Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2004   by Andrew Ross, Editor and Publisher

Reality & Perception

I was tempted to write about the traditional automotive aftermarket’s import vehicle challenge with humour, but the more I thought about it, the less funny it seemed.

While attending the Automotive Industry Association of Canada’s Automotive Conference for Executives, I was in the midst of some repairs to one of the personal fleet. I won’t mention the particular vehicle for fear that doing so might cause many to roll their eyes and say “Oh, one of those,” and I won’t tell you what brands went in, but I will tell you that it is an import and it is nearly 20 years old, not a rare make, and all the parts were name brand, first line aftermarket parts.

During the interactive part of the forum led by researcher Dennis DesRosiers, the subject of the traditional aftermarket and its inability to crack the import service market in an appreciable manner was raised. With more vehicles with import nameplates being sold in Canada in 2003 than so-called domestic vehicles, everyone agreed that it was a wakeup call of significant proportions.

Yet it has been difficult for the traditional aftermarket to make inroads, said the manufacturer and WD executives in attendance; they may recognize the value of this market, but coverage is sometimes spotty and the level of acceptance in the marketplace is not high. They have been working on it, but many car owners want to go back to the dealer, and many technicians opt for OES parts, overlooking their traditional jobber.

If my own recent experience is anything to go by, I think I know why. Here is the rundown of what I was looking at: two front ball joints, an external fuel pump, a boot kit, and front springs. Pretty standard stuff.

They were all obtained with no muss or fuss, and the technician knows what I do and my interest in the aftermarket so he allowed me to supply brand name aftermarket parts. It all looked good, until he opened the first box, or rather the second.

The ball joints both had the same part number on the box, but the parts inside were different. After I was able to check out the parts I could see what had happened. I won’t mention the true part number, but if the box said 2081, the part said 2801. Close but no cigar.

Then there was the issue of the fuel pump. The tech said it went in okay, though a bit smaller than the OE unit, but only hummed for a second or two when it was hooked up. A dead unit, he said. Typical, he added.

Then there were the front springs. The dimensions were right, but once installed raised the front ride height nearly 3 inches above stock and the ride quality was awful. They may have fit, but obviously the spring rate was much higher than OE and, to my mind, should not have been specified.

The boot kit, by the way, worked fine.

I am fully aware that there are times when Murphy’s Law works overtime for me and that it often comes with a distinctly automotive tinge. Nevertheless, I cannot believe that my experience is in any way unique, and explains why the traditional aftermarket has so much trouble building confidence in the import market.

A subsequent conversation with the tech confirmed this. A separate conversation with another indicated that probably one-in-five parts from a traditional supplier for an import application had some sort of problem.

I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that if there is reluctance on the part of the service provider to trust the traditional aftermarket, there is at least some basis in fact for it. With an increasing proportion of import nameplates on the road, I also know that it is a state of affairs that cannot be allowed to linger.

An aftermarket that contents itself with selling brake rotors and parts for pickup trucks is doomed to a shrinking corner of the service parts business.

The most important part of the challenge is that it is the aftermarket that seems to be unable to supply parts of the quality and type demanded by the import service technician and they know it so they stay away.

That is something that this industry can’t just market itself out of.

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