Auto Service World
Feature   October 1, 2000   by Andrew Ross, Editor

The Valley of Dearth


A situation has developed for the aftermarket which is both encouraging for the future and yet disturbing for the present, because what it does for the present will determine how encouraging the future will be.

For anyone doing business in the aftermarket for the past decade or so, it’s become an accepted fact that the vehicle population as a whole has been aging. The average age of the light vehicle fleet in Canada is in the range of 8.1 years, if memory serves. Yet it is likely that the average vehicle age that you serve is distinctly older than this. How can this be?

Before you read on, try the following exercise. Average the following numbers: 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, and 8. Then do the same for this set: 3, 3, 4, 10, 10, 11, 11, and 12.

See something interesting? This exercise clearly shows that two sets of numbers can have the same average while being distinctly different. This is a simple way of describing the gulf between the statistical average that the aftermarket hangs its metaphorical hat on, and its real-life experience.

If you were to draw a graph of the vehicle population distribution, it would look roughly like a mountain on the left, representing the number of younger vehicles yet to enter the aftermarket, and one on the right representing the older vehicles generally considered to be outside the aftermarket’s primary target. The valley between them represents the lower number of vehicles built in the early to mid-90s. That’s where we are right now, wallowing in this dearth of prime candidates for aftermarket repair. The vehicle population is growing, but the distribution of the fleet by age is kicking the crap out of our expectations.

Here’s the clincher though, and what the aftermarket must recognize if it is to come out of this slump in good shape: since it has been seeing a great many older vehicles it has been getting into the habit of using the cheapest products available to perform repairs. These are usually referred to as white box products, though sometimes the term “value line” is used. It’s an understandable reaction to servicing the 10-year-old-plus vehicles, but it is setting a dangerous precedent when it is the only product category offered to the owner of the older vehicle. The first problem with this habit is that it is often not the consumer making the choice, but the installer, who decides that it’s the appropriate level of product for the consumer’s vehicle. The second problem is that, even when the consumer is told about the “white box” product, it’s not often as part of a comparison with the premium or mid-grade products, but as the “right option for an old car.”

By doing this, you’re conditioning the consumer to only think of the aftermarket as being the place to get the cheapest stuff–not the greatest value, which is different. With this in mind, what do you think the chances are of this car owner being as inclined to come to the independent when they get a newer car in a couple of years and want to treat it better than the last car, maybe even buy those premium brand products he didn’t think the old car deserved?

In order to preserve the image of the aftermarket as being able to offer service and parts second to none in terms of value and quality, you need to sell that idea at every transaction; to literally hold up the two or three boxes and let the customer decide. If the customer opts for the “value line,” at least they’ve been made aware that you have the premium options available.

Then when the next mountain of cars comes inching into their aftermarket years, about two years from now, at least the customer base will already know that they can rely on the aftermarket to give their “new baby”–even if it is seven years old–the best service at a fair price.

NEXT MONTH

We’ll look at the Oil and Lubricants market plus the potential of Performance Chemicals as Ontario’s Drive Clean I/M program opens up Phase II.