The squeeze is on.
The number of service stations and garages performing car and light-truck repair stood at 145,000 at midyear - 12,000 fewer than in 1995, according to vehicle aftermarket research and analysis firm Lang Marketing Resources Inc. of Wyckoff, N.J.
A lack of technicians - the Automotive Service Association puts the estimated technician deficit at 66,000 - and improved vehicle warranties could bring that number even lower in coming years.
But what's bad for service stations could help car dealerships.
Dealerships are positioning themselves to capture additional service customers with expanded training, new diagnostic equipment and aggressive marketing. They'll feel the technician pinch too, but it won't be as dramatic.
'You can't manufacture technicians like bumpers, wheels or engines, so everyone is trying to find, grow or steal the available technicians,' says Lloyd Schiller, president of Dealer Service Corp., a consulting firm in Boca Raton, Fla.
'Dealerships can afford to pay the premium labor rate, so they have access to the best people.'
James Lang, owner of Lang Marketing Resources, notes, 'Gas stations with service bays are being squeezed out of the market.' Lang's company has conducted the service outlet report annually for 20 years. Since 1980, Lang says, there has been a 36 percent decline in the number of outlets, from 227,000.
A similar report produced by the automotive Aftermarket Industry Association of Bethesda, Md., found that service stations took the biggest hit of any type of service outlet surveyed this year.
'People won't wait for car repairs like they would 20 years ago,' says Frank Hampshire, director of research for the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association in Research Triangle Park, N.C. 'The tire stores have more bays than gas stations, and the dealerships often offer loaner vehicles to their customers.'
OIL CHANGES VS. OREOS
People stop into the BP service station at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and ask owner Rita Combs Sterrett what kind of station she runs.
'Where are your hamburgers. Where are the Coca-Colas?' they ask.
Says Combs Sterrett, 'I tell them, `We sell gas; we fix your car.' They look back at us like we're from outer space.'
Cars continue to limp into the station, but Combs Sterrett has had to cut back on the services offered. Her most enticing deal: an oil change and a ride to the airport terminal. The mechanic will drop off customers, complete the service, wash the vehicle and pick up the customers in their vehicles when their plane returns.
'We can't compete with the dealerships because so many vehicles are now under warranty or extended warranty,' Combs Sterrett says. 'We don't have the resources to know everything about these vehicles, so we just do general maintenance, routine oil changes, tire rotations and fluid replacement.'
If she had the money, she says, she'd do what many stations have done - convert the service bays to a convenience store.
'Right now, we're a glorified information booth with a toilet,' she says. 'If we had liquor and lottery tickets, we'd make a lot more than we can on mechanics.'
WARRANTIES HELP DEALERS
Better warranties have tied customers to dealerships for longer periods. Dealerships, says Dominic Infante, media relations manager for DaimlerChrysler, have the most current diagnostic equipment, specialty tools and training resources available. Technicians who are stumped on a job can browse for answers on the Internet. Advanced courses are offered on CD-ROM.
While competition from independent garages and service stations has lessened, it isn't going away, say aftermarket specialists. They note that franchise repair shops specializing in routine services - brakes, mufflers, oil changes - continue to proliferate.
Says Hampshire: 'MEMA is working with other organizations and associations to ensure that diagnostic data and tools for repairing today's vehicles are available to the independent aftermarket. Mitchell and Chilton's supply manuals on just about every vehicle introduced.'