June 30, 2008

Mistake No. 1: Don't Screw Over the Blogger

I SAW AN INTERESTING REPORT on The Consumerist, a commercial-watchdog site, which reported on the story of a man who found himself needing an oil change someplace in -- God help him -- Idaho. As such, the driver -- a San Francisco resident driving a Honda Civic -- was in dire straits, and found the only place he could have his car's oil changed was at a Wal-Mart.

Somehow, due to general incompetence, the staff at the Wal-Mart managed not to change his oil -- and then offered up the excuse that things got tricky with fancy foreign automobiles. The writer, whom I would again note lives in San Francisco, then complains about Wal-Mart most vociferously.

For the record, I don't believe one can castigate the entire Wal-Mart chain for the incompetence of its staff at one store in some backwater Idaho town, nor do I think high officials at Wal-Mart would be pleased to learn about this incompetence. The episode does, however, reinforce the importance of finding a decent place to get one's oil changed, and doing it in a locality where there are multiple service providers, thus allowing the Magic of Competition to do its work.

For my money, I've found the Valvoline Instant Oil Change chain a decent service-provider in this regard. For one thing, they let you stay in your car, which allows you to see the work being performed. They have a series of checks and balances their staff uses to make sure there are no missed steps or mistakes made, such as leaving the oil cap undone. They have never, in my experience, used high-pressure sales tactics and the one time I had a worker get too enthusiastic about trying to sell me an optional service, his manager yelled at him. (The work in question had already been done three visits beforehand). The one bad experience I had with oil changes was with the Jiffy Lube chain, after workers at a store in California somehow left some kind of tiny hose in my car's innards; I discovered this when an oil-change worker in New Hampshire shouted, "What the hell is THAT?" roughly a year later. But despite my bad experience with Jiffy Lube I would not rule out getting my oil changed there; it's just that I have found a competent and pleasant alternative. Plus, Valvoline's not bad on price.

Some commenters on The Consumerist have criticized the driver for knowing precious little about cars, but I don't see why that is all that relevant. I certainly know little about cars; I have a vague idea of how to change the oil and transmission fluid myself, but I am smart enough to have people who do that for a living take care of it. It makes little sense for me to try doing all that when I can have experts do it for the equivalent of $20. (The oil change costs more, of course, but when you factor in the cost of motor oil, $20 is about right).

And now, a plug for the domestic auto industry: one of the minor reasons behind my purchase of an American car was my experience growing up in Michigan, where the Big Three even now still command 90 pc of the auto market. Driving an American car means I don't have any worries about finding a mechanic to service it.

This is not an issue in the major cities anymore, but I do think that in certain rural markets it may be difficult to find mechanics who can service foreign automobiles, particularly high-end foreign cars. For that matter, when I was growing up, foreign cars (and by extension, the people who drove them) weren't particularly popular in certain circles -- and, if this report is any indication, they're still not. Since I travel back to Michigan once a year or so, not having to deal with dirty looks from my fellow freeway travelers isn't a positive -- but conversely, it's not a negative I have to deal with either.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at June 30, 2008 06:02 PM | TrackBack
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