Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2007   by Dennis Mellersh

Ride Control Bouncing Back

Trends in product, applications, and marketing showing results.

It may be that the lack of growth in the ride control segment is coming to an end, at least in some areas.

Despite an overriding flatness in the overall market, industry experts see significant sales growth opportunities for jobbers and service technicians.

“The ride control market is running flat to a slow decline, with some areas like light truck showing growth,” says Carlo Falcigno, national sales manager, program groups and North American training manager, Gabriel Ride Control Products. Falcigno cites price, OE quality, vehicle design, new car sales, and longevity of older vehicles as key market drivers.

“Essential ride control products can vary widely depending on the location of the business,” says Falcigno about maintaining correct inventory levels. But there are some constants. “Certainly the light truck market continues to be strong. If a market can support premium product, we always recommend the premium product for better performance, handling, and control. With passenger vehicles, a better-best approach seems to work well, while light truck customers may prefer at least one additional option.”

Discussing specific Gabriel products that are gaining strength, Falcigno says that the recent emergence of strut assemblies, like Gabriel’s ReadyMount and the Monroe QuickStrut, should be noted. “It is to ride control what loaded calipers were to brakes. The customer achieves [a result] closer to new ride control by replacing the spring, mount and strut. It is an all-in-one-package , helping to eliminate any installation issues.”

To increase sales, Falcigno suggests, “Most of us have heard the term location, location, location when it comes to purchasing or selling a home. With ride control, it’s inspection/test drive, inspection/test drive, inspection/test drive. This, combined with proper training on the product, will improve sales. It’s as simple as that.

“The solution is simple; however, its implementation eludes many installers. We have found that most of the vehicles going through today’s shops are not fully inspected for worn or failed ride control. In one study we found that 40% of the vehicles going through shops had shocks or struts that were weak or failed. Is there opportunity? You bet,” Falcigno suggests.

The market has been flat since the early to mid-1980s, when struts became far more prevalent, suggests Tenneco’s director, ride control channel management, Bill Dennie. With that technology shift, installers lost some of the initiative to sell ride control because a) it was much more expensive for the consumer, and b) strut replacement was more time-consuming from a bay perspective, he says.

However, today strut replacement has become a huge opportunity, notes Dennie. “Consumers are beginning to understand that this service will enhance their overall ride quality and can help enhance their driving safety.”

The OE ride and handling factor is also important. “When consumers decide on ride control replacement, in a vast majority of cases they expect the installer to restore the OE-style ride and handling that helped convince them to buy the car in the first place.”

Dennie also sees strong growth possibilities in truck shock applications, describing them as a huge opportunity for jobbers. “The prevalence of shocks on passenger vehicles has really dwindled, whereas truck models have become increasingly popular over the past decade. The key to success in this segment is offering the right replacement technology for each application.”

The rise of imports is significant, too, Dennie says. “Foreign-nameplate vehicles are gaining market share not only at the OE level, but also within the aftermarket. There’s a very large fleet of these vehicles now entering prime replacement age.”

For coverage, Dennie says there should be a better-best product offering. “Some customers simply don’t want a premium product, so rather than lose that potential sale, you should rely on a supplier that offers both a flanker product and a premium offering for key applications.”

To increase sales, Dennie advises, “Ride control replacement stands alone as a widely undiagnosed repair that offers real profits for shops and their suppliers, but with minimal risk of comebacks. As more and more shops get back into the habit of selling ride and handling quality–as well as driving safety–this category will begin to grow again for everyone.

“We sponsor a year-long ‘Ride and Drive’ tour that helps more than 5,000 technicians annually experience the difference in new versus worn shocks and teaches them how to sell this difference to their customers,” Dennie says.

KYB America LLC marketing manager Aaron Shaffer sees ride control as an under-performing market that offers good opportunities for jobbers and their technician customers.

“The market drivers in this parts sector are people–primarily technicians and their ability to diagnose problems and suggest solutions for consumers,” Shaffer says. “Opportunities are being missed for a variety of reasons. The sales function in this market has two components. First, the technician must identify that the shocks or struts are worn; and two, the technician must make the recommendation to replace the parts.”

Shaffer says the sale can be closed with the motorist if the right information is provided. He sees three areas for sales: first, repair and replacement; second, maintenance and the replacing of worn shock and strut parts; and three, upgrades. “Maintenance is the biggest category that [the industry] is missing right now,” Shaffer says.

On application-specific upgrade opportunities, Shaffer says that, for example, a plumber with a light truck or van loaded with tools and supplies is an ideal candidate for heavy-duty shocks. He suggests also looking for other signs of heavy use such as a trailer hitch or snow plow fittings on a vehicle. “It’s a matter of determining the customer’s needs; and the jobber plays a critical role in getting the right parts on the vehicle,” Shaffer says. He adds that jobbers must be able to explain the reasons for the price differential in parts.

Shaffer feels that with so much parts proliferation, “What you don’t carry is just as important as what you do carry.” He says that the effort to carry a good, better, and best line, combined with trying to carry parts for older vehicles, can tie up shelf space that would be better utilized in carrying more parts for the later models now coming on stream in the aftermarket. For popular models, he suggests jobbers should ensure they also have enough mounts in stock.

Shaffer says technicians need to be educated on how to recognize worn parts, noting that because problems aren’t being recognized early, when price is not as important to the consumer, the parts may not be replaced until later, when the vehicle is worth less and the consumer is more inclined to replace based on price. “A good time for possible replacement is when the vehicle has just run out of warranty,” Shaffer says.

Technology is also beginning to infiltrate the market in new ways.

Frank Buscemi, North American operations director for ZF Group (producer of the Sachs/Boge brand), says, “In the OE market, ride enhancements and improving the compromise between good handling/safety and good ride is driving the market to look more and more at electronically-controlled damping systems. Cost, however, is a big driver in deciding if a system gets programmed on a vehicle. As the number of vehicles increases with this system, costs are becoming more affordable for the middle performance vehicles.

“Damping systems are shock-based systems. In our case, CDC is an electronic shock absorber that adjusts based on road conditions and driver-selected profiles (comfort, sport, normal) to determine the damping force. Levelling systems (Nivomat) are designed for vehicles like SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks. It also is an electronic shock absorber that levels out the vehicle based on the load on the rear. Electronically-controlled da
mping systems are a continually increasing market,” Buscemi says. “We also see increasing possibilities in levelling systems in the aftermarket.”

Bilstein marketing director Kevin O’Keefe advises, “The specialty consumer has become more specific and particular about ride and handling requirements, which has resulted in an increase in the sales of premium level product.

“Jobbers should have a high quality shock absorber and strut choice available for the customer, and not just replacement parts. Light truck and sport performance applications are particularly strong markets for premium shock absorber upgrades,” he says.

“Bilstein’s original monotube shock absorber technology is becoming more prominent in the industry. There has been quite a bit of recent development in the performance segment, with cockpit-adjustable electronic systems emerging for retrofit application systems.”

To capitalize on opportunities in ride control, O’Keefe suggests, “Anytime a vehicle has been lifted, more effort should be taken to address the performance and safety enhancements of upgrading to premium shocks and struts. It is amazing how few jobbers take the opportunity to educate their customers on the benefits of improving the quality of their ride control products while they have direct access to the underside of the vehicle. If a customer is in the process of upgrading his wheels or tires, or even installing a trailer hitch, the effort should be made to also bring the shocks to an equal level of increased quality.”

Jobbers Upbeat on Ride Control

Greg Richardson, manager of a NAPA operation in Newmarket, Ontario, says that often when the technician is dealing with the consumer, “Shocks and struts tend to be an afterthought rather than an upfront consideration, in contrast with the United States, where ride control is top of mind instead of just being considered a replacement situation when the parts are broken.

“Opportunities are being missed in this parts segment. Installers should be talking to consumers about shocks and struts when their vehicles are at the 80,000 to 90,000 km mark. This puts the idea of replacement in the customer’s mind early, and it will save money in the long term. If the customer does not replace until the vehicle is at 200,000 km, the installer is not likely to get the premium quality parts business,” he adds.

“It’s really the consumer that is driving the business, so the jobber and installer must keep the consumer aware of the potential problems in not replacing shocks before they fail.”

Richardson suggests that warranty factors can influence the customer’s decision about replacement. He notes there is a better warranty on premium quality parts, and these are therefore easier to sell if the installer catches the consumer with the right message earlier in the vehicle’s life.

For Ray Gallagher, owner of Gallagher Auto Parts in St. Thomas, Ont., the tendency of shocks and struts to tend to wear gradually, with a steady decrease in effectiveness, is a significant market factor.

“It’s not like brakes or a muffler, where people know when they are getting bad. Because the change with shocks is not that noticeable, it’s a tough sell to tell consumers that they need four new shocks or struts. We need to help educate technicians on the signs of wear and show them where the opportunities are for sales. My success is based on their success, and it’s based on training.

“One factor we are increasingly seeing in this market is that certain vehicles need specific replacement parts. Especially in light trucks, shocks and struts are becoming specialty parts. You have to know exactly what is on the vehicle and be able to equal it,” Gallagher says.

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