Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2001   by Andrew Ross

MARKET FEATURE: The Light Truck Passes the Moose Test

How to make sense of the light truck business in the land of the minivan.


If it were up to the Canadian market alone, the aftermarket might just be populated with branded “Minivan Brake Pads,” “Minivan Spark Plugs,” and any other replacement part you can imagine. Minivans are, after all, the “truck” of choice for Canadians, but since the North American light vehicle aftermarket is so dominated by the U.S. trends, the minivan gets only a nod of recognition.

In the light vehicle aftermarket, it’s the pickups and SUVs that rule, and the market is rife with products to repair and enhance them.

This isn’t just idle Canadian jingoism. Despite all the crowing about the light truck’s popularity, the SUV, and in particular the high-end luxury SUV, is only fractionally as popular in Canada as it is in the U.S.

There are other differences in the vehicles we buy, of course. Canadians tend to buy more compact cars, which is one reason cars like the Honda Civic have done so well here. It ranked fifth in sales last year, behind a gaggle of trucks and minivans that includes the top-selling Caravan, full-sized pickups from Ford and General Motors, the Chevy Venture and the Ford Windstar. This means that three of the top six selling vehicles in Canada were minivans. Last year, minivans made up 34.9% of Canadian light truck purchases, while as a category SUVs made up 27.7%. Not a single sport-ute was among the top 10 in sales.

In the U.S., cars like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord tend to top the sales charts for passenger cars. Last year they were fourth and fifth in sales, behind the Ford F-Series, GM’s Silverado/Sierra pickups, and the Ford Explorer. In the U.S., the Caravan didn’t even make the top 10 and neither did any other minivan.

The only area of common ground is in the popularity of full-sized pickup trucks. That’s good news, because it creates the necessary base to develop and manufacture service parts.

The other good news is that while SUVs are considerably less popular in Canada than among our friends to the south, the drivers of these vehicles tend to be among the most frequent purchasers of products and services for their vehicles. It’s more than just a matter of vehicle population, it’s about how often these vehicle owners seek service and how much they spend.

And their popularity continues, despite the roadblocks put in their way by fuel prices and safety concerns.

“The light truck aftermarket is huge,” says Edward Powderly, advertising and public relations manager for Tenneco Automotive. “It is just continuing to get stronger every year.” He says that there appears to be no end in sight. “I like to keep an eye on car company plant closings as an indicator, and they’re usually closing car plants, not truck plants.

“So I can’t see any reason why the light truck aftermarket would start to decline.”

He says that despite the vehicle population differences between Canada and the U.S., the product movement is about the same.

Probably the only exception is in applications of the highest end SUV applications, and that applies to all products, whether they are brakes, exhaust, ride control or underhood related.

While preparing for the launch of the Max Control premium shock line, John Hart, vice-president sales and marketing, ArvinMeritor Light Vehicle Aftermarket, says that this had to be taken into serious consideration.

“We know that the Max Control product line will not have the same presentation in Canada as in the U.S. There isn’t the same ratio of high-end SUVs, so we have to be very careful in our presentation.”

“The first thing we did in preparation with the U.S. guys is to tell them that the population mix is very different here. I will tell you that we sell proportionately way more LTV shocks, because we really focused on that as an opportunity. The U.S. focus is slightly different. There are more retailers in the U.S. than there are here. They tend to focus more on the SUV and non-commercial use trucks.”

Still, he doesn’t discount either the SUV or the accompanying DIY market opportunities.

“The light truck is still a big deal. It is a big shot in the arm for shock sales. It is a big deal because it is used as alternate transportation. It can also be a DIY item. A consumer can change shocks in their driveway if they wish–something you can’t do with struts–so there are a number of positive components to light truck.”

One of those positive aspects is the tendency for SUV owners to not only seek service more frequently, but to look for high-end products.

“Light truck owners are more willing to spend on premium,” definitively states Brian Tarnacki, director of brand marketing for Federal-Mogul. “They are more willing to maintain, and willing to spend more.” He says that according to research data, light truck owners make up a greater proportion of the dollars spent than their proportion of the vehicle fleet would have you believe.

Light trucks, according to Lang Research, are 33% of parts. Comparing that to the car park numbers, light trucks make up more of the spending than their car park numbers would have you to believe.

“The other thing that spells opportunity for light truck products,” says Tarnacki, “is how those people are using their vehicles. With trucks, they want the durability, but they also want more car-like attributes. They’re taking them out to dinner and the movies.” Federal-Mogul has a whole host of products to go after those opportunities, says Tarnacki–products such as the Moog M2 chassis parts and the Champion Truck Plug as well as the Wagner ThermoQuiet brake line–but says too that it doesn’t hurt the aftermarket that the traditional front-engine/rear wheel drive setup of light trucks means there are more parts to repair.

Most trucks have what the aftermarket would normally call a “conventional” suspension, which causes some problems at the service level.

“A lot of times installation procedures aren’t being followed,” says Wally Marciniak, director of technical services, Dana Brake & Chassis. Technicians are still doing what they were 10 or 15 years ago.

“Probably the biggest struggle now is getting them to change their thinking. Brakes have changed, the vehicle manufacturers are required to do a lot more with less and that’s why it’s important to take care of every step.”

He says that the same is true of chassis parts, particularly with the amount of polymer used in some components. “When I turned wrenches for a living, I used to put a torch on a lot of ball joints, until someone told me why it was a bad idea. Today, you heat it up and expand the joint, it ruins the polymers. Again, that’s an education factor.”

For jobbers, making sure that that message gets to their trade customers can drastically lower comebacks in the blame-the-part environment prevalent in the industry.

Jamie MacIntyre, territory sales manager, Southwestern Ontario for Honeywell Canada, says that the industry has done a good job of providing parts targeted at this market, particularly in the brake category.

“It gives our customers a chance to upsell easier,” he says of the company’s Bendix SUV friction line. “It’s a premium product that is geared specifically to these vehicles, though it’s not really an application group where you want to be using a second line product, especially the SUVs.”

SUV, light truck and minivan owners are all treating their vehicles like beasts of burden, he says, which is at odds with the price shopping employed by many garages. He says that while some white box products on the market may look good, it’s not the looks that count.

“The white box is something that is not going away. A lot of it looks very good, but you can’t look at a pad and say that it’s better. It comes down to stopping distances and the life of the pad.

“The old Fram slogan ‘You can pay me now or pay me later’ works for brakes too.”

Stewart Kahan, president of Satisfied Brake Products agrees, but says that jobbers should not be confused about what they are getting in second line product. “Years ago you could find a high-end material in a low end package, that has to do with manufacturing and streamlining, but as a rule jobbers
shouldn’t be thinking that when they’re buying the cheap program it’s the same product in the box as the premium.

“What you will find when you talk about entry level, you will still find the OE formats, if it came as an NAO or as a semi-met in the entry level program. In all cases they will handle normal heat, in all cases they will last a reasonable amount of time.” But with premium lines, he says, you get formulations of friction material better designed for vehicle needs and more expensive manufacturing processes that provide more consistent, long-term performance, as well as noise abating additions like slotting and chamfering and shims, and lower dusting formulations.

“That should be the difference between the entry level and premium. They both have to stop the car. The primary difference is the life and the noise.” And, in the end, it is the installer who must decide how many comebacks he is prepared to absorb.

Still, one is hard pressed to convey anything that is that negative about the light truck’s impact on the aftermarket.

“The biggest thing is that trucks have lots of accessories that are accepted by the public to put on, and not just the young kids,” says Malcolm Sissmore, vice-president, sales and marketing, UltraFit Exhaust Systems.

“For ourselves, the big thing is to convert to a dual exhaust. It’s been prominent in the southern states for years, but it’s only just now taking hold in the northern parts of North America.” He says this is not a DIY item, and a jobber needs to hook up with a good custom installation facility, since brackets and some pipe bending may be required. Larger-than-stock spare tires are also a factor. “Those sort of things make it not a bolt-on item, but it’s profitable because there is really no price-point for it.”

Even once Europeancentric companies are seeing positive returns.

“We’re really pushing that,” says Cameron Young, sales and marketing manager, Robert Bosch Inc. The entire gamut of this company’s offerings–from starters and alternators to spark plugs, filters, wiper blades, accessory lights and, naturally, oxygen sensors–run across the domestic and import borders, including SUV’s and light trucks. “Our distribution that covers the domestic market is definitely taking the products to the market,” though he does admit that there are many in the aftermarket who still think of Bosch products as only for European applications. Nevertheless, he says that they have had tremendous success with domestic installers with the Bosch Automotive Professional Service (BAPS) program. That program includes a full slate of training materials including technical troubleshooting for fuel injection systems and rotating electrics in many domestic and import applications. Cameron says it doesn’t hurt that Bosch has strong OE connections with many car manufacturers.

“I open the hood on my Durango and see a Bosch brake booster, etc. Having that kind of OE presence helps.”

Rodger Wagoner, KYB America LLC, can certainly relate to perception issues. To battle the existing image that they are an import ride control supplier, the firm features a Ford Explorer on its newly launched website.

“It’s the number one seller in the U.S., so we wanted to use it for that reason, but also to displace any thought that we were only an import-related company. Some end users still think that KYB is only an import shock, so we wanted to get the word out there that we are a full line supplier.”

He says that the demand for premium ride control products shows great promise. “There are just tons of registrations out there and these people are looking for a better product for their vehicle. It’s an exciting thing and we’re really pushing, because we feel that because of the continuing good sales of SUVs and light trucks, it’s a market that is going to be with us for a long time.”


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