For as long as I have been turning wrenches on my own cars, I have owned and amassed an impressive collection of tools. From an early age, and as the result of many busted knuckles, I learned the value in buying only high-quality, brand-name products. Have I been tempted by or lured to the bargain bin for low-priced tools or diagnostic equipment? Sure, especially as a non-professional, shade tree mechanic. Do these still reside in my tool box? Almost without exception, the answer is no. Today, the availability of low priced, look-alike products is more prevalent than ever. From tent sales to so-called tool liquidators, just about every tool or piece of equipment is available at a fraction of the cost of a premium brand.
One of the greatest influences on our individual businesses is the impact China is having on the world economy, and specifically the hand tool and hard parts segments of the automotive aftermarket. As China continues to emerge as a global industrial and technological power, many North American companies have identified China as the next biggest market for their products. Consequently, they are investing heavily to capitalize on this growth. I am speaking specifically about participating in the local economy, as the median income rises and Chinese consumers seek to raise their standard of living. Not only North American companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks, but also companies like General Motors with the most popular-selling vehicle, the Buick Regal, are making this investment. Scooters and motorbikes are still the favored means of transportation, however, the number of consumers that can afford them and even cars, has risen significantly.
Perhaps the most significant factor we face as an industry will be, and in many respects, currently is, the flood of low-cost products from China. Some are positive but many are negative. Most people are aware of and perceive China as the world-wide source of low-cost, lower performing products often referred to as “value lines.”
Chinese manufacturers’ ability to seek out the most popular selling part numbers in any product category, and then duplicate a low-cost version, is unquestioned.
Several major North American manufacturers have announced plans to shift production of products to China or other low-cost areas of the world for competitive reasons. Many others have already opened manufacturing plants in China. Where design, specifications and material control remains in the hands of the original manufacturer or owner of the intellectual property, all within the distribution channel stand to benefit.
However, as an industry, we should be concerned when low-cost manufacturers are left to their own resources to make a product that looks like its counterpart. As an industry, we should encourage consumer education about this important distinction. Very few product categories have regulatory or industry standards on safety or performance. Just because a product looks like the original and may even be identical dimensionally, does not mean the part will perform as intended. Where safety is a concern, we, as manufacturers and distributors, owe it to the buying public to deliver a product that meets that specification.
Focusing on educating the end-user on the difference between off-shore manufacturing and outsourced look-alike products is important for tool and equipment manufacturers, as well as hard parts manufacturers. As mobile distributors, your future depends on educating your customer to understand that difference as well.
There is a lot more at risk, especially to the professional installer, than simply throwing an inferior tool away when the edges round-off after the first use. How can a consumer be sure of quality? The best way I know is through a product’s brand and the brand promise the manufacturer instills in the products it sells.
Jack Cameron, AAP, is a 24-year veteran of the automotive aftermarket. He has joined the staff of the Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association (AASA) as vice president, programs and member services. Cameron was most recently general manager – automotive/heavy duty aftermarket, the Americas, at The Timken Co., Canton, OH. His experience also includes Ken-Tool Manufacturing, Dorman Products Inc., Pioneer Barnes Group Inc. and Federal-Mogul Corp. He has been active in automotive aftermarket associations throughout his career and has held leadership positions with the Automotive Sales Council, the Automotive Warehouse Distributors Association (AWDA), the Manufacturers Advisory Council of AWDA and the joint operating committee of the University of the Aftermarket. He presently serves on the AASA Board of Governors.