Almost everybody who owns a car will one day need to have some sort of brake service performed.
I have just gone through the process of contacting literally dozens of garages to get estimates ranging from the big names such as Firestone, Aamco & Les Schwab to lots of highly recommended independent mechanics. I even contacted an official dealer for an estimate.
While labor rates varied and some marked up parts more than others, there were basic similarities in how everyone worked. Your car is spec'd for ceramic brakes so we'll quote you for those. Yes we'll machine the rotors and this is the price but if you need new rotors this is the price.
Which is why I am writing about Les Schwab. Les Schwab do things differently. They don't quote for brake pads, they quote for loaded calipers. While telling me verbally they would try to machine the rotors, they presented for my signature an estimate containing new rotors even though they had measurements indicating the rotors were only 25% worn. They didn't disclose the brake pad measurement nor explain the interpretation of rotor measurements that they did disclose. On the phone they quoted me for ceramic brakes but in person they advised ceramic would be $60 more.
Having noticed multiple signs of misinformation or withheld information in a process that was clearly slick and orchestrated (they greet you in the car park, a receptionist takes details, they bring the car round to the front door when you leave), and intrigued by such a different approach, I set out to understand what was going on. I thought through how they went about the sale, what information they disclosed, what they said and sometimes more tellingly, what they didn't say, and also what the underlying economics were.
The more I pieced everything together, the more I began to realize that Les Schwab runs a very unique sales approach as part of a extremely clever business model that is designed to generate excessive profit through delivering less to the customer while making the customer think they are getting more. In addition, by having a different pricing approach, direct comparability is made more difficult vs their competition.
It's very clever, in some ways one has to admire how clever it is. But the bottom line is that not only do you pay more, you get a worse result while having the wool pulled over your eyes, and that's just plain insulting to the customer.
How Les Schwab will make $700 per axle more from you
Firstly, how did I calculate they would be more expensive by $700 per axle?
Very simply, after checking my brakes and measuring my rotors, Les Schwab quoted me $425 for work they said was required. The work would be warrantied for 3 years / 25k. Based on the quality of the pads and rotors that they quoted, plus their approach of changing the rotors when not required, over 6 years / 60k, you could expect to do this service twice for a grand sum of $850 if you were to trust their advice.
In the end, I purchased my own ceramic brake pads and took them to my local mechanic for a grand total of $150 for install, cleaning, greasing and machining the existing rotors. The pads are lifetime and the rotors should last for 60k at least.
At issue here is that regardless of the status of your brakes, you will most likely be quoted exactly like I was or something very close. You will be verbally told that they will try to machine the rotors but the worst case is that they'll need replacing. You'll sign the estimate on the basis of this verbal understanding and return to find they needed to replace the rotors.
The sales process and business model that is in place dictates that approach and targeted outcome. When you go through the process, unless you are an informed customer, you won't realize that you're setting yourself up for paying $850 over 6 years vs $150. You go through a process designed to persuade you that you are getting a better result justifying the amount being charged. The $98.50 for labor includes a brake fluid flush. Wow that's cheap - the others charge $100 extra for that item alone. They put on calipers not just new pads. Great, that's better than everyone else.
But this is not the reality. If you pay $425 and receive great rotors, great calipers, great pads - in short a brake system overhaul that performs great and lasts a lifetime, AND you needed all of those elements, then it's only an average to good deal.
But you most likely don't need that and in any case you're not even getting that! You're getting basic brakes and basic rotors (probably worse than what you have), potentially not so good calipers and on top they'll be worn out in 3 years time and you'll need to have the work done again and pay $425 again.
The Caliper Con
Les Schwab do not quote for brake pads, they quote for remanufactured loaded calipers. The price quoted ($121 in my case vs $107 on Amazon), does not seem expensive, especially when they quote it together with Labor of $98.50 which includes a brake fluid flush.
But the truth behind the calipers is as follows;
- It is highly unlikely that you need calipers. I know I didn't.
- The brake pads are not ceramic and won't last. My OEM pads are ceramic. Ceramic were $60 extra.
- Les Schwab's out of pocket for the calipers is probably ~$40 as they make money on the good quality original calipers discarded from your vehicle which are then remanufactured
- The labor charge of $98.50 is effectively nearer $180 when you factor in the profit on the calipers
So by upselling you to rotors, you end up paying significantly over the odds, giving up potentially better rotors, and they boost their labor rate again!
However, when they present this to you, you are being sold on receiving calipers worth $120 and new rotors worth $180 with only a small seemingly reasonable charge for their labor which also includes a brake fluid flush. On top of this you will receive a 3 year / 25k warranty (that Les Schwab have cleverly moved the risk of to the rotor and caliper manufacturer rather then themselves because they are not machining rotors or installing pads - they are just assembling!)
Interestingly, it is being presented as $300 parts and $100 labor, but it is in fact $100 parts and $300 labor!
If you knew that, if it were presented that way, would you pay it? No way!
If you didn't know better, you'd be happy. And with the slick sales and service process, many customers are blissfully unaware of what they've done.
I purchased Wagner Thermoquiet brakes which match original equipment specifications. For my car, this meant they were ceramic. Their usual price is $30 to $40. I found them for $29 while a $15 rebate was running. So this was a steal.
a) Option 1 - Install yourself
There are plenty of websites and videos to help you do this. You can take off the rotors and have them machined by a local shop or an auto parts store for $20 to $50 a pair. You could also just buy new rotors.
b) Option 2 - Mechanic Install
If you have a mechanic that you trust, then for relatively little cost this might be a good option for you. Supplying your own parts can save money. You can buy rotors and return them in the event your mechanic was able to machine your rotors.
c) Option 3 - Use one of the other chains or a dealer special
Firestone use the same Wagner Thermoquiet brake pads and perform the install and machining for less than $200. There are often discounts ranging from $35 to $50 available.
I would consider going this route if I could be sure of the competency and honesty level of the particular franchise. One advantage of going this route is that some of these chains really stand behind their work. I know personally that Firestone do. The disadvantage is that they often have the same incentive to upsell you to new calipers and rotors when you don't need them.
If you genuinely need new calipers as well as pads and if you need a brake fluid flush then you could get a very good deal out of Les Schwab. Just make sure you don't buy rotors from them and that they machine them for a reasonable price, say up to $50 per pair.