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Private-label lubricant sales have grown significantly in the Do-It-Yourself class of trade. This is for several reasons, as last months column showed, not least of which are price and profit. DIYers like the price of private-label lubricants and are increasingly comfortable with the quality. Retailers like the higher profits they bring and control of the brand. As a result, private-label products now account for an estimated 20 percent of motor oil sold through the retail class of trade, and this number is growing.

But retail tells only part of the story, the less-important part in reality. Overall, retailers sales of PCMO have been moving in only one direction over the past 20 years – and that direction is down. DIY accounted for about 70 percent of PCMO sales volume in the United States in 1985; today its only about 35 percent. This represents a 3.4 percent average annual rate of decline. Some suggest its nearing its floor, but so far the rate of decline is showing no signs of leveling off. So although private-label PCMO sales are growing, that growth is taking place in a shrinking retail market.

Not surprisingly, the thrill of sliding on your back under a 3,000-pound automobile to drain the oil and fines from a drippy oil pan is enjoyed by fewer people than ever before. An increasing number of people prefer to go to a fast-lube outlet or car dealership and let someone else do the dirty work; instead of buying oil, they buy oil changes. The ones actually buying oil are fast-lube operators, new car dealers and other Do-It-For-Me establishments. And what many in this sales channel say about private labels has to be of concern to the big brands on the block.

To start, they say private-label/unbranded lubricants are becoming more widely accepted by consumers. In part, this is because the location, reputation and prices of fast-lube stores are catching up to, and in some cases passing, the value of brand in bringing in business. In the words of one fast-lube operator who flies a majors flag, Consumer loyalty is not what it used to be 15, 20 years ago. Capturing the sentiments of many, he added, People seems to have figured out that although the oil companies make a lot of noise with marketing programs, oil is all about the same.

Where customers used to drive to two or three shops just to find their brand, today they go to the nearest quick lube, said another.

Some suggest brand loyalty is declining because consumers are smarter. They are better educated and better able to separate marketing hype from reality. Others say that specifications and standardization are commoditizing the business, much like octane did to fuels. There are even a few who suggest its because family structures are changing; where once fathers used to tell sons to use a certain brand, that level of guidance doesnt happen anymore.

Regardless of why, an increasing number of fast-lube operators say the majors brands are losing their luster in the DIFM segment. Fewer customers ask for engine oil by brand name when they visit a fast lube and even fewer seem to care. What an increasing number of them want is an oil change, not a brand name. And so its increasingly tempting, some say, to experiment with other brands.

But rather than positioning these as cut-rate substitutes for their marquee brand, operators are offering them as generic, house brand or simply bulk lubricants. They say consumers are comfortable with these familiar terms because they are used by pharmacies, big-box stores, grocers, restaurants and others.

Instead of conjuring up thoughts of low quality, generics are simply viewed as lower-priced equivalents to the major brands. And for skeptics and brand-loyalists, most fast-lube operators with a house brand motor oil say they also offer name-brand lubricants for a $4 upcharge. (Some will even use the oil of your choice if you bring it with you, but few consumers exercise this option.)

Are these fast-lube operators right? Are consumers in fact becoming more comfortable with generic and house brand engine oils? Where does this leave the big brands?

It leaves them very vulnerable, according to purveyors of unbranded lubricants. As consumer express less interest in brands, and fast-lube operators conclude that its location, reputation and price that bring customers in, not the big brand names, their eyes and appetites will shift to price. And when that happens, they will find that their buy-in cost for unbranded (and even some second-tier-brand) motor oils is $2.40 to $3.40 a gallon less than the brand leaders – a potential savings of $30,000 to $40,000 a year in their cost of goods sold at each store.

And unless the majors drive a lot of cars into the bays, you can be sure that private-label and unbranded lubricants will begin driving them out of the DIFM market segment.

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