Price or Quality: Which do Technicians Want?

Price or Quality: Which do Technicians Want?

While technicians say they want quality, all too often their sourcing tends to focus too much on price. So between price and quality, which is more important?

More often than not in today’s parts market, when a technician or a shop has persistent quality issues with a replacement part, it doesn’t remain a secret. Instead of silently taking his lumps on warranty costs, shop owners can now use the formidable powers of the Internet to compare notes about failure rates and warranty issues. Through the Internet, minor issues at the local level can now be magnified into major issues at the national level. When a shop has a problem with the fit, reliability and calibration of a parts line, not only is it his news, but it’s everybody else’s news too.

Many years ago, former Beatle Ringo Starr made famous a punch line for an automobile commercial, saying the now-famous catch phrase: "This isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile." The punch line was intended to emphasize that, although the new automobile in question still retained its traditional values, it had changed to meet modern tastes in transportation.

The same can be said of aftermarket parts distribution. Yes, it still performs its role of distributing auto repair parts to all sizes and segments of society, from the smallest one-stoplight towns to major metropolises. Aftermarket distribution has also moved from supplying parts for roughly a dozen basic domestic platforms to literally hundreds of world-class platforms. In addition, aftermarket distribution has covered the social gamut of supplying parts to the low-end mass market and to the high-end professional market as well. Aftermarket distribution has also progressed from supplying solely through musty mom-and-pop stores to supplying modern, state-of-the-art store fronts. Better still, aftermarket distribution is beginning to dip its toe into the mass-market and professional e-commerce waters. As impressive as those advances may be, there’s still an element missing in the generational change of aftermarket distribution.

While technology changes, human attitudes often don’t. In theory, the aftermarket is staying with current technology by offering a line of replacement electronics parts. But let’s compare the generational gap between old and new technology.

Thirty years ago, all vehicles were equipped with carburetors and contact-point ignition. Twenty-five years ago, electronic ignition systems made their appearance. Twenty years ago, on-board computer systems were being installed. A mere ten years ago, fuel-injected engines, automatic transmissions, anti-lock brakes and body control electronics systems began merging together via multiplexed electrical systems in which a half-dozen or more functionally different computers share a network of input sensors to generate hundreds of different output responses.

In short, fewer operating functions ranging from speedometers to throttle controls are hard-wired or mechanically connected in modern vehicles. When a driver steps on the throttle, presses a button to unlock his doors or switches on the air conditioning, he’s using a "soft-wired" system that commands a computer to perform that function. Because many aftermarket suppliers may be using "hard-wired" technology to approach a "soft-wired" market, it may unwittingly be ignoring the qualitative issues that affect the profitability of the reputable independent repair shop.

To better understand the generational change regarding quality, let’s go back thirty years and look at something as simple as contact distributor points.

Contact points could be made more cheaply than OE points because qualitative sacrifices could be made in the material of the distributor cam rubbing block and the thickness of the tungsten coating on the contact points themselves. A cheaper aftermarket point set might, for example, last 10,000 miles while the OE-equivalent points might last 15,000 miles. In most cases, the points lasted as long as the spark plugs and fuel filter, so the consumer usually didn’t experience the qualitative difference.

In many other applications, sacrifices in quality could also be made to achieve advantages in price. To illustrate, when solid-state ignition made its debut, some manufacturers made their ignition modules much more cheaply by simplifying the internal circuitry. Although the differences might not be detectable by the average driver, they were detectable by the skilled auto repair technician who caught these engineering shortcuts when diagnosing driveability complaints caused by the lower-quality module.

To be more specific, the cheaper module may not have incorporated a cranking by-pass circuit which, in turn, may have caused hard starting under cold-weather operating conditions. In other cases, the engineering changes may have eliminated a variable dwell function that caused the module to regularly burn out ignition coils. This and other examples are the historic beginnings of the qualitative issues arising in aftermarket parts manufacture.

Of course, modern computer-based technology won’t tolerate as many deviations from qualitative standards as in days past. The quality of a common oxygen sensor, for example, has been improved because an OBD II-compliant engine computer actually monitors slight deviations in the oxygen sensor’s voltage output. An excessively low output voltage or slow switching rate will cause the infamous orange Check Engine light to come on.

Similarly, a mass air flow (MAF) sensor must measure air flow into the engine’s intake down to a fraction of a gram per second. If the MAF underestimates the intake air, the air/fuel mixture goes lean. If the MAF overestimates intake air, the air/fuel mixture goes rich. In either case, a miscalibrated sensor turns on the Check Engine light and becomes a money-loser for the shop that installed the MAF as a new or remanufactured replacement part.

It’s easy to understand the generational changes in vehicle design when we remind ourselves that changing the spark plugs in an early cast-iron V8 engine usually took less than thirty minutes.

Due to reduced accessibility, changing spark plugs can consume more than three hours on many current transverse engine and cab-over vehicle designs because, in many cases, the intake plenum chamber and throttle body must be removed to access the rear-bank spark plugs. If one of the newly installed spark plugs or wires fails, the out-of-pocket warranty expense to the shop owner can be considerable. The same can be said of any traditional wearing component including water pumps, thermostats, starters, alternators, belts, hoses, gaskets, and fuel injection components.

Quite clearly, poor component access increases a shop’s need for quality components. Although most jobbers do have price-conscious shop owners who seek out the "low-bid" replacement part, the most cost-conscious shop owners seek out replacement parts that perform the most reliably and that deliver the longest service life.

There’s a big difference between the cost of a part and the price of a part.

To illustrate, the cost of a part is an accumulation of expenses associated with acquiring, installing and guaranteeing the part. For example, waiting two hours for delivery of a part means that two productive hours have been lost from that service bay. If the part is a "universal fit" component, then minutes and perhaps hours are added to the installation time. If the part fails repeatedly, this means unhappy customers, not to mention possible towing charges, car rental charges and uncompensated labor charges.

The price of the part, on the other hand, is simply the assigned value of the manufacturing and distribution process. The cheapest part for the customer may be the part that lists twenty-five percent higher but lasts twice as long. The cheapest part for the professional installer may be the part with the least fitment issues, calibration errors and warranty comebacks.

Cherry-picking prices to save money are becoming counter productive for any repair shop because labor-to-parts-sales ratios for most service shops, for example, have changed from about a 50/50 ratio to a 60/40 ratio. Labor time has obviously increased because of increased diagnostic times and decreased component accessibility.

Consequently, a ten percent savings on a part may represent only a four percent savings on the total repair order. For the truly informed shop operator, more profit is to be made by monitoring labor prices than parts prices.

Given the qualitative gamble undertaken by installing the lower-priced part, it makes little sense for a professional installer to spend precious time dealing with a four-percent difference in his total invoice. To the contrary, most sharp operators are extremely concerned about declining quality in many parts lines.

Sure, any shop likes to save money, but not by gambling its fame and fortune on installing inferior replacement parts.

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