Automotive Lubricants



Recently I was invited to give a training session on The Driving Forces in Oil Today at the Automotive Oil Change Associations International Fast Lube Expo in New Orleans. Beyond the fact that a visit to New Orleans is always enlightening, I learned a great deal at iFLEX about the direction in which fast-lube operators are moving.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, AOCA is a nonprofit trade organization representing the convenient automotive maintenance industry. It is dedicated to enhancing the competency of fast-lube owners, educating the public about services its members offer, and maintaining a favorable business environment for the industry as a whole. The group was founded in 1987 and is headquartered in Chicago. AOCA has more than 1,200 member companies representing over 3,800 convenient automotive maintenance facilities throughout the United States, Mexico, Canada and elsewhere around the world.

Fast lubes began showing up in large numbers in the late 1970s, although if memory serves, the first outlet advertising a quick oil change was in Utah almost 10 years earlier. Before that, drivers would make an appointment at their local garage or car dealer to get an oil change. They then showed up to wait, and wait, for the work to be done. Pennzoil was an early participant, supplying engine oils in bulk to the new game in town, and in 1991 they acquired Jiffy Lube – an important quick-lube customer – out of bankruptcy. Now part of Shell, Jiffy Lube is still the largest chain in the business with nearly 2,000 independently owned fast-lube outlets in its franchise.

When the fast-lube business first got off the ground, the mantra for oil changes was 3,000 miles or three months. That made for a steady stream of customers, especially as the going price for an oil change at the time was somewhere between $15 and $25. In retail auto parts stores meanwhile, engine oil was pegged at about one dollar per quart, and sales fell off considerably if the price went much above that – which gives you an idea about what the fast-lube folks were paying for their supply.

Now were looking at oil change intervals which are much longer. In its 2013 survey of fast lube operators, the industry trade publication National Oil & Lube News found that drivers were averaging 4,601 miles between oil changes. If the vehicle has an oil life monitor – and more than half of them do now – this interval jumps to 5,073 miles. Remember, thats the average; it would be interesting to see the range of results. Nevertheless, it seems pretty obvious that oil change outlets are seeing fewer cars per day come into their service bays.

Along with market saturation, fast oil change outlets also face competition from tire and battery sellers, mass merchandisers and new-car dealers. Some of these have jumped into the fray with

dedicated oil-change-only service bays. Bridgestone and Goodyear, for example, together have more than 4,600 tire stores that do oil changes, says National Oil & Lube News, and Walmart has another 2,400.

What does a fast oil change center offer to its customers? The list of potential services at a major-brand outlet can go far beyond oil changes alone. Here are some examples: air conditioning service, air filtration service, brake service and repair, cooling system service, drive­train services, electrical system services, engine services, fuel system services, state safety inspections and emissions testing, tire rotation, transmission flushing and fluid, and windshield fluid and wipers.

Some or all of these services are available at other specialty shops. But which of these is the best deal for the fast lube operator and the customer, and how do AOCA members see this projecting into the future?

For answers, I turned to Scotti Lee, a member of AOCAs board of directors and long-time guru of all things fast oil. Given the drooping frequency of oil changes, Scotti told me that changes will have to be made in both the process and products sold at fast lubes. He noted that one of the areas of current interest is tires, and suggested that some sort of tire service could be a positive for a fast oil change facility. Its tough to change tires from a below-ground quick-lube oil pit, so car lifts would be needed – but a lot of stores already have lifts.

Scotti, who is based in Wilmington, Del., also mentioned batteries as a source of additional revenue. That makes a lot of sense and many fast lubes do check battery amperage, as I found out myself while getting my oil changed recently at a local outlet. The oil change technician told me that my battery was weak. (I knew that, based on how it was starting in the morning.) I was going to ignore it but when they tried to restart the engine after the oil service, it wouldnt even turn over. Long story short: new battery.

On the other hand, Scotti is pretty adamant that engine tune-ups are not in the cards. He thinks there are too many equipment and personnel needs to make that work in the existing quick-lube framework, except in very specific cases.

With fewer oil changes each year due to longer drain intervals and the downward pressure on daily car counts, there is consolidation going on in the market. The two biggest chains are Jiffy Lube, as mentioned, and Valvoline Instant Oil Change, who have between them about 3,000 outlets, or 30 percent of the fast-lube stores nationwide. Look for these two to be on the prowl for more stores to add to their chains.

Another voice advocating for fast oil change stores is Sue Ackley of Energy Petroleum, the large Midwestern lubricant distributor based in St. Louis, Mo. As a past president of AOCA, from 2004 to 2006, Sues take on whats happening to quick lubes is pretty incisive. She points out that many stores

and fleets that Energy Petroleum serves now offer private-label engine oil as well as a major, national brand. Her companys own convenience stores carry Shell Rotella heavy-duty engine oil, for example, and she also carries some premium products under the NRG branded product logo. Trucking companies like Rotella; some will pick Rimula or the house brand SAE 15W-40, she says, but Rotella still leads. Still, Sue notes, while private-label sales have grown over the last eight years, the major brand is what entices a customer to come in for an oil change.

Sue emphasizes that fast lubes do a fantastic job on preventive maintenance – much better than automobile dealerships in her opinion. With OEMs telling vehicle owners they can go 7,500 or 10,000 or even 15,000 miles, many customers are becoming lax and going far beyond these standards. Thanks to extended drain intervals, she says, fast lubes are ringing up more sales of aftermarket chemicals like engine, fuel and oil system cleaners that claim to combat the buildup of sludge in engines.

Fast oil change stores are increasingly forced to diversify into other services though, she continues, like tires, batteries, emissions and safety checks, brakes, tune-ups, tire rods, ball joints, struts, windshield glass repair, general light repairs, and more. Most appealing from the viewpoint of the fast-lube operator are new services such as headlight restoration; thats an easy bolt-on to an outlets product slate, with a product available now that carries a lifetime warranty and is not time consuming to apply.

Sue also observes that auto dealers for some time have been trying to figure out how to set up fast lane oil changes to build traffic in their service departments. Fortunately for the dedicated fast lubes, the dealers havent figured it out yet. If they ran their fast lanes like fast oil change owners – that is fast, convenient, friendly, thorough and not overpriced – they might make it, she told me.

What I saw at iFLEX showed me that thought is being given to ancillary services at the local fast oil change. Echoing Scotti Lee, tires look to be a strong possibility. Taking care of tires, not just checking air pressure would seem to be a logical addition. On the flip side, tire stores are already doing some oil changes. Its difficult to figure out whether the tires or the oil change came first.

Another possibility is mufflers. This is the same story as tires and needs even more investment. In addition, I dont think mufflers are as big an issue as they once were. My 2001 GMC has never had a muffler replaced and it has 95,000 miles on it. I suspect that some of that comes from the fact that exhaust doesnt contain the corrosive acids it once did. Still there may be a place for such services.

Another ancillary product being promoted at iFLEX was windshield wiper blades. While not a biggie, it seems a good opportunity for another sale. (Thats true even in my home state of Arizona, where wipers arent needed as much as in rainy areas of the country, but they do degrade rather rapidly due to the heat and lack of humidity.)

As far as process is concerned, there has to be some way to make the oil change experience more desirable. That could mean incentives such as a basic free oil change after so many paid ones: buy five get one free. Another approach is to add more value. The classic approach here is to associate with a carwash and offer a free basic wash with an oil change.

Consumers today are in too much of a hurry to take care of such necessities unless there is a reason to stay around. For instance, what would happen if a fast lube outlet had a Starbucks on site, so those getting their oil changed could have an espresso or latte while they wait, and enjoy wireless access, too? It might make for an enjoyable time and even generate more revenue. In fact, someone might stop in for a Starbucks and decide to have their oil changed!

Enough of these flights of fancy. What about products? Fast oil change locations have real potential to supply most of the basic automotive maintenance services that have traditionally been done by dealers and auto repair shops. The basic oil change process already involves checking the fluid levels on all systems in the customers vehicle. Those include ATF, gear oil (where appropriate), power steering fluid, brake fluid, the windshield washer reservoir, battery and radiator. Those all represent opportunities to make sure the customers vehicle is ready to go with all of the necessary levels correct. It also identifies services that might be needed.

Recently I caught up with Pennzoil alumnus Mike Hensgen, who was involved in some of the early discussions regarding fast oil changes in general. He remembered, When Minute Lube was gearing up and Pennzoil 10 Minute Oil Change was in its infancy, in 1981 or so, we had Tom Floyd of AutoFacts [now part of NPD] try to project just where quick lubes would net out in the future of oil change volume. Long term, this research concluded, fast lubes would take about a 50 percent share of the aftermarket oil volume.

Thats pretty close to where things ended up at their peak, Mike noted. However, with new-car dealer actions and vehicle technology changes (including longer oil change intervals), he suspects that this percentage has probably dropped.

Whatever the future holds, fast oil change stores have a definite place in the market. How they are able to sell themselves, and more importantly how they sell the need for regular oil changes, will determine whether or not they survive.

Industry consultant Steve Swedberg has over 40 years experience in lubricants, most notably with Pennzoil and Chevron Oronite. He is a longtime member of the American Chemical Society and SAE International, where he was chairman of Technical Committee 1 on automotive engine oils. He can be reached at

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Automotive Lubricants    Finished Lubricants    Quick Lubes