Motorists can often recite the cost of a new part within a nickel… but they’ll rarely put a price on their own time.
If they did, parts and accessory experts are confident they’d choose the higher-priced premium option every time.
Chris Robinson, a Winnipeg-based store manager at NAPA Auto Parts, says one of his biggest challenges is convincing customers that buying the top-end option will actually prove to be cheaper in the long run.
His standard line to them: “Don’t buy cheap brakes. You’ll be coming back in a year and doing them all over again.”
Robinson encourages his staff to suggest middle-of-the-road parts at the start of any negotiation. If things are going well, they can start moving the conversation toward premium part options. If you start at the bottom, you’ll never move them all the way to premium.
“If you quote somebody on the cheapest stuff, they’ve heard the number and they’re sold,” he said. “You can talk premium parts until you’re blue in the face and they won’t care.”
Robinson also strongly suggests customers get off their wallets for brakes, rotors, and anything related to the chassis.
“You can buy cheap rotors that aren’t coated. Look at the crap on our roads in the winters. If you spend a few extra dollars on the premium product, it’s coated and it’s never going to rust,” he said.
Robinson wants to know if the customer is keeping the vehicle and who drives it while he’s making his suggestions. He knows of one mini-van customer who always buys the lowest-end parts he can.
“He’ll say, ‘It’s just my wife’s car that she uses to drive the kids around. I want to buy the cheapest stuff possible,’” he said.
“Really? Does she know that? Is she in the car right now? Maybe you should bring her in, and we can talk.”
Once you get burned once, you don’t want to get burned again. It’s amazing how fast (customers) come back and say they don’t want the cheap parts.
Paul Chemerys, sales manager at AGI Bumper to Bumper in northeast Calgary, has another value question. What’s a good night’s sleep worth to your customers?
Premium products not only last longer but they’re also backed up with warranties.
“That gives the end user peace of mind,” he said, noting they can include roadside assistance on top of the manufacturer’s warranty.
Commercial vehicles have an even greater need for premium parts than passenger cars and trucks. Plumbers, electricians, and welders should never use second-line brakes, filters, or steering parts.
“They depend on that vehicle for their livelihood. You’re taking a chance that it’s going to be up on a hoist (with second-line parts). If it’s not earning you money, we didn’t do our job,” he said.
Another reason to buy top-line products is it’s not uncommon for the aftermarket to re-engineer problems with original parts to improve their performance.
“You only find that in the premium lines with things like tire rod ends, ball joints, and brakes,” he said. “In the cheaper stuff, you don’t see the fix. They just make it to meet the basic requirements.”
Just like a wolf pack is only as strong as its weakest member, a vehicle is only as strong as its weakest part. That includes brakes, shocks, and struts.
“As soon as you cheap out on one aspect, the other aspects can’t keep up. That’s when it becomes a safety issue,” he said.
Part of the challenge with lower-quality parts is that manufacturers often say they meet OEM specifications. The key word there is “meet,” Chemerys said.
“They don’t ‘exceed.’ The premium brands exceed the OEM in most cases,” he said.
“You’ve got to respect (the customer’s) decision. You give them their options and let them make their choices. You can’t tell people not to smoke or drink too much. They’re going to do what they want to do.”
There are times when a vehicle owner is looking to sell a car or truck in the short term and wants to replace worn-out parts as cheaply as possible. In those cases, Ron Swyers, counterman at Superior Automotive in Stephenville, Nfld., goes along with it because the customer knows they won’t get their money out of a premium part.
But when your competitor is selling at a discount, you’ve got to compete. Except when that competitor is online.
“As soon as a part comes on the island, (the price) goes up. It’s all about the export cost. I say, ‘Support your home town.’ You want people to stick around and the stores to stay open. Yes, it’s a few dollars more but there’s also the convenience,” he said.
Repair shops almost always want top-quality parts. About the only time they’ll settle for less is if a worn-out part is discovered while the car is on the hoist.
“Time is money. The customer has to pay for that time on the hoist. If you’re looking for a part then, you have no choice but to go for the cheaper part,” he said.
Swyers makes a point of telling his customers that premium parts are invariably cheaper on labour. Not only do they go on more easily, they also last longer.
“And, some products have a lifetime warranty, so they’ve only got to buy them once,” he said.
Customers who opt for the cheaper parts aren’t a lost cause. In fact, Swyers says a great time to upsell them on a product is when they bring it back because it wore out too quickly.
“I suggest they pay the difference (for the upgrade) on warranty,” he said.
The advent of online parts retailers has been a significant source of frustration for Robinson. Customers will buy online, discover they’ve got the wrong part, send it back. They end up waiting for a replacement part. And, all the while, their vehicle is off the road. Just because many online retailers tout their low prices, doesn’t mean counter people should offer discounts.
“I think it devalues your products,” he said. “Nobody wants to pay full price. I want to say, ‘When you go to Walmart, do you ask them for a discount?’ When they come to NAPA or Piston Ring, they ask for a discount on every part that comes over the counter. Do you do that when you buy groceries?”
Robinson said the premium pitch is a lot easier when a customer has been frustrated by a low-end part.
“Once you get burned once, you don’t want to get burned again. It’s amazing how fast they come back and say they don’t want the cheap parts,” he said.
Good shops are well-trained in how to deal with customers who ask for deals, says Malcolm Davidow, a Philadelphia-based partner at Schwartz Advisors.
“They say, ‘We’re not selling our labour, we’re selling our parts and labour. We’re spending time identifying the problem, and using the best part for the job,’” he said.
In response to growing pressure on parts pricing, Davidow said some shops are increasing their labour rates instead.
“The equipment and training isn’t getting any less expensive,” he said. “Over time, you’ll see increases in labour rates. I think parts prices will be playing a factor there.”
Using premium parts can also pay dividends down the road with a higher asking price when motorists decide to sell their vehicle.
“If you’ve got premium parts with the bills and paperwork, that’s a selling feature. You can say, ‘look, everything here is top-end. I didn’t cheap out on anything,’” Robinson said. “It will also give (the buyer) a better understanding of the vehicle.”
As parts distributors, knowing the upside to installing premium parts is a valuable part of the job. Making converts is critical to selling more quality parts.
Geoff Kirbyson is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg, Man.