Auto Service World
Feature   November 1, 2000   by Dennis Mellersh

MARKET FEATURE: Oil and Lubricants: ATF and Other Specialty Opportunities

Selling the concept of preventative maintenance can benefit us all.

As vehicles continue to evolve in technological complexity, and as OE maintenance recommendations and requirements become more and more varied from vehicle to vehicle, specialty oil products and their related service opportunities can be an important revenue stream for jobbers and their installer customers.

Potentially, one of the strongest specialty oil markets for the future could be automatic transmission fluid (ATF) and transmission fluid additives. This market segment, however, will depend for its growth partly on the aftermarket doing a better job of educating consumers, according to ATP-Inc., Morton Grove, Ill.

In describing this market, ATP notes that seven out of ten cars on the road have automatic transmissions that are due to be serviced. “It is a large figure,” says information from the company, “but it can amount to some pretty staggering sales for those who merchandise filter and fluid changes to technicians and do-it-yourselfers. In fact, transmissions could be the specialty maintenance focus of the future. There is one major obstacle, however. Absolutely nothing has been done to communicate transmission preventive maintenance to the consumer. With this in mind, anything you can do is bound to increase sales.”

Bruce Richardson, ATP’s director of marketing, offers some examples of the kinds of specialty oil products on the market. “One of our products, AT-202, is an ATF protectant that helps extend the life of the fluid and also protects and extends the life of the transmission by helping ensure proper shifts, preventing overheating, reducing wear and preventing torque converter shudder and clutch pack chatter,” Richardson says.

An ATP additive product was developed in response to the trend of vehicle manufacturers now generally specifying friction-modified fluids, says Richardson. This product, AT-203, Richardson says, converts Dexron fluid to a friction-modified fluid such as Chrysler ATF Plus7 (7176 type), Honda Genuine7, Mitsubishi Diamond7 or Toyota Genuine7. “The concept is good for installers because they can buy regular fluid, use the supplements and meet OE specs,” Richardson says.

Anthony Stadelman, trade marketing manager for Castrol, comments, “Transmission maintenance and service is becoming an important new revenue stream, particularly for specialty outlets. These operations have all the OE recommendations for service right in front of them and can advise the customer if an automatic transmission fluid change is required, for example.”

Stadelman feels it is a necessity for the jobber to offer ATF in depth. “There are many more types of transmission fluids than there used to be and the jobber should carry them all. The installer has to have access to any type of fluid that is needed.”

Mark Reed, director of brand management for lubricant products for Pennzoil-Quaker State Canada, says, “With ATF, a lot is being done at the chain level; the fast lube operations, for example — these people are getting a lot of flush business. They do it with special equipment that is very efficient and they are able to price the service competitively. Quick service outlets have really capitalized on this market. The average garage, however, will generally not get this type of business unless they invest in the special equipment.

“There is also an opportunity to sell more manual transmission and differential gear oil,” Reed says. “This is an often-overlooked area. Generally this oil should be changed more often than drivers are now doing, generally between 40,000 and 60,000 kilometers. There is also an opportunity to sell more synthetic gear oil. The transmission doesn’t have to warm up as much with these synthetics and they also clean better as well as enabling the parts to run cooler because they have better heat dissipation properties than standard oil bases.” Reed notes that there has been growth in ATF types over the past seven years. “In addition to this, there is an opportunity for the jobber’s installer customers to provide transmission services for some of the more exotic cars. Generally it’s becoming more difficult in the overall aftermarket to be all things to all people,” Reed says.

“There is a growing opportunity for preventive maintenance business. With the big growth of self-serve gas, you no longer have a professional looking under the hood each time you get gas, so generally there is less under-the-hood inspection. Installers can offer quarterly maintenance checks and also do a maintenance check when a vehicle is in the shop for whatever reason. A lot can be discovered with a maintenance check. Even with the longer recommended change intervals for various aspects of the vehicle, they should still be checked on a preventive basis,” Reed observes.

Randy Moore, who is vice-president franchising for Mr. Transmission and the current chairman of the Automotive Industries Association of Canada, says that the high sales of one-liter bottles of ATF signals that there are a lot of sick transmissions out there. “Automatic transmissions are essentially sealed hydraulic units, so they don’t use up fluid. Transmission fluid was never meant to be topped up. If it needs to be topped up, it means the transmission is leaking. Millions of liters of transmission fluid are leaking out on driveways and parking lots each year. We only sell top-up fluids to our franchisees; retail customers shouldn’t be using them. We will give the retail customer a free liter, but we will explain to them why it is not a good idea,” Moore says.

What the aftermarket should be doing, Moore urges, is to make sure that their customers change their transmission oil and filter at regular intervals, specifically at the intervals specified in the owner’s manual of the customer’s vehicle. If the customer does not have this service performed at the required intervals and a breakdown repair is later required because of this, it would be many more times the cost of properly scheduled ATF and filter changes.

“Overall, as was noted by jobber John Cochrane at a recent AIA meeting, we’ve got to get away from a breakdown repair mindset and get back to a maintenance repair mindset,” Moore says. “It used to be that a service station was truly a service station. Now you have mainly two separate entities, self-serve gas stations and repair centers. A maintenance mindset would result in better customer satisfaction because there would be fewer major repairs if preventive maintenance were more prevalent with installers. The jobber can perform a real educational function in this regard with installers.”

Cochrane, of Cochrane Automotive, Toronto, Ont., says there are a lot of underutilized opportunities in the aftermarket. Using the example of specialty oils such as ATF and synthetics, Cochrane says, “For transmission service, the installer should be checking the customer’s vehicle to see what the recommended change interval is. It’s in the owner’s manual, but the consumer tends not to read these. The installer should also know the profile of the driver in terms of driving habits. By doing this, it can be established if the vehicle is a candidate for synthetic oil. The installer must know his customers and how they use their vehicles.”

From an aftermarket growth perspective, Cochrane, who also operates bays at his location, says that relying on breakdown repairs will not cut it anymore. “Value-added selling and a preventive maintenance approach are needed. Traditional breakdown repairs are decreasing dramatically, in part because of the better quality of vehicles. We used to do two or three radiator jobs per week, for example; now it’s two or three a month.”

As part of his efforts towards encouraging a maintenance approach, Cochrane Automotive publishes a newsletter that it sends to its customer base. The newsletter offers, among other news, information and tips on preventive maintenance procedures that can save the customer money by helping to reduce the likelihood of costly future breakdown repairs.

The apparently decreased incidence of repairs was confirmed by a spokesperson for DesRosiers Automotive Consul
tants. “Our current light vehicle study shows a decline in the frequency of repair in a number of categories. This is partly due to the overall vehicle quality of the fleet and also because of the increased sales of new and newer vehicles. Other factors might include recent winter weather patterns. In the radiator category, better coolants such as five-year fluid could be prolonging radiator life.”

The key to unlocking some of these market segments is good old attention to detail. Understanding that regular maintenance needs are changing and encouraging your installer customers to buy into the preventative maintenance approach can increase movement in more lucrative lubricant categories for you, can give your installers more opportunities to see their customers and, ultimately, can keep those customers’ cars on the road, which benefits us all.

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