In theory, the wiper blade is a service replacement item. However, the truth is that vehicle owners often wait until the product is disintegrating before replacing it. This is despite the fact that this component is, in reality, a safety-critical item with impaired performance leading to a hazardous reduction in visibility. According to the European Automotive Insurers Association, some 20% of all car accidents are due to poor visibility. The greatest contributory factor is poor windscreen clearance, invariably caused by worn-out wiper blades.

The global wiper blade market certainly has the potential to grow. It has been suggested, for example, that the European wiper blade market could easily double if motorists realised just what a safety-critical component it is. The key to growth, however, lies in educating the motorist about the dangers of using worn-out parts. From the marketing point of view this sector is still undeveloped and manufacturers have some way to go to change consumer habits.

Replacement intervals vary widely from Japan to North America

While the average useful life of a wiper blade is six months, the average replacement interval is much longer. Research into the habits of motorists in Europe and North America and the replacement of their wiper blades has revealed a marked difference. In respect of the rear wiper blade replacement market, wiper manufacturers talk of a very small market; the replacement interval is typically double that of the front wiper blade market. This is despite the fact that 30% of all new cars in the US alone are mini vans or sports utility vehicles (SUVs) that come equipped with rear wipers.

North American motorists replace wipers every four years

According to the Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association, motorists in North America are driving for longer periods before replacing their wiper blades. Research shows that in 1993 wiper blades were replaced at a rate of every 2.9 years and by 1997 the rate had risen to 3.8 years. Wiper manufacturers also observe that, despite the appalling weather conditions, Canadians replace their wiper blades every four - five years, making them even more lethargic than northern Europeans at replacing their wiper blades.

While Europeans replace every two years

In Europe, it is estimated that, on average, the majority of motorists tend to replace a pair of wiper blades every 2.6 years. There are, however, national differences in Europe. Scandinavians tend to change their wiper blades more often, replacing both wiper blades every 1.5 years. At the other extreme, the British, Italians and Spanish change their blades once every four years. Conversely, the French and Germans replace their blades every two years. Some wiper manufacturers note that as the speed limits in Germany are higher than in the UK and the US, Germans need good visibility while driving fast on wet roads.

The French and British markets are the only two in Europe where motorists typically buy single replacement blades. To encourage British motorists to replace both wiper blades, Peugeot is offering a free 250ml bottle of screen wash with every twin pack of wiper blades.

The Japanese replace every year

In Japan, it is thought that motorists replace their wiper blades about every 1.3 years. There is, therefore, a huge aftermarket but it is very difficult to access by overseas manufacturers.

According to wiper blade manufacturers, these replacement rates across Europe, Japan and North America have not changed significantly over the last four to five years.

Given these results, it is not surprising that the majority of motorists simply forget the price paid for their last set of wiper blades, leading to surprise at the cost today. In "real terms", though, the cost of wiper blades is less than it was in the mid-1970s. Then a large number of individual references had to be stocked in order to maintain a reasonable range. Since then the introduction of the "universal" blade with its collection of alternative fixings has made matters easier for the garage and retailer. The average wiper blade wipes the windscreen over one million times in a year, and travels 800 miles in this time.

It has also been predicted that the popularity of the universal blade is now likely to decline with the introduction of an increasing number of specific applications. Different lengths are now becoming the norm. Approximately 55% of vehicles introduced after 1994 are fitted with longer driver/shorter passenger side blades. An example of this is the Opel/Vauxhall Omega which is fitted with a 24-inch driver's side blade and a 19-inch blade on the passenger's side.

As modern vehicle windscreens become more raked and aerodynamic, wiper blades become longer. As blades get bigger, their retail value increases. Bosch states that the most popular lengths of blade are now the 18-inch and 20-inch, mainly due to the fact that many Japanese cars use the former on the passenger's side and the latter on the driver's.

Educating the motorist might result in doubling replacement sales

While most sectors of the automotive replacement components market face unavoidable decline, thanks mainly to increasing longevity, the wiper blade market still has the potential to grow. It has been suggested, for example, that the European wiper blade market could easily double if motorists realised just what a safety-critical component it is.

One reason why motorists frequently procrastinate when it comes to buying new blades is the nuisance when it comes to actually fitting them. To help them get round the problem of fixing their wiper blades, Bosch has come up with its Quick-Clip universal adapter.

The Quick-Clip comes already mounted on the wiper blade, unlike other makes of blade where the motorist must first select the correct adapter. The wiper blade is then snapped into place on the wiper arm. Bosch began marketing its well-received Quick-Clip in January 2000 in Europe, covering 80 - 85% of the car parc. Although the adapter is offered in North America, motorists seldom have to replace their own blades as most retail chains and DIY stores will offer to install the blades as part of the sale, unlike in Europe.

Trico's Exact Fit wiper blades also come with the adapter pre-attached to the blade. Trico launched the Exact Fit range in the US in 1996, subsequently introducing it in the UK two years later. Although most blades sold on the US aftermarket (over 80%) are fitted by the retail store, Trico sought to make the job of fitting those blades easier and quicker for the retailer.

Figure 1 Bosch's Quick-Clip
Source: Bosch

From the marketing point of view, the wiper blade business is undeveloped and manufacturers have yet to change consumer habits. Based on its own market research, Trico estimates that up to 80% of vehicles on European roads have seriously worn and potentially illegal blades, and that 98% of drivers are ignorant of the fact that they are breaking the law by having worn blades.

Expert Analysis

The global market for vehicle wiper systems - forecasts to 2006

Continuing our series of component market studies, this report reviews the key market drivers for wiper blades and systems, and will provide you with forward-looking analysis. Chapter two sets out our forecast for product trends and fitment levels for wipers through 2006 as well as determining some market shares. Chapter three sets out some recent innovations and the forces driving those technical advances. Chapters four to seven provide brief profiles of the major wiper blade manufacturers.

 

Trico's aim is to make drivers think about their wiper blades. To make people aware of the dangers of driving with worn wipers, and to increase the average change interval, Trico believes this can only be achieved through the distribution network - by educating the installer first. Trico's distributor programme, the so-called 'Total Vision - Total Partnership' programme, offers distributors full sales and marketing support, including training, technical assistance and sales promotion guidance, as well as point-of-sale material.

Although the potential appears to be great, that is all it is - potential. Unlike "under bonnet" components, which are often only replaced following complete mechanical failure, the effectiveness of wipers can be readily observed. Given that windscreen wipers suffer as much wear and tear in the summer as in the winter, car manufacturers recommend a replacement of both wipers, twice a year.

The combination of heat, insects and dust take their toll on blades reducing screen vision by up to 30%. As one auto executive said: "We believe that the wiper blade market is expandable. In the US, the average replacement wiper blade is, depending on where you look, anywhere from three years to almost four years whereas the recommendation is just six months. So we think this is one category that is very expandable."

In a bid to help motorists determine when they should replace their wiper blades, Valeo has developed a 'wear indicator' for the rubber element. It features an indicator made of a black plastic material with an adhesive, pressure-sensitive backing located on the main bow. With time and external stresses, the sticker turns a green colour at mid-life, and yellow at the end of life. Yellow colour indicates to the driver the end of the effective life of the wiper blade. Following four years of research and development, Valeo introduced its wear indicator in Europe in 1998 and then in North America as the SmartBlade in 2000.