Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2009   by David Halpert

What’s Driving Ride Control Systems


Struts and shocks are too often neglected by consumers in place of parts that get replaced more frequently, like brakes and tires. Yet it remains a resilient category.

“People tend to focus on safety items such as brakes,” says Steve Dodd, general manager for Benson Auto Parts in Peterborough, Ont. “I was a service manager for quite a while at a couple of shops, and trying to sell ride control parts was tough. You could point out leaking struts and shocks, talk about how they limit how well your vehicle handles or stops, but a lot of times [the customer would say], ‘Well, just do my brakes; I’ll deal with it when the time comes.’ The preventative-maintenance side of it is a tougher sell on them.”

The need for proper training has remained an important issue for jobbers and technicians alike. Opinions within the supply chain vary on the issue: whether more training is needed for jobbers, or quite simply whether jobbers are taking advantage of the ride control training already available to them.

“I’d definitely say [training for jobbers] has gotten better,” says Dodd. “For example, we probably see the Monroe rep about twice a year, and once or twice a year we’ll also try to generate interest throughout our shops. Tenneco, under its Monroe brand, also runs its ‘Ride & Drive’ program where they’ll set up three pairs of vehicles”–in one case a minivan, a Nissan pathfinder, and a BMW 3 series–“one assembled with new suspension pieces and the other with old worn suspension.”

Participants are allowed to experience first-hand the marked difference between the two by driving around a preset course designed not only to raise awareness on a product category that is often overlooked, but also to stress the importance of replacement after 80,000 km, which is generally considered by industry the proper replacement interval. The program, now in its seventh year, was created partly to address the fact that few technicians actually tested the car’s ride control, but simply checked for leaking shock absorbers.

“Shock absorbers are made so much better now at the OE level, and we’re a large OE supplier,” says Bill Dennie, director of ride control channel management for Tenneco’s Monroe brand. “So the units don’t leak like they used to, but they wear out internally. We emphasize the signs of good suspension, what we call ‘The Safety Triangle’–steering, stopping, and stability–rather than just relying on a visual inspection.”

“I think there’s absolutely a huge gap when it comes to training,” says Aaron Shaffer, marketing manager for KYB America LLC. “And I think for years we as manufacturers, while we have provided training, haven’t provided effective training. I think too much of the focus has been on talking about how great the product is and not really giving people a clear understanding of how to actually sell the product.”

He attributes this to the reality that ride control products are not only one of the most undersold categories in the aftermarket, but the situation is often out of the jobber’s hands altogether. Even if a problem is discovered on a motorist’s ride control at the technician level, convincing the consumer to replace it is a bit more difficult than your average oil change. For jobbers, Shaffer recommends some simple strategies. “As vehicle proliferation continues to happen, it’s very important to have as wide an inventory as you can, and maybe not that deep. Because most jobbers [get deliveries from the warehouse] once a day, it’s more important that you have [the part] and let the warehouse take care of your depth.”

Another thing jobbers can do is consult their sales history or vehicle registration data to make sure their inventory appropriately fits their market. Also, try consulting your shock and strut manufacturer for any available data in your area, says Shaffer.

Opportunities and Upgrading

While jobbers and counterpeople can improve how they sell ride control items, the fact is the components in a ride control system can outlast the life of a vehicle without actually falling apart–as much as 300,000 km–leaving replacement rates relatively low.

However, there are basic regional differences when it comes to selling ride control parts and components. Obviously, a jobber store in Saskatchewan will have a different inventory mix than someone in downtown Vancouver. And though the market for shocks and struts may not change a whole lot, there are several key areas that can lead to sales opportunities.

“I think there are some upgrade opportunities, especially in light trucks, which is still a very viable market,” continues Shaffer. “Any vehicle that is towing, hauling, ploughing, regardless of how many kilometres are on the vehicle, is a great candidate to upgrade to monotube shocks.” A monotube shock provides additional handling and control over twintube designs.

Counterpeople would do well to realize that “hauling” can mean anything from a construction worker loading the back of his Ford F-150 with equipment and supplies to a hockey dad carpooling six kids in his Dodge Caravan every weekend. Chances are if they’re using their vehicles for these types of applications, then they probably want their vehicle to be safe, even if it means buying the premium.

“Warranty is another big issue,” says Lionel Draws, national sales manager for Gabriel Ride Control Products, Inc. “We guarantee the entire unit for as long as the customer owns it. Product-wise, there’s no huge difference; that’s why warranty is a big issue.”

For Tenneco, the most popular item in its line has been the Quick-Strut, the brand’s complete replacement strut assembly. Despite the recession sales have only been climbing, so much so that the firm recently added light truck and SUV coverage. But one area that is often overlooked is the need for strut mounts on trucks, as Bill Dennie explains.

“In the last three to four years, [technicians] have started to replace struts on trucks. So if a technician or a DIY customer comes into a jobber store asking for a set of struts, the counterperson should [suggest] strut mounts as well. If you’re going to replace your struts, you have to tear the unit apart, and if you put it on an old strut mount that thing could go bad in a month or a week.”

It’s also interesting to note, Dennie says, that while unit sales have been flat or slightly down over the last several months, dollar sales are up because more people are purchasing premium units.

While ride control parts and components may have traditionally lower replacement rates than some other parts categories, there are proven strategies and training in place to help everyone in the supply chain communicate the need for ride control service to the consumer–and that means improved profits for you and safer vehicles for them.

Tips For Ride Control Sales

There are other factors to consider when dealing with ride control parts and components. Some garages might put twin tube shocks on the front and monotube shocks on the rear, which will give the consumer an unbalanced ride because you have two different technologies on the car.

“The most important thing is that everyone in the distribution channel has a clear understanding of what the repair outcome will be when you fit a specific product onto a vehicle,” says Aaron Shaffer, marketing manager for KYB America LLC. “I could talk to you about how great our product is and could talk about seamless mounts and extruded tubing, but what’s most important is that when the jobber/counterperson is communicating to that technician they simply say, “Well okay, you agreed to put shocks and struts on the car. Why are you replacing them? Is it to restore the car’s design performance or is it to increase its handling and control?” And then from there you can determine the right product.”

It might also be a good idea to start stocking struts specifically formulated for trucks. “A lot of people think that everything comes with shock absorbers,” says Bill Dennie,
director of ride control channel management for Tenneco’s Monroe brand. “And when we look at the light truck categories, most consumers (whether DIY or DIFM) don’t know that light trucks have the highest replacement rates for shock absorbers. So it’s a key category and an impulse item for many DIY truckers.”

Also, keep in mind load-assist shocks and struts, or “air shocks.” They can be a viable sales addition for pickup trucks that carry more weight, such as vehicles that hitch to a boat or trailer.