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Need to Know


In fairness to the fast-lube industry, I decided to dig deeper into why fast-lube operators appear nearly universally averse to providing drivers with samples of the engine oil used to service their cars, as described in last months column. Why not provide a sample to customers, so they can feel assured they got what they paid for, and that its the correct quality level to protect their vehicles (likely one of the biggest investments in their lives)?

It would be easy to conclude that fast-lubes dont provide such samples because they may be hiding something – and you can be sure some are – but its more complicated than that. Based on follow-up discussions with fast-lube operators, many say the reason they dont provide samples is because they dont themselves honestly know whats in their bulk tanks.

One fast-lube operator, for example, said, although we buy and pay for Valvoline, we are really not sure we actually get Valvoline when a distributor delivers it in bulk. Others concurred, and added that regardless of brand, they have no way of testing the oil to be sure of getting what they paid for. And even if it were tested, they said, they wouldnt know how to interpret the results to see if the product meets API SL or SM, or if its Valvoline, Castrol, Pennzoil, or any other brand for that matter. In the words of one store owner, Other than trust, we are flying blind.

Adding to questions about whats in their bulk tanks, operators say, the delivery tickets some distributors provide often show no more than the quantity of lubricant delivered, and maybe its viscosity. There is no mention of brand, let alone such specifications as API SM/ILSAC GF-4. And by the time the installer gets the invoice for that delivery (which usually does show the brand and API category), that oil is already gone.

Then there are questions about the engine oils some operators buy at nearly half the price of brand leaders. Whereas some of this low-cost oil boasts of being API licensed, one large supplier to fast lubes admitted, It is not API licensed, but would meet API SM/GF-4 if tested. This supplier added, One reason we can sell at these prices is because we dont have to pay to get API approval.

Considering the relatively modest cost to get an API license for a brand, the gap between manufacturing cost and price, and the spongy claims associated with some low-cost oils, if they do purchase such products, fast-lube operators have reason to wonder about the actual quality of lubricant in their bulk tanks.

While these and other issues make fast-lube operators wonder, several say they are even more concerned when they hear some of the suggestions lubricant sales reps make. Two fast-lube operators, for example, recounted stories of lubricant sales reps suggesting they slip in a load of a lower-priced engine oil between every few loads of premium product they marquee, in an effort to reduce cost. Although these fast-lube outfits say they have no intention of doing this, they now wonder if the distributor might be doing it to them behind their backs.

But before we canonize fast-lubes operators into sainthood and condemn distributors and other upstream players in the value chain to Dantes Inferno, keep in mind the finger-pointing goes in both directions. There are plenty of stories about fast-lube operators themselves slipping in loads of cheap oil. And, oil distributors say, some fast-lube managers say they dont care about the brand or meeting specifications, as long as its cheap.

With so many loopholes in the chain of custody, its not hard to understand why the last thing some fast-lube operators want is to provide an engine oil sample to a customer, only to find out the hard way that there are issues with the product in their bulk tanks. One fast-lube operator put it best by saying, Its hard enough to defend yourself against a customer blaming you for the rusty dent on their quarter-panel or a cigarette burn on the seat, let alone someone screaming about a blown engine and an oil sample in hand.

According to Stephen Christie, executive director in Dallas of the Automotive Oil Change Association, concern about whats in fast-lube bulk tanks is not new. Moreover, he is not surprised to hear that fast-lube operators balk at providing customers with samples.

The fast-lube industry has been challenged by this issue for several years, Christie said, and AOCA has been working with the API, ILMA and SAE since 2006 to come up with a coordinated effort to stop fraud. One step might be to insist that all documents regarding lubricant purchases and deliveries include the brand, viscosity grade and performance level. However, he went on, its a very difficult situation to address because there are many links in the value chain where cheating can occur. And, he added, until the entire industry agrees to put a system in place to guarantee the proper oil is received by the fast-lube operator, it will likely remain an issue.

So here we sit. Oil companies, auto manufacturers, additive companies and other stakeholders spend years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing specifications, engine tests and additive systems to assure optimum engine performance, durability, compliance to emission standards, and opportunities to differentiate products. Fast-lube operators invest hundreds of thousand of dollars in bricks and mortar, lubricants and lubrication equipment, computers and databases, advertising and training to assure cars are serviced correctly. Yet at the end of the day, at the end of the value chain, the fast-lube is really not sure what brand is actually in its bulk tanks or what specifications the lubricants it puts in its customers cars truly meets.

All things considered, it would seem that fast-lube operators – like their customers – have the right to know what brand of oil is actually put in their tanks to assure they get what they paid for, and to protect what is likely one of the biggest investments of their lives. And maybe rather than this continuing to be a problem, someone will find a solution and gain a true competitive advantage, by adding value where it really counts in a value chain.

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