The tune-up market has been a slippery, evolving beast for many years. In a few short years, it has morphed from an ignition parts business to the business of managing the by-products of combustion.
Driven largely by government-regulated mandatory inspection and maintenance programs, or I/M programs, designed to reduce vehicle emissions, it is a change that has been sporadic at best. Dependent on where government has forced the hand of car owners and where it has not, a duality now exists in the marketplace, with a sharp line dividing areas and experiences along I/M program borders.
“There’s a big difference in business and the way people think,” says Robert Tribe, national sales and marketing manager, NGK Spark Plugs of Canada Ltd. “Take an area like Winnipeg or St. John and compare it to Vancouver. The guys in areas with I/M programs still have the same technical issues, but the difference between the two is that people who are outside of the full-blown programs are scared to sell service and premium high-ticket parts.”
Tribe says that, concerned they will be perceived as trying to gouge a customer, some service providers don’t provide the same level of ignition components that a car was designed to use.
What he is referring to, Tribe explains, is that technicians and garage owners are taken aback by the cost of some of the newer components like late model oxygen sensors and platinum spark plugs, and then try to second-guess vehicle designers.
“We just finished a series of focus groups with installers,” says Tribe. “They were okay with selling some of the older sensors, but when they have to sell four and they’re $300 apiece, guys have a hard time getting around that.”
Tribe says that there was even one technician who was convinced that platinum plugs were a gimmick thought up by some car company executive, and nothing more.
“Dual platinum plugs were specifically designed for late-model ignition systems that fire both ways, from the centre to the electrode and back,” says Brent Berman, ignition product manager, Champion Spark Plugs, Federal-Mogul Corporation. “To make a substitution will just lead to very rapid erosion of the plug and a misfire. I can understand the technician wanting to offer an alternative, but they’d be doing a tremendous disservice to the consumer.”
The fact is, he says, the 160,000 km tune-up habit has become ingrained in both the consumer and the trade, to the point where it has become a failure-driven market. The seasonal tune-up is dead.
“We were amazed to find that mentality was there with both consumers and technicians.” He says that research the company conducted last year showed this evolution, but that spark plugs and ignition wires remained at the top of the list when repairs were required.
“I think it goes to the grass roots experience of technicians. If those aren’t right, nothing can be right. As powerful as a computer is now, it can’t make up for a bad wire. Most consumers don’t even know when their plugs and wires were last changed. Nobody is really aware from a consumer standpoint, what other parts are involved.”
As a result, technicians may be required to give them a bit of a refresher. The consumer needs education and technicians are the ones best suited and most trusted to do it. On the flip side, combining the failure-mode service habit with the early failure of standard quality plugs in a late-model engine–in as little as 20,000 km–can drive a technician to distraction when the car returns with a misfire problem. Would you think the plugs were a problem this soon? Most wouldn’t.
Tribe says this can send technicians “straight into diagnostic hell,” looking in other places for what is essentially a simple problem.
This scenario highlights a problem which sweeps broadly through many shops in the independent sector.
“There is not enough inspection going on at the independents when it comes to the electronics, and especially OBD II,” says Doug Vidler, manager, North American Service Operations, Delphi Products and Solutions.
He says that part of this is the availability of scan tools, something which he says Delphi’s web-based tools will help solve, but part is simply lack of familiarity with the systems.
“Too often they end up replacing a part with the wrong part. Back in the days before computers it was easy to do a cause-and-effect type of repair. If components failed, it produced a notable change. On today’s cars, especially with OBD II, it can be weeks and months of driving where there are no prevalent symptoms.”
People think that, if there are no symptoms, there’s no problem. It is, he says, like high blood pressure, which some in the medical profession have called a silent killer.
OBD II, then, can be seen as a way to take a car’s vital statistics, though not their cause. Getting consumers to act on the Check Engine light can be as tough.
“It enhances the ability of the garage or tech to say they have a system malfunction. Now the onus is on them for diagnostic and information retrieval so that they can effect a proper repair,” says Vidler.
It is something that the independent sector is still coming to terms with. In some cases, when faced with a late-model car, shops are sending the work to a car dealer. In other cases, they are unaware that parts for these cars are available from the aftermarket.
Diagnostic training by the manufacturer can help this, says Tom Thompson, global product manager, vehicle electronics for Delphi, and a colleague of Vidler.
“There is not enough of that going on,” he says. “We need to get shops up to speed in repairing these vehicles in order to instil consumer confidence in that installer.”
“It might also be the mindset of the installer,” adds Vidler. “Why would the installer go back to the dealer? Until now there was plenty of scepticism about parts from the aftermarket. The idea was that the aftermarket was Brand X, or you could pay more for OE quality.” Now, he says, with the OE connection by many suppliers, this is no longer the case.
Perhaps there’s something else helping to feed the leakage of parts and service business back to the dealer, though.
“In the whole scheme of things, the reason the installer doesn’t do the diagnostics is the time it takes,” says Thompson. “They can take a long time to diagnose the part, and a short time to do the repair. They don’t want to tie up the shop, and that’s one of the reasons they send a vehicle away.” The solution, he says, is putting the right diagnostic tools in the hands of the technician.
Still, there’s no substitute for forcing the hand of the consumer and the repair industry, which is exactly what I/M programs do. Few product categories have felt the positive impact as much as the oxygen sensor.
“They’ve become a key product line in the overall tune-up repair,” says Cameron Young, sales and marketing manager, Robert Bosch Inc. “The biggest challenge we face is making sure that everyone is aware of what an oxygen sensor is, and we try to support it with change interval guides, diagnostics, and anything that will help the installer think of the product.”
He says that the product line may seem new to many, but it has been around since 1976 when Bosch invented it.
“But in the last five years the oxygen sensor has become a very important line. The I/M programs have certainly ramped that up, but the product line has been growing on its own merits.”
Of course it all comes down to the consumer, and when a consumer is told there is a problem, the whole repair machine grinds into action.
“Basically there are two reasons why a car won’t pass an emission test,” says Darren Ashton, product manager of engine systems Dana Canada Inc. Underhood Group. “The first reason is that the oxygen sensor fails. That generally causes higher HC, CO or NOx. And the other more common reason is that the car hasn’t been properly maintained. The onboard computer is designed to keep the car running as efficiently as possible, so it compensates by ordering more fuel or less air [or vice versa].”
OBD II vehicles, he says, are just creeping into the after
market, bringing with them the aforementioned multitude of sensors. Keeping installers and jobbers aware of technical issues and the improving aftermarket coverage is a moving target.
“That’s a battle we fight, too. Getting the literature out there that we have coverage up to 2002 is an education process. At one time, the aftermarket used to be where you would go for the older models. Today, the parts are quicker to the aftermarket than they used to be. It’s a tough battle for the aftermarket.”
“It’s an evolving market,” says Vidler. The nature of engine controls and sensors keep changing, he adds. “The stone age was basic car parts, but as car parts improve and new ones come in, we are moving along just to keep pace. You end up with a different animal today than in 1993.”
Despite its challenges, the I/M driven market is not without its substantial upside. All suppliers are reporting strong growth in key categories such as spark plugs, wires, and oxygen sensors, driven by volume or unit price, or both.
“The market is growing at a very brisk rate,” says Young. “I only wish the aftermarket industry in general was growing the same way.”
Tuning Up Your Exhaust Business
Only a few short years ago, nobody would have considered exhaust products as part of a “tune-up,” but in this evolving emissions testing driven world, it has become just that.
There is a particularly strong connection to catalytic converters. Most in the aftermarket consider the oxygen sensor as a part of the fuel management system, but it can also be considered a lifesaver for the catalytic converter. When fuel ratios go haywire, a catalytic converter often pays the price.
While trying to catalyze unburned hydrocarbons (or HC) from a too-rich fuel mixture, temperatures can rise beyond the point where the internal structure of the converter can cope. The result is the meltdown of the substrate, which can produce a partial or total blockage of the exhaust system. Before this happens, though, there is a long period of reduced function.
Past investigations have uncovered an evolution in this market too. While universal fit converters saw the immediate impact when I/M programs were inaugurated, they gradually became less popular as technicians focused on simplicity of installation over price considerations.
Catalytic converters have moved into the top five of parts replaced in the B.C. AirCare program and will likely do the same wherever I/M programs arrive. Off the charts until 1997, year six of the I/M program, the product ranked fourth by 2000 (the latest data available).
Market analysis in the past has revealed that capitalizing on this market requires an inventory commitment. Those jobbers who can be as close to a single source of supply as possible benefit the most.
For more data on the Canadian exhaust market, visit Autoserviceworld.com, and click on Market Research. For more data on the AirCare program in B.C., including detailed analysis, visit aircare.ca, click on About Us and visit the Reference Library.