Best Practices: Retail

Jan. 1, 2020
St. Clair, Mich., is a river town of less than 6,000 people and home to one of the world?s longest boardwalks. Its beautifully-landscaped properties and parks along the St. Clair River makes the town one of the state?s most visited communities in the

St. Clair, Mich., is a river town of less than 6,000 people and home to one of the world’s longest boardwalks. Its beautifully-landscaped properties and parks along the St. Clair River makes the town one of the state’s most visited communities in the summer.

Although a blessing to businesses depending on the tourist trade, the river has been a source of frustration for small business owners like James Blake of St. Clair Auto Parts.

“We can only service three sides of the town because the river runs between us and the Canadian border,” says Blake.  “My father used to say that ‘fish do not buy auto parts,’ and that’s the problem we face in being located in this town.

“We have a mile-wide river with plenty of fish, but not enough people to support small businesses,” he adds.

Despite its geographical problems, the store that serves both retail and wholesale customers within a 50/50 ratio, has succeeded in business for 40 years.

Blake’s parents started St. Clair Auto Parts in 1964 because his dad was tired of being a mechanic and wanted to get in on the retail side of the business. Like his father, Blake became a certified technician but instead of working on cars he joined the business with his father while doing his high-school vocational apprenticeship in 1971.

“At first, I thought being a mechanic was the thing to do back then,” says Blake. “Since I did a lot of car and motorcycling racing, I knew I better learn how to fix them.

“But actually I found that I really wanted to do it to increase my knowledge and to better my selling abilities at the store,” he adds. “It paid off because I could quickly identify the correct parts, which kept our installer customers coming back.”

Although limited in physical growth because of its location, the small store is big on customer service.

“A high percentage of our customers have been repeat customers for years,” says Blake. “They definitely come back for the service…they want someone who is going to give them the right part, the first time, and someone they can trust.”

“Offering the best personal customer service has always been our strength ever since my parents started the business,”  adds Blake. “We’re in a little town where everyone knows everyone, so we can’t afford not to offer the best we have.”

Blake says sometimes his newer retail customers are shocked when he offers to take a look at their vehicles in his parking lot.

“I offer that service everyday,” adds Blake. “We also do wiper blade replacement installations for free.”

Besides offering great customer service, Blake has had to find a marketing niche to help him compete with the only other parts business, which is a CARQUEST store, located only two miles away.

Since St. Clair also has a moderate amount of farming business, Blake’s store houses their own starter and alternator rebuilding shop, which serves both his marine and agricultural customers.

“Our rebuilding shop has really been a great asset to our business,” says Blake.  “To survive in a town as small as this you really need a unique service, and this has proved profitable for us for the last several years.”

Since 1963, the store has flown a few programmed distribution group flags.  However, the consolidation and elimination of many program groups have left St. Clair Auto Parts flagless for quite some time.

“I’m an independent jobber who is one of many independents in the state of Michigan,” says Blake. “I buy from a program group, but eventually we’re all going to have to join one because it’s almost a matter of survival today in these tough times.”

Blake says that there is barely enough room for two auto parts retailers in St. Clair. And when he thinks about retiring, he’s unsure about the future of his business.

“We used to have another independent jobber in town who was an installer/jobber like us, but when he retired, his son didn’t want to take over the business, so they closed,” says Blake. “We are lucky that we can still succeed in this business, but I would like my son to pursue his own dreams of going into law enforcement.

“Like most small town businesses, the big guys take over the smaller guys,” he adds. “And although these larger businesses are farther away, they’re taking more and more of their business every year.”

However, with a major retail competitor nearby for the last 15 years, St. Clair Auto Parts continues to be a formidable player in the aftermarket.

The Vital Stats

Years in business: 40

Growth plans: Limited because of its location in the city. At the present time there are no growth plans.

Number of employees: Three full-time and one part-time.

Snapshot of St. Clair Auto Parts’ history: James Blake’s parents started the business in 1963. Blake joined the business in 1971 while working on his high school vocational apprenticeship there. Both he and his father were ASE-certified technicians before getting into the parts business. To remain strong, they have found their niche in the agricultural and marine parts business.

Wholesale/retail ration: 50/50

Competition: A CARQUEST store within two miles of the store.

Affiliation: None at this time.

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