Auto Service World
Feature   October 1, 2000   by Auto Service World

Cover Story: Wiper Market’s Untapped Potential Right Before Your Eyes

At $90 million a year, the Canadian replacement wiper market may sound like a tidy business, until you realize that this represents only about a quarter of its potential.

“The average replacement rate in Canada is once every 2-1/2 years. We recommend every six months to a year,” says Matt O’Brien, vice-president, specialty markets, Gates Canada. He says that there is generally little of the preventative approach to wiper replacement in Canada, with the possible exception of Quebec.

“In Quebec it’s more prevalent, where a fall winterization program is in effect. People change their tires, their thermostats, and switch to a heavier wiper blade.”

The safety sell is largely absent, in keeping with the typical customer’s lack of focus on wiper blades as a safety item.

“There seems to be a lot more attention (to wipers as a safety item) given at the consumer level in European countries,” says Cameron Young, national sales and marketing manager, Robert Bosch Inc. He says that discussion with his counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic have borne this out. “It just seems to be one of those things; the wiper blade is sold as a safety item and consequently the consumer has grabbed onto that.”

On this side of the Atlantic, the big push needs to come at both the retail DIY and the installed level if replacement rates for a local consumer base are to change. Since the drive to replace wipers is largely weather dependent–people only notice their wipers when they need them–tools to make wipers highly visible to the consumer are easy to come by.

“Because it’s such a high retail item, ‘in your face’ is the best opportunity to sell blades,” says Young. “It’s one of those times that, as important as it is for safe driving, it can be neglected without continual support from POP and signage.”

In order to encourage jobbers and their trade customers to get the items in front of the consumers, Bosch is offering a prepack, which offers a selection of 32 blades, plus two 18-inch blades and a backpack. “Initial response has been strong,” says Young of the program.

O’Brien agrees that prepacks and promotions–such as Trico’s offer of a polar fleece jacket with a prepack–help to remind jobbers of the category, and get them to freshen up their inventory.

“One of the keys with wiper blades is that, with the proliferation of different sizes, with some cars with two different sizes, it’s very important that the jobber keep an adequate inventory. You can’t just keep the four or five most popular numbers, then hope to draw down the inventory from the warehouse. The wiper blade market just doesn’t work that way,” says O’Brien. Gates has recently rationalized its wiper offerings, to clearly identify the Trico brand products as premium metal blades, while Tridon will become the second tier, plastic blade brand, though still offering full coverage. The move eliminates overlap in offerings and positioning in the market.

An important consideration in setting inventory levels, by both your jobbing business and by your installer customers, has to be the highly weather-dependent nature of the business. Sales in wiper blades may not have been tremendous in many parts of Canada due to the mild weather, but experience shows that harsh weather can put a premium on on-hand inventory. January of 1999, for example, brought one of the heaviest snowfalls to hit Southern Ontario and Toronto in particular. The result was a rush on wiper blades as drivers looked to replace bent and broken units. For those jobbers with inventory, this was a boon. For those without, it was a headache: call around as they did to warehouses and manufacturers, the cupboard was bare.

Interestingly, The Old Farmer’s Almanac predictions call for a winter that will be milder than normal in most of Canada, with British Columbia as the exception. However, snowfall is predicted to be above normal throughout most of the country. Albertans should also be aware that heavy spring snows are predicted.

Bob Ritchie, owner of UAP Associate Action Automotive, Newmarket, Ont., says he has found that an effective strategy relies on inventory, displays and selection.

“There is such a broad variety of pricing that I carry three different lines of pricing, and I sell lots of everything. Most of the foreign car people don’t mind paying for the best,” he offers as an example. “And I also have retail displays for all my customers if they want them. We do have them out there and I sell a lot of them to the lube places, because it’s an add-on sale.” He says that he has a few customers who do extremely well with wiper sales, but these are typically fast lubes, not the traditional independent repair facility.

“You can get oil changes from $14 to $19, so they have to have add-ons. And that’s simply what they do.” He says that traditional trade customers would do well to understand that the add-on sale is an important part of quick service like oil changes. There is, in fact, more profit in that wiper blade sale than in the standard, low-priced oil and filter service.

O’Brien agrees with this assessment, but reminds jobbers that it’s not the exclusive territory of the fast lubes. He says that some traditional garages have done an outstanding job of selling wipers, and adding the profits to their bottom line simply by paying attention to the category.

“These guys sell $40 to $50,000 a year in wiper blades at 60% margin. Jobbers can help themselves by reminding their installers to ask the consumer how their wiper blades are,” says O’Brien.

Sam Amlani can vouch for this fact first-hand. As vice-president and general manager of Minit-Tune & Brake Auto Centers, Amlani says that just over two years ago he noticed that two of the company’s two dozen outlets were selling significantly more wipers than the others. So he went to investigate. “Lo and behold it was just asking the question ‘How are your wipers?’,” he says. So, they made it part of their standard communication with customers, regardless of what service they were seeking. “The other thing is that 90% of our shops have them in the showroom. This prompts the customers to ask, too.”

The result of instituting this simple program of asking the customer the question and putting in the displays and inventory has been a 300% increase in wiper sales over the two years. “A lot of people don’t ask. It’s amazing how much of the aftermarket is really just about asking the customer.”

So, while the wiper market continues to be profitable, it’s nowhere near as large as it could be. Manifold increases in wiper sales don’t require sophisticated new ways of doing business or revolutionary new tools.

You don’t need an MBA in marketing to unlock new wiper business. As Amlani and Minit-Tune found out, it’s there for the asking.

Wiper Blade Sales Tips

1. Commit to a broad inventory with multiple price points. 2. Take advantage of point-of-sale and merchandising materials. 3. Get the word out to your staff and your customers: wiper profitability is strong. 4. Keep displays clean and stocked in your showroom and your customers’ showrooms. 5. Ask every customer about wiper performance and convince your trade customers to do the same.

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