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Need to Know


From the number and nature of e-mails and calls received about Mays column (Shhh … Dont tell the Majors, page 16), its clear that there are two very different, and somewhat emotionally charged, schools of thought about the use of generic and second-tier lubricants by the fast-lube industry.

At one end of the spectrum are fast-lube operators who embrace the use of generics and second-tier brands. They say consumers are increasingly brand-agnostic and are more interested in the location of the oil-change shop, its price and service, than in lubricant brand. These operators say they find little reason to pay $6.50 a gallon or more for a leading brand of GF-4 5W-30 engine oil when they can get a generic for $3.25 or less.

Furthermore, since generic brands are formulated to the same specifications as the leading brands, they say they are in no way inferior. In fact, proponents are quick to point out, some of the so-called generic/house brands are actually produced for second-tier marketers by majors such as Citgo and others.

In their minds, the only ones benefiting from use of the high-priced leading brands are the majors that sell them. The number of fast-lube operators in the generic camp is growing, they add, and it will only be a matter of time before the rest of the fast-lube industry catches on. With a self-imposed $29.99 ceiling on the price of an oil change, they conclude, fast-lube operators who hold on to their high-priced ideals run the real risk of being squeezed out of the business.

At the other end of the spectrum are those fast-lube operators who are clearly opposed to the use of generic lubricants. They contend that generics are a bad thing for the industry. And although its very tempting to take a bite of the low-cost apple, they say that apple is full of worms, and in the long run the bite will cost them and others in the fast-lube industry.

Advocates in this camp maintain that consumers really do care about the brand that goes into their high-priced rides. They say most consumers assume they are getting a known brand when they get an oil change at a fast-lube shop. Its not much of a stretch for a consumer to assume they are getting a known brand when they pull into the bay and see shelves lined with brand-name quart bottles, and walls adorned with advertisements and promotions from major brands, observed one fast-lube manager, echoing the sentiments of many. And its even less of a stretch when the fast-lube marquees a major brand.

Some operators go as far as to suggest that consumers are being deceived by the practice of displaying known brands and then pumping generics from a bulk tank. They contend that a significant number of consumers would object if they knew generics were being used, and/or expect a discount.

Skeptics are also concerned by allegedly substandard generics. Some fast-lube operators report they have tested samples and found some of the generics in the market inferior to the known brands. They say these generics dont meet current specifications, and for the most part go unchallenged because no one is policing the quality at fast lubes.

Whats more, they allege that the purveyors of these off-spec lubricants are getting very smart in how they cheat the public. Rather than being off-spec on viscosity, organometallic additives or other relatively easy-to-detect parameters, they say, some short-sheet the lubricants on NOACK volatility, nitrogen and other parameters that are more expensive to check and therefore less likely to be challenged by testing or consumer complaints.

In the minds eye of this camps defenders, these worms in the low-price apple are slowly eating away at the credibility and ethics of fast-lube operators. And because of this, those who sell generics run the real risk of being squeezed out of the business, and maybe even taking the industry down with them.

So whos right? Are fast-lube operators who embrace generics the model of the future? Will they outsell and outlive the brand loyalists because they have a better handle on market needs and better manage their costs? Or will the brand loyalists rule the roost, because people really do care about brands and will move away from generics over time?

Or, as one operator suggested, will the temptation and cost pressure to buy generics and sub-spec oils become so enticing that they erode the trust and goodwill built up over the years by quick lubes, and eventually lead to their downfall as a class of trade?

As with most extremes, the answer may lie somewhere in between. Maybe the big brands and generics can and will coexist in the fast-lube industry. But the fact that these polarized and highly charged opinions exist may be symptomatic of something deeper going on.

That will be the subject of next months column.

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