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Auto Fluids and Specialty Chemicals


If there’s one word that describes automotive fluids and specialty chemicals category today, it’s this: Confusion! It seems that every aftermarket fluid and chemical supplier is trying to outdo its competitor by expanding lines with more and more new specialty products that are targeted at narrower and narrower potential buyers. It’s vertical marketing that’s squeezing horizontal shelf space to the max.


Marketing people say giving consumers an even broader range of choices is a good thing. Instead of having to buy a compromise product, they can buy the exact product that best matches their needs. It sounds good on paper, but in the real world it creates an overload of choices many consumers find confusing. That’s why you need to know the products on your store shelves, and know how the differ from one another. Why? So you can help your customers choose the "right" product to use.

Take motor oil, for example. Most parts stores carry multiple brands of oil, and each brand not only offers a range of viscosities (5W-30, 10W-30, etc.), but also "specialty" products such as full synthetic oil and blended synthetic oil. Some offer oil specially formulated for SUVs and trucks. Others have special blends for high mileage engines (those with more than 75,000 miles on the odometer). There are also special oils for easier winter starting (like 0W-30 synthetic or synthetic blend).


Choosing the "right" oil, therefore, means taking a number of things into consideration, such as how the vehicle is driven, the mileage on the engine, climate conditions, whether the customer is willing to spend more for a synthetic, and so on.

Choosing the right automatic transmission fluid (ATF) can also be confusing. Most late model vehicles use a "friction modified" fluid designed to work with the electronic shift controls and torque converter clutch. But each vehicle manufacturer has its own specifications, and although GM and Ford are similar, Chrysler is different and so are many imports. If your customer chooses the wrong fluid, he may end up with transmission problems.


Power steering fluid? It’s the same story. Some vehicles use ATF in their power steering system, others require a specially formulated fluid that contains additives which are compatible with the seals in the pump and steering rack. A "universal" power steering fluid may work in most applications, but there are exceptions.

Antifreeze? Same story and even more confusing. There used to be one universal antifreeze that would work in virtually every domestic or import vehicle – but it had to be changed every two or three years and 30,000 miles. "Conventional" antifreeze didn’t have the longevity to meet the expectations of today’s "low maintenance/no maintenance" drivers, so the vehicle manufacturers introduced a variety of long life coolants, most of which use some flavor of organic acid technology (OAT) chemistry to prevent corrosion. But there is no "standard" OAT formulation, and every vehicle manufacturer says their formula is unique. So should your customer use green antifreeze (the old conventional stuff), orange antifreeze (Dexron or similar OAT-based products), or some other color of coolant?


To address this issue, some coolant suppliers have introduced new universal coolants that are claimed to be compatible with conventional antifreeze as well as the new OAT-based coolants. That’s good news because it consolidates coolants and the need to carry so many different products. But others have taken a more conservative approach and continue to offer not only conventional antifreeze (which still outsells the newer products because of its lower price) but also long life OAT-based coolants and hybrid OAT coolants with silicates added for additional protection.

Helping a customer choose the right coolant, therefore, means reading product labels and literature so you know how the different coolants compare and which might offer the best value, protection and/or life for your customer’s vehicle. For more information on this topic, see this month’s Shelf Space.


The trouble is every fluid and chemical supplier is playing the same game and is introducing more and more new products some would say are only marginally different. Do they give consumers more choices? Certainly. But are they also making the buying decision more difficult and time-consuming? You bet!

It’s unlikely this marketing trend is going to change anytime soon. New products are appearing at an ever increasing pace, so it’s more important than ever to keep yourself up-to-date on fluids and chemicals and how these products compare. One way to do this is to choose a different product category each day and spend some time reading labels and comparing products. After a week or two, you will be much more familiar with what’s on the shelf and be better equipped to help customers cut through the clutter and choose a product that best matches their needs.


Here’s a list of 14 fluid and chemical categories you should explore over the next two weeks to familiarize yourself with the products in your store:


  • Cleaners – Brake cleaners, engine degreasers, carburetor/fuel system aerosol cleaners, wheel/tire brush on and aerosol cleaners, glass cleaners, upholstery cleaners, carpet cleaners, bug/tar removers and of course car wash detergents.

  • Waxes, Polishes & Protectants – For clear coat finishes, for regular finishes, with or without silicones, for chrome/aluminum, for alloy wheels, for plastics, rubber, leather and fabric. A subcategory would be polishing/buffing compounds.

  • Tire Care Products – Tire/wheel cleaners, spray-on shine/protectant products, and sealer/inflator products for fixing flats.

  • Fuel System Products – Octane boosters, lead substitutes for older engines, various types of fuel system cleaners, fuel deicers, diesel fuel mileage extenders and diesel fuel anti-gel additives.

  • Lubricants/Penetrants -Penetrating oils for lubricating parts and/or loosening fasteners, and specialty greases/lubricants (for brakes, for CV joints, for wheel bearing, for chassis components, for door hinges, for door locks, etc.)

  • Motor oils – Conventional, synthetics and blended oils, specialty oils for hard working engines, high mileage engines, etc.

  • Crankcase Additives – Friction reducers/modifiers, products to reduce oil burning, engine flush to remove carbon and varnish deposits, top cleaners to remove carbon from combustion chambers, and moly and teflon-based crankcase additives to extend engine life.

  • Antifreeze – Conventional, extended life, universal and "alternative" coolants such as proplyene glycol.

  • Cooling System Additives -Sealers to stop leaks, additives to extend the life of antifreeze, rust inhibitors/water pump lubricants, and cooling system flushes to remove rust and scale.

  • Brake Fluid – DOT 3, 4 and 5, heavy-duty and extra heavy-duty.

  • rake Chemicals – Aerosol brake rotor/squeal treatments, brake lubricants/greases, brake cleaner.

  • Automatic Transmission Fluid – Ford, GM and Chrysler spec fluids, Type F for older Fords and imports, and transmission additives (stop leaks and conditioners).

  • Gear oils and grease – Chassis grease, wheel bearing grease, CV joint grease, multi-purpose grease, dry lubricants (graphite), white grease (lithium), synthetic grease and other special lubricants.

  • Specialty fluids -Power steering fluids, engine and transmission flushes to remove varnish deposits, hydraulic clutch fluid, and windshield washer premix.

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