The setting: a tranquil scenic overlook with a pristine lake below.
The camera slowly pans along cars parked at the railing to...oh no... a broken rail and a parking spot scarred by black skid marks. ``Cars with worn shocks may take an extra 10 feet to stop,'' a somber voice intones.
The exclamation point may be implied. But the message behind that TV commercial isn't, according to Tenneco Automotive Inc.
In an effort to draw attention to vehicle safety-and the potential for greater shock absorber and strut sales for auto service shops-the company's Monroe division has begun a campaign recommending vehicle owners check and possibly replace those components at the 50,000-mile mark. Why? A skeptic might say it's a way to jack up sagging shock sales. But Tenneco, one of the world's largest producers and marketers of ride control and exhaust systems and products, is quick to point out that because its parts are generally ``invisible'' to consumers, they're simply not top-of-mind concerns.
That has produced statistics indicating while some 70 million vehicle alignments are performed annually, only about 10 million shock/strut replacements are done. Consequently, shipments of aftermarket-bound shocks and struts have declined precipitously over the past decade or so, company executives said recently during a ride-and-drive event for automotive and trade press journalists at the division's headquarters in Monroe.
The new recommendation, the company believes, will help ensure motorists get the desired ride and handling characteristics of their vehicles and protect the integrity of other undercar parts comprising the so-called ``safety triangle.'' That term covers what Lake Forest, Ill.-based Tenneco described as ``the interconnected system of components-including tires, brakes and ride control products-that help determine a vehicle's steering, stopping and stability characteristics.''
The company said its new 50,000-mile recommendation covers domestic and import passenger cars, vans, light trucks and sport-utility vehicles and is the result of research it has conducted into the ``wear-out of shocks and struts under a variety of common driving conditions.''
``Part of our challenge is to create a trigger point,'' said Richard Alameddine, vice president of marketing. To illustrate his argument, he played for journalists a man-on-the-street-type video, shot by Tenneco at a shopping mall. There, consumers were asked when they know their vehicles' tires, brakes and shocks are worn and should be replaced. While most were surprisingly adept at pinpointing tire and brake wear, when it came to shocks, most had a blank deer-caught-in-headlights stare or simply didn't know. Many presumed shocks and struts last the life of the vehicle.
Tenneco's campaign is aimed at that erroneous perception, executives said, noting that because shocks and struts wear out gradually, drivers often are unaware their vehicles don't handle as well-until, perhaps, they encounter a situation that could involve emergency stopping, braking or avoidance maneuvers.
During the event, journalists drove several vehicles equipped with shocks and struts in various stages of wear, from new to worn out, in order to encounter a variety of handling characteristics.
Tenneco officials claimed the firm's new recommendation not only will enhance safety but also can offer repair shops and tire dealerships the opportunity to check shocks and struts for wear and tap into a previously dormant sales area.
To jump-start the campaign, Mr. Alameddine said ``national retailers, installers, (warehouse distributors), NAPA parts stores-basically everyone who sells or receives our products-will get a `ride control safety center' display'' that demonstrates worn vs. good shocks.
The company also plans, for the second year in a row, to take its two ``Monroe Ride Safe Tour'' tractor-trailers on the road this year to various high schools, state fairs and NASCAR events across the country. They contain hands-on displays, driving simulators and Monroe products. Accompanying each truck is a vehicle rollover simulator-which rotates like an out-of-control amusement park ride before mercilessly flinging un-seatbelted ``crash-test dummies'' out of the windows.
Mr. Alameddine said the company's shocks and struts-which are sold under the Monroe and Walker brand names-are considered ``a packaged-goods brand,'' and Tenneco is trying to help installers sell more of them by going directly to consumers with ride-and-drive and safety clinic events.
Meanwhile, the company also will offer a corresponding comprehensive ride-and-drive program to technicians and installers in about 42 cities nationwide.
To ``grow the category,'' Mr. Alameddine said, professional technicians ``need better tools'' to guide consumers who are often unaware of those ``invisible'' vehicle components that may need replacement.
Citing an Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association estimate, Joe Pomaranski, Monroe vice president of sales, noted some $60 billion in automotive services go unperformed. ``Ride control has always been a core category'' that has fallen off a little in recent years, he said, calling it ``a core service opportunity for shops.''
Still, he said, the industry faces challenges because some technicians ``are reluctant to recommend add-on services.''
Monroe has been working with original equipment manufacturers to boost the shock/strut segment and, Mr. Pomaranski acknowledged, ``that's translating into the aftermarket in sales.''
The company has been relentlessly pushing aftermarket channel growth. To that end, Mr. Pomaranski pointed to its products being offered in 1,100 Sears, Roebuck and Co. automotive centers and National Tire & Battery (NTB) outlets, the latter now owned by TBC Corp. Tenneco also recently signed a marketing pact with Pep Boys-Manny, Moe & Jack and its 590 stores and 6,000-plus service bays nationwide.
Several weeks ago the company also inked a deal that will place its products in TBC 's Tire Kingdom Inc. retail chain in the second quarter. ``Right now we have the lion's share of the retail marketplace,'' Mr. Pomaranski said, adding: ``We continue to work in the traditional aftermarket because it's not just the consumer, but the installer'' Monroe needs to reach.
He said the company has trained some 20,000 installers over the last three years-in 32 cities the first year, 35 last year and 42 during 2004. A program offered in Columbus, Ohio, in April, for instance, trained more than 200 mechanics.
The efforts are part ``marketing awareness,'' part technical training.
``We talk with technicians about ride control and try to give them the confidence to know how and when to recommend ride-control products, then give them hands-on ride-and-drive experience,'' Mr. Pomaranski explained.
Monroe is helping techs experience ride control characteristics throughout a shock or strut service life as well as demonstrating to them the risks of not performing ride-control product replacement. The clinics provide installers with information about front-end products, shocks, tires, tire wear and tread patterns as well as tutoring on how to sell ride control in conjunction with other vehicle maintenance products.
The company claims it has seen an increase in sales in shops that have participated in its ride-and-drive events. ``The more people we talk to within 30 to 40 days, we see the sales go up,'' a Tenneco executive told journalists.
However, he also conceded that because ``some shops don't want to jeopardize the sale of four tires, they're often afraid to ask a customer about adding on ride-control products.'' That's because their cost, combined with a tire purchase, might ``scare away'' the consumer. But Mr. Alameddine said Monroe also believes that when those patrons need ride-control products, they usually will go back to the shop that sold them tires.
``Our goal is to replace a product when it needs to be replaced and not replace it when it isn't bad,'' said Ted Wittman, a vehicle inspection team leader, while taking journalists on a tour of Monroe's technical center. As he spoke a bi-frequency tester-machinery that repeatedly cycles shocks and struts until failure-churned incessantly and deafeningly in the background. It is designed to mimic road conditions where, each mile, a shock cycles about 1,800 times.
Tenneco executives noted that consumers continue to bring their vehicles to service shops for brakes, tires, alignments, steering problems and oil changes-but not ride-control products. So where's the disconnect?
There are a number of positive reasons why there should be more sales of those products, they said, such as:
* A growing population of vehicles on the road;
* An increase in miles driven;
* Poor road maintenance; and
* More aggressive driving.
Yet sales remain soft. One factor affecting them, for example, is the large population of leased vehicles that are turned in after a lease expires, Tenneco said. A new owner probably doesn't think of ride control, doesn't know how the vehicle handled before and is not sure how it's now supposed to handle.
Another factor is the occasional auto service scam that makes the news. Sting operations-such as those several years ago that caught some Sears auto centers selling unneeded parts and services-have technicians afraid to recommend replacing ride-control products because that's often a subjective decision.
``Are we saying all shocks are worn out at that 50,000-mile inspection mark?'' asked Tom Rhea, manager of training. ``No. As...we go through these classes with installers, I tell them, `Don't recommend to customers anything you wouldn't recommend to a friend, family member, wife, brother or sister. Otherwise you're doing them a disservice.''
In recommending shock/strut replacement, Tenneco follows the industry service guidelines specified by the Motorist Assurance Program (MAP), he said, though he acknowledged: ``Unfortunately, in our society there's always going to be someone who carries things a little too far.''
Ron Lautzenheiser, a former Big O Tires Inc. executive who now owns two Big O stores and some Grease Monkey oil change outlets in Colorado, told Tire Business he thinks Monroe's new 50,000-mile shock/strut inspection campaign is a good idea. ``We often recommend shock replacement'' at that mileage, he said.
At Fargo Tire Service Inc., based in Fargo, N.D., President Roger Anderson said the four-outlet retail dealership's ride control business has been ``very good.'' It has been increasing due to several factors, including ``people are concerned more with how their vehicles ride and handle,'' he said, not to mention some of the state's roads are in pretty bad shape.
However, in Fargo Tire's back shop, alignment department manager Dale Berreth said he doesn't agree with pushing a set mileage number for shock/strut replacement, though he understands what Monroe is ``probably trying to do is just get shops to check the components.''
Mileage as a yardstick doesn't mean a lot, he continued. ``We do an inspection on every vehicle that comes in our door, looking for tire, brake, shock and strut wear. Some shocks could leak at 20,000 miles, others at 100,000.''
* * * *
Shipments of ride-control products-shock absorbers and struts-hit 33.3 million in 1998 but had sunk to 24.6 million in 2003, according to Motor Equipment Manufacturing Association net shipments data. Citing that decline, Tenneco Automotive Inc. executives noted a number of challenges facing the automotive aftermarket, including:
* A growing population of older vehicles;
* Unperformed maintenance;
* The consolidation of distributors;
* A proliferation of parts due to rapid original equipment platform turnover (every two years) and the duplication of parts coverage in order to offer consumers choices;
* The growing usage of truck struts; and
* Consumers' lack of knowledge about when shocks and struts are bad and need replacement.