Time was, selling product lines like brakes was a fairly straightforward operation. Most consumers patronizing aftermarket shops owned older, out-of-warranty cars, or were looking for a less expensive alternative to dealerships, who, it was assumed, could be counted on to offer a premium product and premium service at a premium (i.e., expensive) price.
But both of those truisms have been changing in recent years. A number of trends are influencing this market, from vehicles that have retained their value over longer periods, to more competition from dealers for off-warranty business. Some consumers may still want the price brand, sure; but especially since the overall quality of the product has improved in recent years, it’s no longer that simple. Marketing the better brake requires a more nuanced approach.
There are still good, better, best options, of course and each have their adherents. As Dan Caciolo, head of product management, engine management and brake systems, Continental, notes, “At Continental, we see two trends happening in the brake market, but they are affecting two very different customer bases. With the average age of cars continuing to increase, we see a large population of cars that are still in great running shape, but overall, have a lesser value. The owners of these cars tend to favour price over quality, and in the brake business, the primary cost is in the quality of material used.
“The second trend is driven by an increase in the overall miles driven,” Caciolo continues. Many owners are moving from mid-level to premium products for a number of different reasons, ranging from longevity of the product, comfort/feel or in the case of ceramics, appearance of the vehicle.”
According to Nicholas Thomas, product manager, braking with DRiV, which offers the Wagner brand, “During the Great Recession, there was a drastic drop in new vehicle purchases, followed by a record boom. Those vehicles, which tend to be CUV/SUV/light truck, are now coming into their brake service cycle. Many of these vehicles demand a premium brake pad and rotor, so we’re seeing that segment continue to grow.”
In fact, Agna Brakes moved its product lines to focus almost exclusively on the mid-high category not long ago. “In percentages, 95% of our business is mid-high; entry level isn’t part of our volume,” explains Agna’s Brian O’Hanlon. “Agna has been in business for 30 years, and we started with entry-level product because that was what was in demand, but in the last five years we have moved the bulk of our business over to mid-high; entry-level just isn’t part of our volume any more.”
Meagan Moody of ZF Automotive sees a clear trend towards the premium when it comes to brakes, regardless of the age of the vehicle or the type of customer. “People will always want quality products across the board in all areas of their life, so the best segment is winning,” she points out. “The general trend seems to be towards premium product at a value price. End-users seem to want the best without having to pay the most for it.”
What’s driving this? Is it demographics, an aging car park, improved overall product quality, a more sophisticated consumer who appreciates the value of a better product?
“We believe that a combination of demographics, an aging car park, improved quality and sophisticated consumers are driving the trends,” observes Brian Kowalski, vice president of sales, Canada, Brake Parts Inc. “We have seen growth in all three of our product categories, showing that different customers have different needs to be met.”
DRiV’s Thomas attributes the move, at least in part, to significant advances in quality and performance. “Vehicle brake systems are more efficient and product quality has improved, resulting in brake pads and rotors lasting longer. As a result, corrosion resistance is now a more important factor. Customers and technicians are also more educated about brake products, and ask for a high-quality product that performs well. Premium brake pads and rotors with differentiated corrosion resistance, longer life, and enhanced noise reducing technologies, along with technical support from services like DRiV’s Garage Gurus, are becoming more and more in demand.”
What can jobbers do to ensure they are getting the best performance out of the entire category?
One of the key issues, notes Agna’s O’Hanlon, is to be aware that today’s customer isn’t going to the aftermarket just to save money on a cheaper brake job. Steadily increasing competition from dealers, especially in the crucial post-warranty period, means the aftermarket has to step up and present a professional image – from clean, comfortable waiting rooms to added services such as pick-up and drop-off and even, if feasible, courtesy cars. And jobbers should encourage their service advisor customers to take time to explain the differences among quality levels to their customers. “We don’t like to tell people what to do, but but if it were my store, I’d offer premium first, the mid, then the price brand. Let the consumer decide: if the premium doesn’t fit their budget, explain why the premium is better, so at least they make an informed decision.”
According to BPI’s Kowalski, “They need to ask key questions and gather as much information as possible on what is most important to the driver and what the car will be exactly used for. A great example of a vehicle that can have multiple uses is a Ford F-150. If the driver is just using this truck to drive back and forth to work, it makes most sense for them to install mid-high brake pads. However, if the driver is going to be towing something heavy, such as a boat or a camper, this is the perfect situation to sell them premium or specialty brake pads, so the braking system can properly handle the increased demand.”
ZF Automotive’s Moody believes that jobbers can ensure they are getting best performance out of the entire category by pushing for premium pads at the start, to reduce comebacks due to noise, dust, or stopping power issues. “An inspection of the entire brake system and reporting/receiving customer feedback is important to the friction market. Jobbers should always promote a complete brake job to be done for the system to work as best it can.”
Overall, Dan Caciolo emphasizes that jobbers ensure they are very familiar with their customer base and the factors that drive their purchasing decisions. “This will help the jobber to stock the right mix of brake products that can meet customers’ needs. Since the driving factors here are created by two very different customer groups, the product offering needs to be versatile enough to service the ideal product/price/quality level demanded by each group.”