While the genesis of the light truck may have seen its share of low-tech, old engine designs under the hood, the current situation is very different and raises some important questions for jobbers:
What does the light truck sales onslaught mean to the jobber in terms of underhood parts sales?
Will inventory and SKU numbers become a nightmare?
Is light truck technology outpacing jobbers’ and installers’ ability to keep up to date?
Dennis DesRosiers, president of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, Richmond Hill, Ontario, notes that the light truck segment, which includes vans, pick-up trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs), is also further segmented by size, with three categories in each light truck segment: compact, intermediate and full-size.
“In 1999, there were six million light trucks on the road in Canada,” DesRosiers says. “We are heading towards further growth and within five years, 40+% of vehicles on the road will be light truck. When you look at the age characteristics of the fleet, you can see that as vehicles age, cars are disappearing faster than the light trucks.
“One of the results of this is that as a jobber, you have to carry stock for a lot of light trucks which can be more than 15 years old and everything in between. There will be more SKUs to cover this 15+ year period, and it will have to reflect three or four technology evolutions that have taken place in this period. Overall, there are many more light trucks on the road today than there used to be with a wide proliferation in models,” DesRosiers says. “One possible difficulty the current-models proliferation could present is that because aftermarket industry inventories and inventory management systems are reactionary, the aftermarket could be missing business and not realize it,” DesRosiers adds.
Cameron Young of Robert Bosch notes that in rural areas and in western Canada, light trucks, particularly the pick-up truck segment, are very strong. He says that because the technology of light trucks has run pretty well parallel to cars, there are the same opportunities for tune-up parts, particularly in the area of engine controls and sensors. He says, “We are selling our oxygen sensors as part of a tune-up line. The 02 sensor market is getting strong in light trucks, particularly with the advent of emission control programs such as Drive Clean. We believe that oxygen sensors should be checked and possibly changed as part of the tune-up procedure, and we are in fact recommending change intervals for sensors.” As part of its effort to keep the aftermarket informed of new underhood technology, the company puts out a detailed newsletter called the Reporter. One issue featured a detailed article on oxygen sensors.
One analyst indicated that SKU proliferation was being mitigated to some extent by how OEs are approaching model introductions and vehicle building. “With platform sharing at the OE level, it makes sense for the OE to do a lot of component sharing, including engines. There are, for example, a lot of instances where heavier car engines cross over to the smaller light vehicle segments. This is one of the reasons technology is relatively the same between light trucks and cars. And similar to cars, a lot of the same technology is being developed to meet emissions control standards.”
Although a wider breadth of SKUs is required to service this market with the continued increase of light trucks on the road, with the newer light trucks parts are not proliferating out of hand, because engine architecture changes are now more evolutionary.
The demand by OEs for systems integration from their parts and component suppliers is also tending to reduce the number of parts. So overall, the number of parts being introduced in new light trucks is stabilizing and probably declining.
If you look at the specs for GMC trucks, for example, engine commonality can be seen with a number of the models. The Envoy, a mid-size luxury van, the Jimmy, a mid-size SUV, and the Safari, a mid-size van, all use the Vortec 4300 engine, a 4.3-litre, six-cylinder unit. For the Savana (full-size van), the Sierra (full-size pick-up), and the Sonoma, a mid-size pick-up, the Vortec 4300 is standard with a number of other Vortec engines as options. It is not that many years ago when it seemed as if every model had its own distinct engine. The change is welcome.
Jim Blackley of Markham Automotive and Industrial Supplies Ltd., Markham, Ont., comments, “Basically, the technology is the same as cars — no big change. The part numbers may be different from cars, but in light trucks it is the same technology. We’ve found that installers are generally keeping up with the technological developments.
“Generally light trucks are entering the post-dealer aftermarket fairly quickly-such as ’98 and ’99 models now. One of the reasons is that people are driving a lot more now,” Blackley says. He notes that similar to cars, aftermarket electronics are reliable and are supplied by firms with good reputations. “A number of them supply to the OE market,” he says confidently. As far as inventory is concerned, Blackley comments, “You really have to know your area and the vehicles in it. We have been a UAP/NAPA Associate for 20 years and one of the ways UAP helps is through surveys that show the vehicle mix in the area–it’s like a vehicle demographic study. Then as a jobber, you just make sure that you have the inventory for those vehicles. It’s common sense. We are selling stuff for 1999 and year 2000 vehicles.” That may be a change from the passenger car market, but you can’t be afraid to carry the inventory, says Blackley.
And, when it comes to such late model applications, paper catalogs may have trouble keeping pace.
“They often don’t list parts numbers for ’99s or ’00s. I’m not saying they don’t have the parts, but they don’t appear to be listed.”
A rural central Ontario jobber comments that he just has to look around at vehicle dealerships in his area to see the increased presence of light trucks. Technologically, he sees no difference from cars. “If you look under the hood of a pick-up that someone wants to use for snowplowing, you’ll find there is no room under the hood to put in a hydraulic pump. The reason is that, just like cars, there is so much technology under the hood that all the space is used up. The technology is just like cars. As jobbers we have all learned to cope with new technology with cars, and the situation with light trucks is no different.”
Brent Berman is systems training manager, Fuel and Ignition Products, Federal-Mogul, St. Louis, Mo. He has an interesting perspective on underhood light truck sales potential. “For me, from a technical perspective, there are two categories of light trucks: (a) the light truck being used as a car for grocery shopping and other light uses; and (b) the light truck being used as a truck–carrying loads, towing and other heavier duty uses.”
He notes that because of the increasing market growth of light trucks, Champion introduced heavy-duty plugs and wires for those light trucks performing heavier duties and has found this program to be quite successful. “Stock parts just don’t cut it for heavier duty,” Berman says. “The jobber should be able to offer the customer a heavy-duty upgrade. Look at the two uses and find out how the vehicle is being used. The other factor in favor of heavy-duty upgrades is the fact these vehicles are bigger than cars and they are heavier. The perception is that they will wear out parts faster and this makes heavy duty parts an easier upsell.”
Berman says that part of the reason underhood parts proliferation is not the problem it might have been in light truck, is that at the retail vehicles sales level the options tend to be weighted more to comfort and accessories rather than engine and driveline. “Generally, there are now fewer engine/driveline options and this is good because the last thing the jobber wants is more inventory.”
Berman says that another factor limiting parts is that there is now more commonality between models and nameplates. “For example, if you tak e the main computer under the hood in a light truck, in many cases it will be the same as for a car from the same vehicle manufacturer–it is just programmed differently for the configuration of the vehicle. So it’s really a software issue rather than a hard parts issue and this helps keep SKUs down.” In addition, OEs are asking for more complete units with fewer parts from their suppliers and they are also demanding parts interchangeability and flexibility with the focus on modularity, says Berman. He cautions however that for the post-dealer aftermarket, there is still a need for the installer to keep up-to-date and to make sure that diagnostic equipment, for example, reflects current light truck technology.
Bart McCartney, manager of B.G. Auto Shop Inc, Winkler, Man., made some comments that agree with the assessment that technologically, newer light trucks are pretty well the same as cars. However, to McCartney that means the aftermarket challenges are also the same as with newer cars: “Underhood parts proliferation has been a problem for some time. The biggest problem is that these newer vehicles are quite complicated under the hood. Older trucks are not a problem, but with the newer ones, it is sometimes difficult for the installer to establish the exact part that is needed. Undercar, a truck is still basically a truck, but underhood is different.” McCartney is hoping that continued development of computer diagnostics programs will help make the installer’s job easier.
While that may or may not happen, one thing is sure: the light truck is here to stay and the sooner and more confidently the aftermarket can service this market, the brighter its future.