Techs may not be forthright about price

Jan. 1, 2020
Are technicians not being straight shooters, or are we pushing them toward value lines?

Every time I read a market research study on the purchase patterns of independent repair technicians, it comes back with the same result: the price of parts is not a big issue — it is way down the list of what is important to independent repair shops.

But when I speak with manufacturers or program groups, virtually all say that sales of their so-called value lines are growing while sales of premium lines are shrinking.

How is it possible for a steady decline to be occurring with premium lines at the same time repair technicians say that quality is more important than price? Here are three probable explanations:

1. Techs are not being straight shooters when they say price doesn’t matter.

2. Car owners are pressing techs so hard for a lower price on repairs that using cheap parts is required.

3. Techs have come to believe that our “fit for use” value lines represent an acceptable substitute for premium lines in terms of quality.

To get to any clarity on this issue, I contacted several thought leaders. My informal survey yielded support for all three theories. 

This from an executive at a large distributor with significant commercial business: “I think they tell us what they like to think about themselves. That’s why they say price isn’t important. But when push comes to shove, they buy what’s cheapest.” 

There’s one vote for the not-being-straight-shooters theory.

A marketing executive at a major supplier to retail chains said, “The rapid expansion of the aggressive marketing and advertising techniques of major service chains has established a ‘glass ceiling’ of sorts for consumer expectations of the price of certain repairs. The $19.99 oil change and the $69 brake jobs are examples of how the retail chains are setting consumer price expectations. That is making it difficult for independent service operators who are not sales and marketing oriented by nature to aggressively sell up.”

That sounds like a vote for the car owner driving the choice for cheap parts.

From a large diversified manufacturer, I was told, “I think it depends on the value proposition the tech sees. Too often, we manufacturers don’t even understand ourselves what the difference is between the levels of quality in our own lines. If we don’t, how can we expect the market to?” Chalk one up for the “techs accept value lines as being an acceptable substitute” theory.

I realized that the best answer would have to come from the source: the technicians themselves. During a five-city tour of focus groups with independent repair shops, I gleaned some insight worthy of sharing. Let’s start with the big question: Are techs being less than frank?

No. For the most part, techs do think that availability, quality and service are more important than price.

As one observed, “I’m the one that has to redo the job out of my pocket. I would rather walk a price shopper than redo a job for free. I just tell them there is another guy down the street that will install junk if that’s what he wants. More often than not, they tell me to go ahead with the good stuff.”

Is the motoring public pushing them toward cheaper parts? 

Sometimes, but not too often. As one technician said, “I have a few customers that simply can’t afford to install premium parts...In those situations, I’ll use cheaper parts, but I tell them that I can’t warranty the work.”

And, there are circumstances where the service retailer’s advertising shapes the consumers’ price perceptions. One tech said, “I charge $35 for an oil change, and I don’t make a profit at that price. But the fact is most of my customers think that I’m taking them to the cleaners because they are constantly exposed to coupons, mailers and ads. I try and tell them that nobody gets out of one of those places for $19.99, but I’m not sure they always buy it.”

When safety is involved, however, most techs say they stress the need for premium and they typically don’t get consumer resistance.

So, if most are being candid about price not being important, what other explanation is there?

That leaves the disturbing theory that techs believe our “fit for use” value lines represent an acceptable quality substitute for premium lines. Is that the case? I asked several manufacturers about the differences between the premium and value lines. Overwhelmingly, they all said that their value lines weren’t junk, but they simply weren’t designed to last as long as their premium lines.

It was then that I recalled something said to me in about 1978 by Marty Brown, my mentor in the aftermarket business.

He told me that, “all aftermarket products are over-manufactured.” Brown said the level of quality of most product meant that they would outlast the vehicle in which they were being installed. And when he said that in the 1970s, he was right in most cases. Today, however, the quality of vehicles has improved exponentially at the same time most manufacturers are introducing lines of diminished quality, creating an interesting juxtaposition.

How do techs know which to use?

I’ve told the story before about the counterperson who couldn’t tell me the difference between the $8 and $14 serpentine belt. He said, “They both fit.”

There’s the problem. For the most part, ACES-type application data is all we have available at the point of sale, and all it allows is a match between a part and an application.

Had the counterperson had access to better PIES-type product attribute data, which every manufacturer has readily available, he could have told me that the premium belt was 3-ply vs. only 2-ply, that it was made from EDM compound rather than traditional nitrite and was more heat resistant, both things that extend the life of the belt. 

I don’t believe for a moment that counterpeople want to sell just the cheap stuff any more than techs want to use it. But if the counterperson doesn’t have access to the data, he can’t share it.

Is the solution to this dilemma as simple as making PIES-type product attribute data available to parts counterpeople? No, there is much more training and education that is required by manufacturers and resellers alike.

To get an idea about the kind of data that I’m talking about, go to Amazon.com. Shop for any consumer product and you will see customer reviews, detailed feature/benefit listings, product callouts and samples among many other features. If that type of data was available at our parts counters, nobody would ever have to say, “they both will fit” when confronted with explaining different lines. 

That means that eCat providers need to create software that accommodates product attribute data, resellers need to step up and invest in those systems and manufacturers need to gather PIES compliant data on their products and develop ways to synchronize it with and distribute it to their reseller partners.

So if you haven’t surmised, I’ve settled on the theory that techs have come to view “fit for use” value lines as the quality equivalent of premium lines when they say quality is more important than price. To state it bluntly: it’s more about manufacturers and resellers failing to provide the information and data available to techs so they can make the right decision for themselves.