Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2002   by Dennis Mellersh

Cover Story: Changing the Landscape: Light truck service parts opportunities

Few factors have had the impact that the light truck has had on the aftermarket. From replacement rates to accessory sales, the light truck and its cousin the SUV have formed the basis of a persistently positive trend in sales that shows no sign of slowing down.

There are a number of factors driving growth in this market:

Heavier use than passenger cars, such as rougher driving, carrying heavier loads.

Heavier vehicle weight causes greater parts wear.

Generally more kilometers driven than passenger cars.

Greater frequency of repairs than passenger cars.

Many and diverse new models are now entering the aftermarket.

Strong desire for appearance and performance accessorization by owners making business statements or personality statements with their vehicles.

Need for strong, improved, high quality replacement parts.

Increasing timeframe of the light truck ownership cycle.

Excellent upgrade or upsell potential.

For Dennis DesRosiers, president of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, the scope of the market for light truck service parts is a logical extension of vehicle use. “The service parts market for undercar and underhood is significant. The essential reason is that drivers of these vehicles often use them in tougher use situations. The more you drive them and the rougher the use, the greater will be the need for repairs and service parts.”

Statistics from the CAA’s 2001 Vehicle Ownership Survey illustrate a number of interesting factors in the light truck market. The light truck category includes compact pickup, large pickup, compact sport utility, intermediate sport utility, large sport utility, luxury sport utility, compact van, and full-size van.

Light trucks are shown to have higher kilometers driven on them compared with passenger cars, particularly in the higher mileage areas. For example, 17% of passenger car users drive their vehicles 20,000 to 24,999 kilometers a year, compared with 20% in the light truck category. For the 25,000 to 49,999 kilometers per year category, the percentages are 23% for passenger cars and 27% for light trucks. Looking at the mean kilometers driven, it is 20,830 for passenger cars compared with 22,147 for light trucks.

Looking at components that have been repaired, replaced, or had problems in the past 12 months, suspension, wheels and tires were 31% for passenger cars compared with 32% for light trucks; instruments and accessories were 22% for passenger cars and 24% for light trucks; interior trim and fittings were 10% for passenger cars and 13% for light trucks; transmission was 8% for passenger cars compared with 11% for light trucks; steering was 7% for passenger cars compared with 9% for light trucks; final drive was 6% for passenger cars and 9% for light trucks.

In addition to these higher figures for component repair, replacement or problems, the survey also showed that the mean dollar amounts for regular servicing and repairs for light trucks was higher at $873 than passenger cars at $790.

Bill Sykes, regional sales manager and technical director for Satisfied Brake Products, told Jobber News, “Our findings show that the light truck market segment has held up very well and is showing some growth. Recently we introduced ceramic pads and these should do very well because they can handle the heat and braking demands of these vehicles. Light trucks are generally more demanding on brakes because of the weight factor.” Accordingly, the company also manufactures a line for SUVs.

“On the late models of these vehicles, generally the front wheels do 80% of braking. After 2002, regulators are expected to introduce regulations for SUVs that will make them have the same braking requirements as passenger cars. The regulators want a shorter stopping distance for these heavier vehicles.”

In looking at braking systems, Sykes says, “ABS is here to stay because it is a much safer way to stop a vehicle in a potential skid situation. I would strongly suggest that jobbers recommend using disc pads designed specifically for light trucks and SUVs, particularly ceramics.”

From the perspective of ignition and emissions products for the light truck market, Doug Morrison, technical service manager for NGK Spark Plugs Canada, says that the market is quite strong, with the van area being consistent and also because of the launch of so many new light truck products in recent years, particularly in the SUV area. “More service business is now going back to garages because it is much tougher to DIY these vehicles,” Morrison says. “Replacing ignition products used to be fairly straightforward. Now the plugs are hard to get at and you often have to remove components.”

Morrison says jobbers need a good breadth of SKUs to serve the market effectively. “We have a program which breaks down the area by postal code and by cars and trucks, so we can tell the jobber what they should be stocking for their area.” It is the only way to be effective and keep inventory investments at a reasonable level.

“The area you are in makes a big difference in terms of spark plug and oxygen sensor requirements. Platinum plugs are an example. It’s very important to make sure that you are stocking and recommending the right types of platinum plugs. You have to use what’s specified or an exact equivalent. Plug choice is critical with the heavy load driving of light trucks,” Morrison says.

The light truck market for underhood products such as engine management components, tune-up parts and ignition systems has held up very well this year, especially in Western Canada, according to Allan Crosbie, marketing manager for engine products, Automotive Aftermarket Group, Dana Canada Inc.

“There is also a trend whereby people are hanging onto their vehicles such as light trucks longer. And this brings these vehicles into the aftermarket. On top of this, a lot more new models, particularly SUVs, were introduced that are now five years old. The popularity of light trucks is a significant market factor and light truck sales continue to be strong which is good for the future of the aftermarket in this vehicle category,” Crosbie says.

Crosbie believes it is important for jobbers and installers to encourage their customers to keep their light trucks tuned up. “Generally these vehicles are harder on fuel and customers will often ask the technician what they can do about it. The tune-up is an opportunity to provide better fuel economy with these vehicles, but you have to educate the consumer about these factors.” He counts worn-out wire sets and oxygen sensors as examples, but says customers need to understand how sophisticated engine management has become.

“You have to get across the idea that with light trucks you need a systems approach to engine management for better performance and better gas consumption,” he says. “Consumers must also pay close attention to the recommended change intervals for servicing and components with these vehicles.”

There is strong growth potential in the light truck market in the view of Arne Abrey, general manager, RAD Limited. “We find for example that the newer light trucks are engineered to have a more car-like ride. Consequently when the light truck customer carries a heavier load or is towing a trailer, for example, they may find that their vehicles need some ride control helper products.

“This is where suspension helper systems come in, which can include products such as heavier springs and heavier coils. The customer needs something to make the ride control system more suitable for the load. The newer air springs, for example, have greatly improved in quality over the past few years. They are very suitable as ride control helpers because they can be adjusted for any factor between a car-like ride and for heavier load requirements. They can be optioned so that they can be controlled from the dashboard for varying loads, such as you might have in a commercial light truck,” Abrey says.

“Overall the light truck market is a very good upgrade and service market, but we must educate the consumer to the fact that these products are available. For the future, I think that light trucks and SUVs will hold up very well. North Americans like these heavier vehicles,” Abrey says.

Brian Fleming, marketing manager, Dana Brake and Chassis, is upbeat about light truck potential. “This segment is an excellent opportunity
. They are still a huge part of the market. When you include minivans and SUVs, there are many of these types of vehicles on the road. Light trucks are very hard on the chassis and brakes. They are wear parts.

“Looking at just one aspect of brake potential, a lot of light trucks are a good opportunity to upsell to ceramic because of the dust problem. Ceramics have very low dusting. In addition, developmental work in ceramics has achieved great success in reducing the brake noise factor,” Fleming says.

He says that it is particularly important to steer customers away from scrimping on brake and chassis parts with these vehicles due to their heavier usage profile. He also advises jobbers to take extra care when deciding on inventory.

“From a SKU perspective, the jobber’s market area will dictate what’s on his shelf. However, the mix is very important to know with the light truck segment because the wear factors with these vehicles are all different. Some of them, for example, are much harder on front end parts,” Fleming adds.

Taken together, the diversity of vehicles that make up the light truck/SUV segment do provide challenges for the aftermarket in terms of inventory investment and the need to sell quality, durable parts at a time when price pressures are hard to ignore. The good news is that the changes that this market is forcing on the distribution chain have undeniable benefits to both your profit line and that of your customers. And that’s a change for the better.

Accessory Market Remains Strong

Whether you are looking at bed protection, bed covers (tonneau covers), spoilers, visors, hood shields, hood scoops, grill covers, side window vents, storage boxes, running boards, styling covers, rear valences, specialized lighting, or other similar products, the accessories market for light trucks is performing well and has a lot of upside potential.

Craig Kurvers, director of product marketing for Lund International, says, “New light truck vehicle sales are a tremendous market driver for the accessories segment. We are enjoying very strong sales overall and a lot of this is attributable to the strong new vehicle sales of full-size pickups and SUVs. In addition, the aftermarket is still very strong for us.

“These are high-end vehicles, and high-end consumer dollars are involved. A lot of our customers use their vehicles for work and for their own businesses and they want their vehicles to make a statement reflecting their business. In effect they are using their vehicle as an advertisement for their business.”

He says that jobbers can emphasize the “complete look” instead of individual products as customers of one product are often ready to purchase others as well.

“This desire by customers for an image is a real opportunity to sell a whole package and there are all kinds of accessories right from the front of the vehicle to the back of the vehicle that can be functional, stylistic or both,” he says.

John Remakis, marketing manager for Hella Inc., which supplies a wide range of automotive lighting products including light truck auxiliary lighting, says the light truck market has held up remarkably well and shown great resilience during the general economic downturn after September 11.

“One of the reasons for the strong lighting accessories market for light trucks is that there have been many dramatic design changes in these vehicles and people enjoy accessorizing them,” he says.

“Accessory lighting for light trucks is especially important in rural areas for seeing deer and other road hazards. Jobbers can highlight these products in the fall from the safety viewpoint of augmenting existing lights during the darker winter months.” He says that installation is not difficult for the DIYer or even a jobber who wants to provide this service. “These products are quite compelling, not just for looks but also for safety reasons,” Remakis says.

Suspension Inspection Opportunity

Inspection is always key when diagnosing steering anomalies. Here’s a tip for your customers.

When a light truck owner complains of vague steering control (road wander) or wheel shimmy, it is obvious that an inspection of the steering and suspension system should follow. However, this should go beyond an alignment check and inspecting for worn ball joints and tie rod ends. On Dodge vehicles in particular, track bar problems have been found to be the cause of some steering and suspension performance issues.

Within the Dodge brand, the track bar is used only on 4X4 vehicles and R3500 two wheel drive trucks using a tube type front axle. To properly inspect the track bar, DaimlerChrysler has outlined the following procedure.

The inspection must be performed with the vehicle’s weight on the wheels, in normal running position. The inspection can be performed on the ground (shop floor) or on a drive on, ramp type, service lift. If the inspection is performed on an alignment machine the front wheels cannot be on the floating turntables.

1. Center the steering wheel with the wheels straight ahead. Then turn the steering wheel 90 to the left.

2. Position a dial indicator tool with the indicator tip at the cover plate next to the grease fitting. Mount the indicator base to the left frame rail in front of the track bar socket. Preload the plunger slightly and zero the dial. Note: The dial indicator tool plunger must be perpendicular to the cover plate.

3. Rotate the steering wheel 180 to the right. Note the amount of movement registered by the tool. Repeat this procedure three times and record the highest reading. Zero the dial each time.

4. Replace the track bar if the movement in the socket exceeds .080″ in any of the tests. This procedure applies to 1994-2000 Dodge Ram trucks R1500, R2500, and R3500.

Service Note: Loosen the bushing mounting bolt before attempting to separate the left side stud. This will allow the bar to drop, giving you an indication that the taper is separated.

Source: Federal-Mogul Moog ServiceLink Bulletin.