Anybody who has spent any time at all behind the counter at an auto parts store knows that the ride control market can be divided into two basic categories: shock sales, which tend to be easier, and strut sales, which can be more difficult, to say the least.
The reason is simple: cost. Shocks are quite easy to replace and have a generally lower price-point than struts. When you consider that the average cost for ride control service tops out at just over $300–at specialist outlets–it is clear that this is for shocks, not struts.
This has helped generate a disproportionate split in sales between shocks and struts, which is why light trucks/SUVs have become such a boon to the ride control market. It also helps to explain the wide regional swings in market share, with vehicle owners in Canada’s west more inclined to seek service at the dealerships. The ease of shock service also explains why the DIY share in Western Canada is higher than Ontario and Quebec.
Still, these forces have left the huge strut-equipped vehicle population as the largely untapped part of the ride control market. Turning the tide requires an active approach.
“Our strongest selling times are spring and fall,” says Rodger Wagoner, vice-president sales and marketing, KYB America LLC. “It follows tire installation. It’s the prime marketing opportunity.” There are some sales spikes from January through to the end of October, he says, but key selling opportunities coincide with the change of seasons.
“It follows the trends. I can’t think of anybody considering maintenance of vehicles in November and December. If the car breaks down, it’s an emergency type thing, but even so that is still on the low end.”
He says that pairing ride control sales with tire sales is an effective strategy. It also works to pair the category with other undercar categories such as exhaust.
“If you look at the larger exhaust installers, such as Midas and Speedy, they’re going to feature shocks just to sell their exhaust. They’re going to feature a low cost shock to get that customer into the store.” But it’s not a shoo-in. “If this sale is not suggested, you’re not going to sell a shock.”
Taking advantage of uncertain road conditions is also an effective strategy, says Mark Christiaanse, director of product management at Tenneco Automotive. Even though it’s not the prime selling season, winter does present its opportunities.
“It’s still important to consider what ride control can do on snow and ice as far as force control. There is a relationship between the damper and the winter elements. One of the things that we all experience is ruts, which produce bumps on roads that don’t normally have bumps. That translates to the same things as we talk about in terms of keeping the tire in contact with the road.”
He says that this isn’t just supposition. Working in concert with the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Colorado Springs, Tenneco has learned much about ride control and winter driving. “There is clearly a link, and that is one of the things we found with the driving school. Although there isn’t a direct marketing push about the winter, there is still a relevance and we need to increase that awareness.
“The safety triangle equation is as relevant in the winter as it is in the summer. It shouldn’t be out of mind, even though we’re not talking about it. That’s an important message to get out.”
The seasonality of the market may, in fact, be a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, shocks and struts don’t suddenly wear out in the spring.
“It becomes a seasonal product because that is when they elect to do the work,” says Jim Hall, accounts manager for NAPA Auto Parts at ArvinMeritor Light Vehicle Aftermarket. “The performance of the product doesn’t change because of the weather. It doesn’t all break in the spring.
“Certainly from a safety issue, it is year-round. It is a difficult sale these days as the price of the jobs increase.”
He agrees with the approach that safety should be the talking point, not ride comfort.
“The real key to all of this is to get the installer base to look at it this way. A vehicle with 80,000 km on it is a real candidate.” The reality, he says, is that cars in for ride control service tend to have twice that on the odometer. The trouble is that as long as a car can be driven, most drivers won’t recognize that there is a problem.
“It almost has to be a catastrophic failure with struts. It is not so tough on exhaust or brakes, because he can relate very easily to what happens if he doesn’t have it done.
“The installer has to be the salesman, and I’m not sure that all of them are that comfortable in that role. Some still are very good at it; they are inspecting and knowledgeable, and they are selling on safety.”