, are not well versed in this product category, you can always refer to the packaging, which often has good information, or product brochures. These products do provide some relief, some degree of insurance, and some peace of mind, and that is likely what your customers are looking for. Just don’t make them look too hard.