Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2007   by Dennis Mellersh

Heavy on Premium Light Truck Light Truck Brakes

Price Product Need Not Apply

Jobbers and manufacturers agree that opportunities for premium and special application light truck brake parts are growing.

Encompassing pick-ups, SUVs, and vans, the light truck vehicle segment presents a varying spectrum of vehicle brake requirements and the aftermarket is apparently responding well.

“The [vehicle] is being shipped with premium, and people want to put back the original quality,” says Tyrone Blakney of Big S Automotive Parts, Strathmore, Alta. “People want good quality, particularly within the 10-year-old vehicle age segment, and they will pay the price. People know they get value with a name brand product. With fleets for example, lower price and lower quality are simply not an option. We are also transitioning to a top-of-the-line severe duty option in pads and rotors.”

In particular, ceramic technology has taken hold, he adds.

“Ceramic is very important, particularly in fleet applications. It is an absolute necessity for stopping power. It takes heat the best of any material. Ceramic is an expanding category and some light trucks are now coming with ceramics. Ceramics provide stopping power and durability for taxis, ambulances, courier service vehicles, and police cars. With the high cost of repairs and insurance, people don’t want to get into accidents,” Blakney says.

Ian Braunstein, vice-president, sales, Satisfied Brake Products Inc. agrees. “The premium brake market is alive and well.” He describes the premium segment as a value-added story, comprised of premium materials, premium performance, premium technology, premium presentation, and premium accompaniments.

“The consumer benefits of premium brake products are better performance, life, and wear as well as comfort factors such as minimal noise, vibration and harshness. In addition, with premium brake products, the materials can handle a wider level of stress and demand, which makes premium products more adaptable to the needs of drivers.”

It is a consumer-driven trend, Braunstein says. “A key factor in the premium equation is consumer confidence in the distribution channel, which in turn leads to confidence in the product. The cycle of quality from manufacturer to the consumer is ongoing with premium products. Once quality is recognized, the loyalties within the cycle begin.”

It is a win-win equation.

“The quality of the product being sold will affect the reputation of the distributor as well as the manufacturer of the product. All participants within the channel are responsible to insure that the right product is being sold to the end user. If a brake product is price- and commodity-focused, the product will typically perform proportionately and according to the cost.”

Understanding what premium products bring to the equation is critical.

“The knowledge of the jobber counterperson is hugely important,” Braunstein says. “Counterpersons must thoroughly understand the various types of brake products and their applications so they can tell customers what they are getting with a product. They must also know what the customer is using the vehicle for, and thereby be able to offer the customer distinct options. They should also be sensitive to the customer’s budget.

“Strong knowledge at the jobber level can help lessen customer price resistance. When the customer understands the features, benefits and the safety factors with premium products, it diminishes price resistance, because a comfortable relationship has been built,” Braunstein suggests.

Blakney agrees. “We have a veteran counter crew with very good knowledge, and consider that the counterperson’s knowledge is very important, especially with brakes and steering products. He must be able to make the customer aware of what they need,” Blakney emphasizes.

Braunstein also stresses that the aftermarket as a whole must take an active role in conveying the benefits of premium brake products. “In terms of knowledge and information, the manufacturer must provide assistance. In essence, the entire distribution channel should be one big line of information and communication from the manufacturer through to the consumer.”

Brian Fleming, director of marketing, Canada, for Affinia Canada Corp., says that there are some factors that distinguish the light truck from the passenger car. “In the light truck market, vehicle owners want the benefit of a premium brake product. These vehicles often have a lot of towing power and this application requires premium brakes.”

Safety issues, he says, should not be glossed over.

“It is sometimes difficult for the consumer to understand the differences in benefits between various brake products, so it is important to keep educating the installer and the counterperson so they can explain features and benefits to the customer. Education is key. People have differing expectations or needs and the counterperson must be able to offer a product meeting those needs. If customers are focusing on price, you won’t be able to move them without a thorough knowledge of premium product features, benefits and applications,” Fleming says.

And it’s not just about friction.

“The industry is readily accepting premium for friction but we have to remember that friction is only part of the braking system–there is a whole family of premium products including drums, rotors, calipers, associated hardware, and hydraulic components. We must think in terms of the entire braking system [with] premium–don’t restrict [premium offerings] just to friction.”

The issue is seen as so important, Federal-Mogul gathered its brake team for a conference call. Peter Murnen, global director, friction, Christopher Battershell, product manager, and Kevin O’Dowd, group brand manager, recently reviewed developments in the light truck premium and severe duty brake parts segment.

The premium brake category for light truck continues to grow and is a good opportunity for jobbers, in Federal-Mogul’s view. Growth is partly a reflection of the changing mix of vehicles on the road, namely the popularity in light truck. But there is more to it.

“With new vehicle technologies, drivers are expecting much greater overall performance from their vehicles. Drivers are also making larger investments in purchasing these vehicles, and are thus less tolerant with issues like noise, dust, or brake fade,” says O’Dowd.

One of the key benefits the Federal Mogul brake group sees in premium and heavy or severe duty, particularly with the latter in commercial use, is the increase in miles between brake jobs due to reduced wear and tear on pads and rotors.

The key is distinguishing between brake product types and the quality of those types.

“Premium is an industry definition of the grade of quality that suggests the level of performance and the precision of the application fit. On the other hand, severe/heavy duty, for example, is a type of friction deliberately designed and engineered for a more intense use, usually commercial. Severe duty brake pad designs feature formulations and overall pad engineering that are focused more on heavier load and endurance needs, and like conventional light-vehicle brake pads, severe duty brake pads are available in varying grades of quality,” says Murnen.

“Counterperson knowledge of brake products is critical in that they must understand all of the various product components and their applications. Counterpeople are really the ‘disciples of the product,’ and our company does everything it can to fortify these counterpeople with knowledge. Many drivers are unaware of the variety of quality levels and options from which to choose. We believe it is the jobber’s role and responsibility to help guide the customer/driver on the importance of premium grade brake products,” says O’Dowd.

The message seems to be getting through.

“Ceramics have taken over everything. It seems like everything is switching over to ceramic, and that’s what the garages are mainly asking for,” says Phil Arnott of Benson Auto in Nepean, Ont.

“With light
trucks, people don’t want the cheap stuff; they want quality. We are finding there is now a better-educated consumer, especially when it comes to trucks. They realize that cheap just isn’t going to last. Price is not a major factor when it comes to trucks, and in addition, there is no longer a huge price difference to go to premium. The driver of a one-ton pick-up carrying a full capacity load wants good brakes. We do a lot of fleet business involving trucks and these customers want quality,” Arnott says.

Knowledge is becoming a key factor in sales, he observes. “We are finding that more and more, counterpersons have to be well-educated. They have to know the right questions to ask, such as the vehicle model in question and the application, or how the truck is being used.”

There is good reason to ask. Gary Albright and Mark Henry of Marshland Auto Parts and Marine, Moncton, N.B., say that they have made that a priority, emphasizing safety and performance factors. “We are increasingly promoting premium for light truck,” says Albright. “Safety is the biggest reason; there is a lot of weight with these trucks. A lot of them are hauling trailers and many are using fifth wheels. They have lots of power and big payloads.”

“Product knowledge is becoming much more important in the premium category and the catalogues are a big help in that respect; for one reason, they show what the OEM originally came with in brakes. Customers are becoming more knowledgeable and they often ask questions about brake options,” offers Henry.

“The counterperson has to know how the customer is using the vehicle. The OEM would set up the vehicle for general or generic use, so knowing the actual application of the vehicle is important. We find that if the upgrade is justifiable, and you can explain that to the customer, then price is not a problem,” he adds.

In Red Deer, Alta.–where light trucks have long been the vehicle of choice–Jerry Lemke of Action Automotive says that three-quarters of his sales are in the premium category. “And within premium, ceramic is big. We are selling more and more ceramic, probably 50%. In heavy-duty there are a lot of severe use applications with the oil field work here. One of the benefits of severe duty brakes is that they last a lot longer with use in sandy conditions.”

He agrees that counterperson knowledge is critical and is proud of what his front-line force offers.

“I think we have the best front counter in Red Deer; with our counterpeople, we have hundreds of years of service. It is very important at the counter level to know exactly what the customer needs in brakes for specific applications. We have a lot of customers phoning in for advice and we also have a salesman who is an ex-mechanic; our brakes sales have gone up as a result. Overall, we have found that the customers we once lost to lower price have now come back to quality.”

“Premium is pretty much all we are using,” says Bob Seaborn, service manager, Ferris Auto Electric, North Bay, Ont. “Our end-user customers include quite a few pick-up owners, and a lot of van and SUV owners. If you explain to these customers that the lower quality will not do the job, you can generally convert them to quality. We still sell some of the cheaper brakes, but we don’t carry them; we order them.”

Seaborn stresses the importance of product knowledge. “For the counterperson to get the customer to buy premium, you have to have the knowledge to be able to explain the benefits, including safety, a factor which I think is a big benefit with the premium products. You overcome the price situation by having better brakes and their benefits to offer. Most people will go with a better brake system, including the associated parts, such as rotors. We used to have a whole second line in brake parts, but we discontinued it because the durability and quality just weren’t there.”

“The premium category does very well,” agrees Brian Rennison, Brian’s Automotive Specialists, Drayton Valley, Alta. “We are in an oil town and people are very hard on brakes, so we promote the premium category. We tend to sell what the vehicle comes out with. A lot of light trucks are now appearing from the OEM with ceramics, so I carry a lot of the ceramic pads.

“We focus on application-specific with brakes. For a three-quarter or one-ton pick-up, I would say go with severe duty if carrying a lot of weight. It’s a safety concern, for one thing. An oil town equals heavy brake use, plus a lot of the roads are gravel. Price is really not a factor in my town,” he says.

“My staff can justify the pricing. Counterperson knowledge is without a doubt very important. I have a very knowledgeable staff and we promote that knowledge to the customers,” he says.

Even away from the oil patch, premium is king with light trucks, at least at Kings County Auto Parts in Sussex, N.B.

“Premium brake is growing with the newer vehicles,” says Carl Stockford. “People are coming back to premium after putting on something cheap. We are also seeing a little bit of action with ceramics and we are finding that people who do decide to go with ceramic are generally repeating.

“Our heavy-duty sales are mostly with one-ton pick-ups because of the stopping power and the fact that they last longer. With cheap pads, you will get brake fade, such as when towing or carrying heavy weight, going down hills, etc. Premium, ceramic, and heavy-duty are all good for safety. And once you get a guy using premium brake products, they see the benefits because they avoid the problems of putting on six sets of cheap brakes within a two-year period,” Stockford says.

It should not surprise those who focus on the brake market–virtually every jobber should–that product knowledge is key to unlocking the potential of premium level products.

What is encouraging though, is that those efforts to stock, learn, and promote top quality brake products to the light truck/SUV segment can stop the “race to the bottom” in price and quality, leading to happier customers and a happier balance sheet.

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