A price war among garages specializing in quick oil changes is adding up to an unusual bargain for metro Toledo motorists.
The price of a standard oil change has plummeted to $15 and less from as much as $30 at this time last year.
"We had to lower prices to get customers back in here," said a manager at Discount Lube, Alexis Road, which two months ago dropped the charge for replacing an engine's oil and filter to $17.95 from $19.95.
Valvoline Instant Oil Change, which claims to be the industry leader in metro Toledo, dropped prices last October by a third to $19.99.
"We did research and found that our customers, with the cost of fuels and the cost of living being high, were concerned about putting roofs over their heads and food on their tables," said Brian Owens, an area manager for Valvoline who oversees 10 shops in the metro area. "They were either going longer between oil changes or not getting them done."
The price drops are occurring as gasoline pump prices continue to top $2 and the cost of crude oil is once again on the rise.
Valvoline has partially made up in increased volume the money it gave up in price, Mr. Owens said.
Still, discounting is undoubtedly squeezing the profit margins of oil-change shops, said Steve Christie, who heads an industry trade group representing 3,000 quick-lube shops nationwide.
"They can hardly be making money at that price," he said. "Somebody's trying to gain market share."
The average price nationwide for an oil change on a standard vehicle is about $30, said Mr. Christie, executive director of the Automotive Oil Change Association, in Dallas.
"It's probably happening in little pockets all over the country," he said, although he was unaware of any national trend.
Nationwide, there are about 10,000 quick-lube shops, he added.
That doesn't include discount retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which offers oil changes below $20.
It also doesn't include tire and muffler shops, which sometimes offer steeply discounted oil changes as a way to promote other products and services.
"It's almost a loss leader," said Jack Lawrence, manager of Fast Lane Tire and Lube, which is attached to a mega fitness center at Lakeside Centre, formerly North Towne Square mall.
"There are a lot of [repair] bays in the city of Toledo," added Tim Price, operations manager for Tireman Auto Centers. "Everyone is fighting to get customers into their bays. "
Tireman charges $16.98, but isn't sure how long it will be able to maintain that price, especially with a recent increase in the cost of engine oil, he said.
"It's the local economy," said a manger of a Michel Tire outlet in Sylvania Township, which has offered oil changes for $14.99 since opening two days ago. He spoke on the condition he wasn't identified.
The number of quick-lube shops and other garages has skyrocketed in the Toledo area at a time when car makers are beginning to offer oil changes and other maintenance services with new cars, the manager said.
Not everyone is happy with the price war.
"I wish it would stop, quite honestly," said Susan Cater, owner of Express Lube, on Douglas Road in west Toledo. She sometimes offers $6 coupons but has resisted pressure to cut the $25.95 price for a standard oil change. Customer loyalty has helped Ms. Cater weather the onslaught. But competitive considerations have left prices unchanged for five years.
With engine oil prices on the rise, the director of the Automotive Oil Change Association predicted that the price war could prove fatal for some Toledo participants.
"Get your oil changed now," Mr. Christie said.
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