TORONTO—Moving to recapture a slice of the business lost each year to aftermarket automotive service shops, Ford of Canada is testing a concept in Toronto for what could become a U.S.- and Canada-wide chain of quick-service outlets. Called ``Fast Lane,'' the dealer-owned service outlets provide the same type of fast, no-appointment service and maintenance as franchised operations such as Speedy Muffler, Midas and Jiffy Lube.
Ford is testing three Fast Lane shops around Toronto, to enthusiastic reviews.
Saving service business
``Our Fast Lane business is growing very quickly,'' said Wayne Pitman, owner-principal of Wayne Pitman Ford Sales Inc. in Guelph, Ontario. ``And 45 percent of our business is non-Ford. We're getting back what we passed up in service and maintenance business years ago. I can see a payback on my investment in about two and a half years.''
Although Mr. Pitman only opened his Fast Lane shop last November, he credits the concept with saving his dealership's service business.
``With warranty work falling off because of 100,000-kilometer (62,000-mile) tuneups and better-built cars, my service business was going sideways,'' he said.
Ford imported the Fast Lane idea from Europe, where Ford dealers offer it as Rapid Service on the Continent and Rapid Fit in Britain. It now represents the largest service-shop network in Europe, said Phil De-Bodene, head of the Canadian program.
Ford studies showed that European dealers were keeping their new-car customers for only 2.8 years on average, or until warranty coverage expired, according to Mr. De-Bodene. After that, light repair work and maintenance were being lost to the specialty shops.
And in North America, studies showed that dealers were losing as much as 50 percent of their potential new-car service business after just one year, he said.
``And we, as an industry, got worse and worse at looking after those customers. Dealers were perceived as expensive and inconvenient. The fact that you can't drive into a dealership and ask for an oil change or a brake job, and wait for it to be done, is a major disincentive to going there,'' he said.
Ford estimates that Canadians spend $11 billion Canadian (about $8.4 billion U.S.) a year on service. But that market is expected to grow substantially as the country's automotive fleet ages. According to a recent study, the average age of vehicles on the road in Canada has risen to 6 years from 4.5 years in 1987.
More than a huge source of potential service revenue is being lost, however. Customers who go elsewhere for service often stray from the Ford fold when it comes time to buy a new car, Mr. De-Bodene said.
``Ford of Europe realized that you've got to keep that customer coming back... up to six or seven years, when he would be back in the repurchase cycle,'' he added.
Ford specifies Fast Lane shops must have at least two service bays and be physically separated from a dealer's regular service department.
Mr. De-Bodene said dealer investment will vary according to the number of bays and whether the operation is set up in a building separate from the dealership. But Ford gave the three pilot dealers $10,000 Canadian (about $7,600 U.S.) per service bay to help launch the project, he said.
Ford will open three or four outlets in Ontario this summer, Mr. De-Bodene said, then take the program nationwide in the next few years.
If successful, the Canadian experience with Fast Lane will be brought to the U.S., possibly under the Quick Lane name, since the Fast Lane name already is protected in the United States.
Ford's effort would join a parallel concept the automaker launched several years ago in the U.S. It's "Ford Auto Care" pilot program-stand-alone auto service outlets operated by Ford dealers - have been set up in several cities, and are meant to give some competition to neighborhood service shops.