Price irrelevant, say independent shop owners

Jan. 1, 2020
Parts prices may not be as significant as some distributors think. At a recent roundtable discussion, a group of independent repair shop owners explained that quality of parts and business relationships are the focus of how they buy parts.

LAS VEGAS — Parts prices may not be as significant as some distributors think.

At a recent roundtable discussion, a group of independent repair shop owners explained that quality of parts and business relationships are the focus of how they buy parts.

“I just want to get the part here, and I want it to be the right part,” said Craig Fetter, owner of Fetter’s Auto Repair in Arbutus, Md. He was one of a handful of shop owners who spoke to Auto Pride program group members in Las Vegas in early April.

“If I’m not treated well, I’ll walk out, even if the price is the best in town,” said Jeff Walter, co-owner of Zimmerman’s Automotive in Mechanicsburg, Pa. To illustrate the irrelevance of price, Walter said, “If you take the same clutch out three times, price is no longer an issue.”

“You’ve got to be able to depend on the part,” agreed Gary Goodman, owner of Hayward, Calif.-based Guaranteed Auto Service, who added when he performs a repair, he doesn’t want to have to do the job again.

The purchasing process from distributors is “about relationship buying,” said Fetter.

Admittedly, the shop owners who spoke at the two roundtable sessions represent an ideal contingent for distributors: they were named Auto Service Experts by Auto Pride and are classified by the program group as “Tier I” shops.

Unfortunately, some repair shops still consider price paramount when making buying decisions, said one jobber in attendance, who joked that he’d like to set up a warehouse next to each of the shops owned by the roundtable participants.

Dealerships threaten distribution

The looming threat from dealerships was also addressed as a topic of conversation. Presenters stressed that dealerships aren’t just after the business of independent repair shops; they also want the parts distribution business.

About 60 to 70 percent of purchases are made from jobbers, with 30 percent made from dealerships and the remaining parts bought from sources like salvage yards, said roundtable attendees. The dealership percentage, though, is constantly growing, “because of need, not because of choice,” said Fetter.

“We buy what we have to from them,” said Goodman.

Walter made it abundantly clear that he would be happy if he didn’t have to spend another dime with the dealerships.

Right to Repair addressed

The repair shop owners also discussed pending Right to Repair legislation, siding with those who think a government mandate is the only way for independents to get all of the diagnostic and repair information they need.

Walter emphasized his position by citing a sign he saw posted at a dealership that boasts having complete access to diagnostic information, while the independents do not.

EPA officials have said that all technicians have access to the same information regardless, but Walter counters, “Ford has two websites: one that we can get into, and one that their techs can get into.”

As OEs increase the prices of their licensing tools, many independent technicians are left struggling to pay the rising fees, said Walter, who suggests an “all-makes, all-models” diagnostic tool.

An ‘expert’ proposition

Auto Pride members stressed the importance of hosting Auto Service Expert council meetings, where “Tier I” owners are brought together with “Tier II” shop owners — shops that need some improvement but can potentially become “Tier I” — to share best practices and create better customers for distributors.

Council meetings are also a way to prompt discussions about relevant industry issues; program group members said the roundtable gathering at the recent Las Vegas membership meeting was an extension of these meetings.

The council meetings also are beneficial for dispelling myths often perpetuated at the dealership level.

Fetter recalled a previous council meeting where the topic of Honda brakes came up. One technician said he would never use anything other than OEM because aftermarket brake parts squeal, said Fetter, who added, “I found Wagner™ ThermoQuiet® works just as well (and doesn’t squeal). There’s a lot of myth out there,” he continued. “(Dealerships) are stealing your business.”

The issues of technicians directly correlate with those of jobbers. Steve Baltzer, who gave a presentation regarding the CustomerLink program, said systems like OnStar take jobbers and independent techs out of the equation.

For example, OnStar can perform a remote diagnostic on a vehicle and then take the driver straight to the dealership for repairs. OnStar performs about 23,000 remote vehicle diagnostic operations a month, added Baltzer.

CustomerLink is a service that sends oil change and maintenance reminders, holiday cards, satisfaction surveys and recorded voice prompts, among other actions, to retain customers.

“If you don’t take care of your customers, someone else will,” Baltzer added.

Message for techs

The roundtable also had tips for technicians such as cleaning up the shop, elevating the image to the public and banding with other repair shops to take advantage of the power of referrals.

Walter said he still advertises automatic transmission repairs though he doesn’t perform them at his shop. He simply acts as a mediator and contracts the job to another shop. Fetter said his shop defers front-end alignments to his best friend’s shop across the street.

The meeting was hosted by the Independent Warehouse Distributors program group, which includes Auto Pride and Truck Pride. For more information, visit