Fast Talk With Jeff Smith: The Auto Parts Dilemma

It is a sad state of affairs when you must know more about the parts you need than the guy behind the counter. It seems that it has become a near lost art to be a competent auto parts professional in the 21st century. I live in the San Fernando Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles that probably has the highest number of auto parts stores per capita anywhere in the world and yet buying parts is becoming an exercise in frustration.

There are three big auto parts chains with stores near my house. I’m Pepped, Zoned, and O-Rigged. I’ve learned not to go to any of these stores until I have completely researched the part I need including the specific part number. I’ve learned not to trust that guy behind the counter because too often I hear – “I don’t have that part in my computer” when in fact they do – they just don’t know where to look. I can’t really blame them because it appears that these stores are only interested in hiring people who will work for barely above minimum wage and their training is completely inadequate.

AUTO PARTS STOREPerhaps I’ve been spoiled because I grew up working on cars from the time I was 12 years old working for my grandfather in a gas station. In those early years I leaned heavily on men who became my friends who lived the parts business. Today, the guy behind the counter has to have a list of information before he can even begin his search. If you’ve purchased parts from on-line companies like RockAuto, then you are probably familiar with the software that nearly all of these chain stores use. It starts with the brand – like Chevy or Ford, then the year, then the model, then the size engine before you can get to your area of interest.

Because I can’t trust these guys behind the counter to be able to navigate, I have learned to go up on their website, run through the software and find the part I’m looking for. Then I write the part number down and call the local store and ask them if they have it in stock. Then, I have to ask the guy on the phone to actually go find it on the shelf. This is essential because while the computer says the part is in stock, that doesn’t mean that is the case. If the guy on the phone is a rookie, you have to explain to him why he’s looking for something that should be there. I don’t think that should be my job.

None of this would be difficult if I was able to work with the same guy month after month. But I’m in these neighborhood stores at least once a week and yet I never see the same faces month to month. Roughly two years ago, I met a car guy who also happens to run a string of six Subway sandwich shops in the Midwest. He told me that the average turnover rate for the fast food industry was 500 percent. That means that as a store owner, you have to hire five people for one position every year. It appears that number isn’t much better for the big chain auto parts stores.

These stores do serve a purpose. When I need off-the-shelf engine oil, oil filters, an occasional serpentine belt, or some other mundane part – these stores offer a quick solution to my needs. But frankly these places have taught me not to rely on them even to order a part and get it to me in a timely fashion. In that case, I’ve learned that RockAuto can deliver the part just as quickly and almost always for less money. At least around here, a chain store needs three to four days to get a “special order” part.

A couple of years ago, I was finally fed up with dealing with these local chain stores and now I drive about 10 miles farther to a store that is still run like the auto parts stores from my past. The guy behind the counter has been there for at least five years and he recognizes me when I walk in the door. I still look up the parts ahead of time and call him with the number. They have a better selection of parts but if they don’t carry it, they can get it for me within a few hours instead of two or three days.

It’s sad that it has come down to this. I miss the old days when I used to walk in the front door of my neighborhood privately-owned auto parts store and it was almost like I was walking into a spinoff of the TV show sitcom Cheers. I spent so much money with them the owner joked that I should just have my employer send my check to him and he would reimburse the balance. That store went out of business when he couldn’t compete with the big chains. But it’s not all bad. I just got a coupon from a big chain that will knock off $10 on 5 quarts of synthetic oil. I’ll take advantage of it – but I won’t buy anything else. They make me work too hard.

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