Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2006   by J.D. Ney

Safety and Visibility Replacement at a Premium

Missed opportunities can be costly with longer lasting lighting and wipers.

Visibility issues have long been one of the most important safety factors facing drivers; the crux of the issue is you can’t avoid what you can’t see.

As such, manufacturers of lighting components and wiper blades continuously strive to improve their products, in order to offer even more help to individuals driving both at night and in inclement weather, something of which Canadians, with our short winter days, are painfully aware. Both fortunately and unfortunately for jobbers, this constant stream of innovation from both of these important markets has resulted in an ever-widening array of choice–all of which can vary wildly in terms of price-point, quality and even legality.

The Law of Diminishing Replacements

As GE Lighting’s North America aftermarket channel manager Jim Gersen notes, “Automotive do-it-yourselfers want to upgrade to the latest lighting technology, while baby boomers and the parents of young teenage drivers want the brightest bulbs available.” As such, the industry from the jobber perspective could get a little tight, seeing as the latest and brightest technology involves high intensity discharge lighting. According to some analysts, the lighting market could be headed for a major change in terms of durability and replacement intervals. We are already seeing extended lifespans for the next generation of lighting products. The most recent HID lighting systems are generally expected to last substantially longer than standard halogen bulbs, which will obviously affect the number of times such bulbs are replaced over the course of a car’s useful life. In fact, in many instances the numbers aren’t even close. Luckily for jobbers in the immediate term, high intensity discharge lighting represents a small fraction of the overall market, but that is likely to change over the course of the next few years. “Today, the market is approximately 15% for HID,” says Darren Ashton, product marketing manager for Hamsar Diversco Inc. in Burlington, Ont. However, he continues, “In five years, we could be looking at the HID market being 40% or more of the business.”

It is true that HID lighting systems carry a heftier price tag, but the simple fact that they are replaced far less often will certainly create issues for jobbers.

“You have some instances where new LEDs are coming in that may never be replaced,” says Frost and Sullivan industry research analyst Steven Spivey. “Now, that’s a little further out than our projections, but you can see the trend starting to take shape. Replacement rates for headlamps are going down, and the new HID lighting, that will last 10 times as long, won’t be replaced as often.” In fact, according to the numbers presented by Spivey, replacement rates are expected to fall by 1.5% for headlamps alone within the next few years, even before the aftermarket bears the full brunt of the HID wave.

Fortunately, the very nature of both lighting and wiper sales allows the astute jobber the chance to double up on every sale, which could help mitigate some of the losses suffered by longer-lasting parts. There is certainly the tried-and-tested notion that one should never sell one headlamp, but rather ought to sell two. Given the rigourous quality control measures seen within most modern parts companies today, a vehicle’s left headlamp is unlikely to outshine the right by more than a few weeks. Selling bulbs in pairs as opposed to a one-off transaction will likely improve overall sales, as you are building a level of trust and professional courtesy with your customers. The same is also true within the wiper blade market, as it is more than likely a driver facing smudges and smears on one side of the windshield is certainly not far from facing it on the other. According to Sandy Wallace of Gates Canada, timing your sales push in this category can help. “The spring and fall are particularly good times to promote wipers by having service providers stock up in preparation for the season,” she says. “Spring and fall weather changes usually result in poor driving conditions, and are an ideal time for promotion of blade replacement.”

In short, these items are featured more often than not in pairs on any given make and model, and are even more important in dark and difficult conditions. This is as good an indication as any that they should probably be sold with that in mind too.

Best and Brightest?

Visibility products have, as is becoming the norm with every automotive component, experienced something of a proliferation in parts numbers, as the popularity and drive for customization has pushed manufacturers to release wide varieties of what was formerly a fairly mundane product.

This push for flashy customization has been most apparent in the lighting market. Lighting can have an immediate impact on the overall impression of a vehicle, especially if it is outfitted with a series of tricked-out lighting retrofits. However, as with anything kids nowadays are into, these latest trends in lighting have come with more serious issues and problems than simply a ridiculous-looking purple light emanating from a lowered Honda Civic.

In actuality, due to a myriad of legality issues, the HID retrofit is becoming something of a legal nightmare, with research and data increasingly showing the many dangers associated with questionable retrofits.

Ashton is able to clarify the issue from the manufacturer standpoint.

“Generally, retrofit HID conversion kits used in existing halogen headlamp systems are designed for the off-road user only, as they do not meet SAE/DOT specifications,” he says. “The other challenge in retrofitting an existing headlamp system is that the vehicle has to have space to mount the HID ballasts under the hood.”

Without delving into great detail here, tests have shown that problems can occur with retrofits from both biological and technical standpoints. Due to the very nature of the two lighting systems, even a poorly-installed HID retrofit will give the impression of improved nighttime visibility. Unfortunately, this is not actually the case. If not properly or legally installed, this lighting will actually increase the amount of light directly around the car, essentially fooling the driver into a sense of increased visibility. Unfortunately, the light further down the road (where it is needed most) is dramatically reduced, rendering these types of retrofits largely useless at speeds in excess of about 60 kph.

Luckily for jobbers, several top manufacturers have worked to address this largely trendy and aesthetic issue with the release of blue tinted halogen lights. This new style of standard halogen bulb gives off a similar look to HID, but is both legal and in some instances, vision-enhancing, something retrofits are unable to claim.

Future of Premium and Economy

It seems as though, at least from the manufacturer side of the coin, the premium side of the business is growing across the automotive board, and that has impacted on the visibility segment as well.

Just as Ashton has observed the emerging shift from halogen to the more premium HID lights, Robert Bosch Inc. national sales manager Cameron Young says wiper blade manufacturers too are experiencing this trend. “I can say that we will continue to see a ramp-up in the premium and ultra-premium sectors through the next five years,” he says, adding, “Economy blades will continue to trend downward.”

Gates Canada’s Sandy Wallace is equally optimistic. “The wiper industry continues to evolve,” she says. “We see a large transition of consumers away from economy blades towards the premium blade category. Today’s large windshields are increasing the length of blade required, and as such, economy [plastic] blades generally do not perform as well on longer-length applications.”

In the end, it appears as though Canadian jobbers have inclement weather and poor drivers to thank for the continuing health of the visibility market. While replacement intervals are rising for the lighting market, the industry can always rely on replacement as a result of the foolhardy road decisions of wannabe Michael Schumachers, seeing as lighting replacements are almost always needed following even a minor collision. Further, on the wiper front, there remains the possibility of consistent replacement services for jobbers who seize on the opportunity presented by shifting seasons and one-off customers.

With declining replacement rates, it becomes more important than ever to capitalize on every opportunity that presents itself. Miss one, and you may have to wait quite some time for the next one to present itself.