Rising fuel prices are a double-edged sword for the automotive aftermarket, according to Kathleen Schmatz, president of the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA).
On one hand, high gas prices provide a great example to motorists of the value of maintaining their vehicles and even performing their own repairs, Ms. Schmatz noted. On the other, those skyrocketing prices may persuade consumers to drive less, reducing their consumption not only of gasoline, auto parts and accessories but patronage of service professionals as well.
``People said that when gasoline reached $3 a gallon, that would change driving habits,'' Ms. Schmatz said. ``And it did, but just a little. Four dollars a gallon may be the level that triggers major changes, even though gas would still be a relative bargain compared with the rest of the world.''
Recent AAIA surveys have shown that vehicle fuel economy is much more important to consumers now than it was five years ago as a motivator for good vehicle maintenance. Furthermore, more than half of both men and women polled by the Bethesda-based association said they were capable of performing at least some of the maintenance work themselves.
``We're delighted that people are more aware of vehicle maintenance,'' Ms. Schmatz said. ``We're going to beat the bushes very loudly about the advantages of a well-maintained vehicle.''
As part of that effort, the AAIA will continue its strong support for passage of the Motor Vehicle Owner's Right to Repair Act, which requires all auto manufacturers-on pain of criminal sanctions-to provide the same repair and diagnostic information at reasonable rates to independent repair shops that they do their franchised dealers.
``It may even be a higher priority for us now than in previous years,'' Ms. Schmatz said. ``Our strategy in 2007 was decidedly different than in previous years because we took the fight to the state level.''
The continuing opposition of Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to Right to Repair legislation forced the AAIA and other Right to Repair supporters to take a grassroots, state-by-state approach. The bill made particular progress in New Jersey and Massachusetts, according to Ms. Schmatz.
``We're expecting really positive action on the bill in Massachusetts soon after the first of the year,'' she said. ``Once that happens, we think there will be movement in other states. What will be good for one will be good for all.
``Our members have united to engage in grassroots actions,'' she added. ``This will help, if nothing else, to bring the auto makers to the negotiating table. We still have hope for a powerful non-legislative agreement.''
At the beginning of 2007, Ms. Schmatz and the AAIA had great hopes for an Asian initiative that would help AAIA members make business contacts in Asia and learn the ropes about doing business there. The lukewarm response of AAIA members, however, caused the association to put that initiative on the back burner.
``It was a matter of changing business requirements,'' Ms. Schmatz said. ``Our largest members had already taken their business to Asia. They had the budget and wherewithal to do it.''
Also on the back burner is the trade show and conference the AAIA had planned for Macao in 2008, although the association is conducting a survey to determine member interest in an Asian trade event. The results should be available in mid-January, Ms. Schmatz said.
The AAIA is ready, willing and able to aid members' efforts in doing business with Asia, she said.
``China has a strong aftermarket business, but its distribution network is still pretty dismal,'' she said. ``There's still an opportunity for American know-how in that area, and opportunities for us to help in that area.''
Probably the most important event for the AAIA in 2007 was its move to allow independent auto repair shops to join as members, according to Ms. Schmatz.
``We now have about 16,000 repair shops as members,'' she said. ``This is a big step that completed the circle. We now represent every level of the supply chain.''
The new independent repair membership, among other things, has strengthened the AAIA's commitment to take the lead in aftermarket education and training programs, she added. The association has released about 50 business management and technical training programs designed strictly for independent repair shop owners, she said.
Along the same lines, the AAIA gives a high priority to helping its members take full advantage of e-commerce and other technological business tools to maximize their productivity and profit, according to Ms. Schmatz.
``This is a key issue for us, and we spend a lot of energy in this area,'' she said. ``We are trying to make sure that e-commerce solutions are an integral part of people's business.''