Are "shop supplies" a legit charge?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 01, 2008

Dear Tom and Ray:

What are shop supplies? I always thought it was old rags and sprays to clean or lube. My recent visit to a dealer's garage cost me $22.56 for shop supplies. My total bill was $297.81. If I take my car to the dealer for repairs three times in a month, that will cost me a lot for supplies. Do I have to pay it? Is it a tip? -- Carol

TOM: It's not a tip, Carol. If you want a tip, try Frau Blucher in the eighth to show.

RAY: The term "shop supplies" generally refers to things like solvents, cleaners, small quantities of fluids, rags, the servicing of the parts-cleaning machine, and the disposal of waste oil and other environmentally toxic materials. And perhaps antacids for treating the occasional sausage bomb ingested by one of our guys during his lunch break.

TOM: It's all stuff that does have to be paid for. But shops have different ways of dealing with it.

RAY: In our shop, we actually track the shop supplies that were used for a particular job and itemize them on the customer's bill. So on the bill, you might see a charge for brake cleaner, or for topping off your power-steering fluid or antifreeze.

TOM: The problem is, we have a relatively small shop. And when you have a dealership, with 20 bays going and a hundred customers a day, it's very difficult to keep track of that stuff on a job-by-job basis. It becomes a bookkeeping nightmare. Then you'd have to add a bookkeeping charge to every bill, which wouldn't make you very happy either, Carol.

RAY: So in many cases, a shop will simply bury that stuff in the labor rate, and charge $90 an hour instead of $85. And that's fair. They tell you up front that this is the cost of doing business with them.

TOM: But other shops choose not to do that, probably for competitive reasons: They don't want their labor rate to be higher than other shops in the area. So in those cases, they often charge a percentage of the repair cost for "shop supplies." That's what happened in your case.

RAY: We don't particularly care for that approach, because then you may come in for a job like a window regulator, which requires no shop supplies -- no rags, no cleaners, no solvents -- and you still end up paying 7 percent or 8 percent of your bill for supplies.

TOM: And somebody who gets a brake job (which uses a lot of supplies) essentially gets his job subsidized by you.

RAY: But like I said, it's very hard for large shops to track this stuff individually. So I would prefer that it either be included in the hourly labor rate, or made clear at the outset that there is a certain percent surcharge on each bill to cover these costs. At least that way, you know what to expect upfront and can make your decisions accordingly.

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