Ever since the 1930s, there has been a war on the price of brake jobs. Eighty years ago, shops were advertising low-priced brake relines on sandwich boards for $19.99, but they complained about “gyps” selling brake jobs for $9.99 on the side of the road.
We see almost the same situation today. Some car dealers, chains and independent shops still chase the cheapest brake job. This time the price point is around $150. Instead of gyps, shops are complaining about some guy on Craigslist who will perform a brake job for around $40 if he is provided with the pads.
Shops that chase the cheapest brake job do so for a few reasons, the biggest being they are afraid of costing more than the competition down the street and maybe losing a customer. Some almost treat the brake job as a loss leader to get customers in the door so they can inspect the vehicle. While this might work for some retail businesses, it will not work for a traditional repair shop building long-term customer growth and profitability.
Cheap Brakes = cheap result
Most factory labor times call for 0.9 hours to just replace the pads. To replace a rotor is about 0.2 to 0.4 hours depending on the vehicle. According to the most recent Brake & Front End Shop Profile, the average labor rate is $72 per hour. With 0.9 hours, or about $65, the profit margins start to get thin. Brake jobs finished in less than 0.9 hours require short cuts that are not recommended, such as not measuring for runout in the rotor or hub and not cleaning and lubricating the guide pin and slides.
Then there is sourcing the pads. Cheap pads exist at the bottom, but by cutting these corners, you are drastically decreasing the life of the pads, the safety of the vehicle and customer satisfaction.
Shops that perform cheap brake jobs are making a dangerous assumption that their average customer only needs a certain performance quality to get around town and will sacrifice that higher quality for price. But little old ladies drive with two feet. Trucks tow boats. Is it really worth taking those risks that come with installing cheap brake pads in order to advertise and maybe make a profit on a brake job special?
The value of quality
Buying a quality brake pad is like buying medicine. When you are buying a legal drug, you are not just paying the cost to manufacture, package and market the pill. The bulk of what you are paying for is research and development. The same is true for brake pads.
Aftermarket brake pads require a great deal of testing and engineering because they are made for a specific vehicle. A quality brake pad manufacturer will spend a lot of time and money developing a brake pad application for your vehicle. This includes simulated and on-the-vehicle testing. These types of tests are time and equipment intensive.
A brake dynamometer, for example, can be more sophisticated and larger than an engine dynamometer. Brake dynamometers can simulate the conditions the brake system will experience in a much shorter time. This means that a brake dynamometer can simulate the mass, inertia and performance capabilities of a vehicle.
The typical brake dynamometer can cost anywhere between $250,000 (used) to more than $1 million. Some brake friction suppliers own dynamometers, while some lease dynamometers from testing companies.
There is usually a disclaimer on most cheap brake job banners that says: “Machining of rotors or drums extra.” Not addressing the rotors every brake job is setting your shop up for a comeback that can destroy any profit from any cheap brake job.
If you look at most OE pad replacement procedures, they typically say that if the rotor is within specifications, you do not need to machine the rotor (assuming you are taking the time during a brake job to measure runout and thickness variation). But these procedures assume that exact same friction material on the vehicle.
With some ceramic and NAO pads, a transfer layer of friction material is bonded to the rotor’s surface. The layer is always being worn and replenished by the brake pad during braking. This layer cannot be washed away by water or an abrasive disc and can only be removed with a brake lathe. If this layer is not removed, the new pads can become contaminated and not perform to their full potential.
At minimum, you should be checking thickness and runout. Use of an on-the-car brake lathe or runout correction plates take time, so you should charge for it.
Hardware is never Extra
Cheap brake job coupons almost always come with the clause: “hardware extra.” But new hardware is critical to protecting the driver’s investment in a proper brake job. Heating and cooling cycles can weaken springs and anti-rattle clips. Weak hardware parts can result in excessive caliper/pad movement or binding, which will cause noise and other related problems. This can lead to uneven and premature pad wear, warped rotor and pulling.
Most floating brake calipers use a rubber or plastic insulator or shim around the mounting bolts of the caliper. As materials wear, they start to flatten into an oval shape due to the torque from the brakes, which can cause excessive caliper movement. Torn boots can also allow water to enter the guide pin holes, causing rattles and thumps even if the brakes are not applied.
Hardware protects the pads and ensures that they will last.
Ask Your Best Customers
Cheap brake jobs can artificially inflate car counts in the short term, but they attract customers that will not build your business’ bottom line in the long term.
Look at your top customers. For most shops, these top customers account for a large percentage of your revenue and even more of the profit. They come in more than once and recommend your shop to their friends. If you ask them why they come to your shop, chances are they will not say price. They will typically say trust and service.
Cheap brake jobs are also an inventory issue. Your shop has only so many hours of labor it can sell a day. A fixed-price hour of labor for a cheap brake job is not as profitable as an hour of labor for a major undercar repair — but not doing brake jobs isn’t a solution either.
The solution is to perform brake jobs that use the best quality parts with labor prices that reflect reality and not what the guy down the street is willing to take. The customer really wants more than price.