Auto Service World
Feature   January 1, 2008   by J.D. Ney

Importing Some Chassis Know-how

How to help your chassis parts business

Within the parts proliferation that marks the import nameplate chassis parts market lies significant opportunity, if only more jobbers, and their service providers, would take advantage of it.

Today’s chassis business has seen significant change over the past few years, particularly on the import side. With more than half of all cars sold bearing import nameplates like Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Acura, etc., reliance on The Big Three for replacement business has become less lucrative every year. Not everyone has kept pace, however.

“In terms of the import market, one of the big weaknesses of jobbers in general seems to be either to turn business away to dealers or to offer parts without the right fit, form, and function that everyone requires and talks about,” says Kevin Casey, GTA manager for Altrom. “A lot of people will claim to have the solution for this market requirement, but too few can offer the real OEM-equivalent quality and function.”

What’s more, given the speed with which OEMs cycle through their model generations today, it’s pretty easy to recognize the need for a look at what’s new, what’s driving the business, and what might challenge your profits in the future.

Keeping Pace

With hundreds of product applications added by major manufacturers every year, keeping up with expanded offerings is a daunting task. That said, manufacturers these days are starting to rise to the challenge. Where in the past, jobbers and counterpeople would wait months or even more than a year for some late-model applications to show up in the catalogue, today’s tech-savvy and equipped staff can have instant access to any product update the second it is announced.

According to Ron Strain, program manager, chassis products at Affinia, gone are the days of the paper catalogue update–an update that was more than likely out of date by the time it hit the counter.

“We have a multi-view web link to help jobbers,” says Strain. “We used to be limited to an annual hard copy, and it was not always easy to keep up with the latest updates. Even when we would print updates, they would only be available every quarter or so.” Strain says that with the introduction of web-based cataloguing, jobbers who ask to be outfitted with the appropriate update packages will have virtually instant access to all of the company’s newest parts coverage details the second they are made available.

Patrick Williams, sales representative for Carquest Autoparts in Markham, Ont., says that the system his store utilizes provides a fast and easy cataloguing experience.

“The online system we use is hooked right into our computer system, and so it’s one click and we’re there,” he says. “Customers today don’t want to be waiting very long, and so the web system makes it much easier; it’s usually just a couple of clicks and you’ve found the part.” With the frequency of missed opportunities in the past due to inaccurate paper catalogues, the most important call you make today could very well be to your manufacturers’ reps, asking them about the details of their online cataloguing services.

Modules May be Magnificent

Another evolution of the chassis business has been to combine various individual components and sell them as one combined unit or module.

“There has been tremendous interest in modules, and they can definitely be an opportunity, and we’ll continue to monitor their success with the installer,” says Strain. He also says that it should not just be the manufacturers that take a vested interest in this kind of sales tracking. “Develop your sales history. Are the sales of modules starting to displace the sales of related parts like individual bearings? I can’t say that I’ve seen that happen yet. Our sales in the other applications are still as strong as ever, but at the jobber level they may be shifting.”

According to Eric Arsenault, assistant manager of NAPA Auto Parts in Dartmouth, N.S., the shift has definitely been noticeable on the import applications side of the business. “Imports definitely have more complete assemblies, especially from makers like Toyota and Honda, for anything after about the year 2000,” he says. “A lot of the domestic vehicles, except some rare exceptions, still have the individual parts, but the imports, where the chassis parts like the control arm are usually smaller, usually come as a complete assembly.”

Where some manufacturers foresee a certain alleviation of the proliferation problem, others are more skeptical.

“The development of modules is really just an extension of the platform concept, where several bodies were mounted on the same or similar platforms,” says John Thody, president of XRF. “The big advantage with the modules is that these units can be assembled offsite by subcontractors using lower-cost employees, and the units can be pre-tested before they are introduced to the vehicle assembly line, thus speeding up the assembly line process.

“The hope is that this will slow proliferation; but I have my doubts, as the tweaking process will take some time and the competitive process begins, each manufacturer trying to outdo the other,” he says.

Competition issues aside, Arsenault says his customers are, by and large, happy with the shift to complete assemblies. “For the garage, a complete assembly is just as easy or even easier to install, so they are definitely less time-consuming,” he says. “We’ve had no complaints about them, and overall, the quality and fit seem to be just fine.”

With the introduction of any new chassis applications, and especially those that come packaged as a module, it is important to use your sales rep as a market barometer. He often deals with a broad geographic area, and has access to some important national numbers that might point to larger trends.

“There could very well be an opportunity when it comes to modules like control arm and ball joint combinations,” says Strain. “While the arm itself is not a wear item, [the assembly does] have bushings that wear, and so there is a replacement advantage there, but it depends on the environment. Use your manufacturers’ representatives as a source of information.”

Everything comes at a price

Obviously the issue of selling on price is not going to go away.

It seems to be a common thread that weaves its way through every product category and SKU today, but remains a thorn in the side of both manufacturers and jobbers alike. However, while the mere mention of offshore parts used to be met with apocalyptic shrieks and dire predictions, manufacturers today seem to be meeting the challenge head-on and focusing on market differentiation and selling quality, and so should jobbers.

Despite the blame being amply dolled out across the aftermarket for the perceived price crisis, most manufacturers say there is still a chance to thrive amidst the flood of suspect parts.

“I’m reluctant to say cheaper parts, because that implies poor quality,” says Strain. “All companies are going through a process of global sourcing, with traditional manufacturing going to other countries, and many of those products are still great quality. Are there opportunities to buy inexpensive parts? Sure; you have to be aware that they’re out there.”

Strain says Affinia’s own top-shelf offering continues to do well–not all customers want the least expensive part available.

“Our premium line is doing quite well,” he says. “Customers still want access to quality premium lines. Are we seeing as much growth as we would if the cheaper parts weren’t in the picture? I can’t say. But what we’re seeing is that there is an opportunity there.”

“There are many chassis parts being sold today that have come to Canada from Asia, and the quality and performance in most cases is definitely inferior,” says Altrom’s Casey. “While it is easy to copy parts dimensionally, it is very important that the correct materials are used. This is not to say that Asia cannot produce quality; there are many OEM makers [in Asia
] today, and it is vitally important that you align yourself with the right makers,” he says. “The skill in our business is to recognize such makers and work with them closely. Jobbers need to be able to trust the quality of the parts, and need to know how to avoid cheap imitations.”

In the end, jobbers have the opportunity to act as industry gatekeepers and drive the language of chassis part sales in their respective sales territories. Thody illustrates the point with a culinary metaphor.

“I hear parts countermen say to a customer, ‘Yeah, I got ’em, do you want the good ones or the economy line?’ It is said in such a way that the customer thinks he is just saving some money on the parts,” he says. “The customer must understand that the macaroni and cheese in the black and yellow box doesn’t have the good Durham wheat like Kraft Dinner, and it has a lot less cheese,” he quips.

Take a KD reference with a grain of salt, but make no mistake about the meaning: if jobbers don’t start changing the conversation, the customer never will.

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