While some parts of the country had an early warning as far back as September that winter was on its way, most of the country will be coming to terms with its inescapable reality only now.
When it comes to car ownership and car care in Canada, the paradox is inescapable: at precisely the time when a car might need the most attention, weather conspires to make it the least attractive activity.
While many might think of car care as little more than wax and polish on a summer’s day, car care cannot, and does not, stop in winter. It does however, change. And planning goes out the window.
“That’s exactly what happens,” says Bob Ritchie, owner, Action Automotive & Industrial Supply in Newmarket, Ont. “The demand starts when the first storm brings the first bit of snow. It’s no different in chemicals than it is in wipers,” he says of the impulsive nature of consumer behaviour.
“Too many people now do not prepare themselves right. I think we are all the same.”
Which means, of course, that jobbers are the ones who need to be prepared to fill the demand when it does come.
Ritchie, like many jobbers, preorders many of his high-volume chemicals. Antifreeze/coolant and windshield antifreeze comes in by the caseload. And his biggest orders of other chemicals that will help car owners coax life into their cars follow suit.
“You are going to sell it,” he says, but it is a bit of a guessing game.
“I think you want to prepare,” he says about booking programs and bulk orders. “You can speculate and you might get stuck with it, so you have to be reasonable. But with some chemicals, as with block heaters, when you get that first cold snap, you can’t find one anywhere.”
In general, buying patterns do change in the winter.
Vinz Pingol, product manager, Canada, Castrol North America, says that motor oil grades see a bit of a shift.
“The 5W30 is obviously used more throughout the winter season, as opposed to the 10W30 grade which is still the most popular,” says Pingol. “It comes down to having it because that is what the manufacturers are recommending,” though he adds that it is just a matter of time before the 5W30 becomes the most popular grade, as it is being recommended by vehicle manufacturers more and more.
In any case, it is likely the right way to go for the cold weather anyway.
“If you look in an owner’s manual, most will recommend it below a certain temperature.”
Of course, nothing can perform in cold weather conditions as well as synthetic lubricants. It is, after all, why they were created to begin with.
In the early 1960s, ExxonMobil engineers were called upon to resolve a problem plaguing military planes based on aircraft carriers. While the planes were aloft, the grease in their wheel bearings would sometimes solidify in the cold, resulting in bearing failure when the planes slammed down onto the short landing deck of the carriers.
By the late ’60s, this technology was used to develop a synthetic motor oil for a very specific application — helping the big diesel engines powering oil rigs on Alaska’s North Slope start and run at temperatures as low as minus 40C.
Anybody who has tried to start a diesel on a cold winter’s night knows that every little bit can help. Even for those who don’t drive big rigs, the benefits can be quite noticeable.
“When we first launched synthetics we focused on the winter,” says Pingol. “You can notice it in the ease of starting the car. We still recommend it all year round, but it is an easier sell in the winter.
“It’s all about educating the consumer. The enthusiasts are into synthetic, but it is really a motor oil that everyone can benefit from, not just enthusiasts and racers.
“The easiest way to sell synthetic is let consumers know you have it.”
Shane Roebuck, head counterperson at Joe’s Farm & Auto Supply, Yorkton, Sask., certainly knows a thing or two about cold weather chemicals.
“We get our share of 30 below for about a month. But it’s still spur-of-the-moment. They buy what they need. They don’t buy anything and just put it on the shelf.”
Accordingly, his store needs to stock a fair amount of diesel fuel anti-gel and fuel oil conditioners, primarily for the agricultural industry that makes up a large part of the trade in Yorkton. There is also gasline antifreeze and winter starting fluid, that many farmers rely on particularly for some of the older equipment they may have on site.
“When it gets below zero, the older tractors need some help,” he adds.
Counterperson John Derksen says customers at Action Automotive (1981) Ltd. in Red Deer, Alta., don’t have much call for many of those items.
“Gasline antifreeze, starting fluid, that’s pretty much history now,” he says, though he admits there is still the occasional customer for those products.
Catering largely to automotive customers, Derkson says that he still sees a fair degree of chemical sales in the winter, and keeping a well-stocked display near the front of the store helps that.
“We have a little area up front. It makes a big difference. When people walk in they can see what you have,” says Derksen.
Many of the store’s chemicals are of the professional type, though–items such as fuel system cleaners–and these do see a brisk trade in the winter months.
“It works great for us.”
While Red Deer, and most other parts of Canada, will see their fair share of snow and ice this winter, it does not mean that cosmetic car care products fall completely off the demand curve. A sunny day, even in winter, will coax a few hardy souls out to wash their cars. And when they can’t do that, many still want to keep their cars looking as good as possible.
“Washes and waxes tend to be seasonal,” says Rick Steinbrenner, director of marketing, DuPont Car Care at Tenneco Automotive. “But detailing, protectants, and tire shine get probably double the incidence of summer. It’s all related to how important your car is to you.”
Steinbrenner, who is poised to roll out a new set of products to the traditional aftermarket building on the lineup of cleaners and protectants launched earlier this year, says that the entire category appears to show no signs of declining.
“We focus on the consumer and try to fulfill their needs the best way we can. We want to make a buck, but we want to do it supplying the best product we can.”
And that is an approach that anybody in the aftermarket can appreciate, whether you’re a multinational supplier, or the person at the counter talking to a customer.