WHOLESALE: Partners in training
Bob Joshlin, president of Indianapolis-based Speedway Auto Parts, sums up his view as "vendors do a little bit of everything for us." While the needs are different for wholesale and retail customers (his five stores average to be about 70 percent wholesale), Joshlin says he depends on his suppliers to distinguish his stores from big chains.
Vendor assistance ranges from racing to branding to training. Joshlin points to manufacturers like Federal-Mogul and Delphi as "being in tune with the racing audience." He notes that these and other suppliers often participate at local racetracks, getting their names out to consumers and technicians alike.
Special ordering abilities and express turnaround also are important to Speedway, whose reputation has been built on getting in hard-to-find parts quickly. Joshlin says the Internet has helped immensely in that regard. Many vendors, for example, have product details and photos on their Web sites, helping technicians to identify specific products. "It can also be used to help the counter staff understand it before special ordering something, so it keeps our returns down, too," he adds.
Frank Kohlweiss, president of Kohlweiss Auto Parts in Redwood City, Calif., agrees that one of the most important value-added services vendors have to offer is product knowledge.
"We might have gold nuggets in the back, but if no one knows about them, no one will buy them," he says. To that end, when a new line comes out, he expects the manufacturer representative to be able to meet with counter staff and ride along with the sales team.
"Field work is very important to me, because you can't improve the bottom line without having 'feet on the street,'" Kohlweiss says. "When you crunch the numbers, you can't put a value on that, but it's very valuable." One item on the "vendor wish list" for Kohlweiss, a National Pronto Association member, is more wholesale brand advertising.
Beyond Web sites and technical hotlines, both of which he is glad to see, Joshlin says he appreciates those suppliers that go the extra mile with in-person training.
The trick is to get manufacturers in that know the difference between a product pitch and truly useful information, he says. "They're already using your products; they don't need to be sold on them."
On the other hand, Joshlin believes this form of product stewardship is great advertising and relationship building, both for Speedway and the individual manufacturers. "Two nights' training, with food, comes to about $3,500 to $4,500," he estimates. "It's a large expense, but there are ways to share the burden. A lot of our competitors don't want to put forth the effort, but without a doubt, training is needed in our industry."
Joshlin stresses that he never expects the manufacturer to pick up the tab, an assumption he thinks may put some manufacturers off on the entire seminar concept. On the other hand, he notes that charging attendees to come to the seminar helps defray the costs while adding value to the event itself.
"If every event is no-fee, shops start thinking less of its value. It's more of an 'Oh, we'll just wait for the next one' situation," Joshlin says, adding that he encourages his shop customers to sign up for a package that guarantees a certain amount of training nights per year. This arrangement, however, makes it all the more important to ensure the seminars are useful.
"If you host one or two in a row that aren't up to snuff, people won't want to come back," he says. "That's why I want to see an outline and a schedule up front."
On deck for Speedway are heavy-duty diesel and passenger vehicle hybrid training events. "I've been here since 1973, and these days carburetors and generators seem to be things of the past," Joshlin adds. "One day, gas might be a thing of the past, too. It depends on how soon we'll be using hybrids."
Joshlin says that's just one reason why training is even more important, especially to older technicians. However, by seeing many of the same faces time after time in his training room, he worries about how to get the message out.
Joshlin also believes better training helps in the long-term through a lower return rate. "Returns are a large issue for us," he says. "But if you keep working on the training, it will pay back. There will be fewer returns because there is more knowledge."
The cost of inventory from suppliers is not as positive of a trend, Joshlin notes. With fuel and energy costs up, many vendors are raising their minimum purchase requirements to maximize the freight costs.
"For some commodity products, to get the best price takes six to eight weeks to ship," he says. "Plus, it might go from a 5,000 to 10,000 order. That puts pressure on us to keep product on the shelf. We might not get something in for three or four weeks."
Everything is behind the counter at Carl's Automotive in Calvert City, Ky., so the four-employee store has no need for elaborate vendor-supplied displays. In fact, co-owner Sue Newton notes that just about the only thing on her vendor wish list is that more suppliers go to computerized parts ordering.
While some manufacturers have closed the platform where users could view sales stock by Zip code, Joshlin believes that one day they again will see the value of being open about it. Of course, consistency in manufacturer codes will have to be addressed to get there. "It won't happen overnight," he laments. "But for independents, our survival depends on it."
Kohlweiss agrees and points to the increasing trend of co-branding as helping independents. But what can he live without? The contests, spiffs and rebates. While he admits he sees the value of such tie-ins "locking" in the vendor-distributor relationship, Kohlweiss believes the money spent on many of the initiatives could go to something more practical.
"On the retail side, it's even worse," he says, noting that consumers comprise about 20 percent of his business. "The 50-cent rebate on spark plugs is getting minimal use. I've got coupons littering my parking lot."
Newton agrees that coupons are overrated. Her store, which does about 75 percent wholesale business, is small but entrenched in the community (her husband, Carl Newton, has had the store and machine shop for more than 30 years). Therefore, even things like training are not a high priority, but expertise is.
"Customers do depend on us for advice," she says, adding that her store might be open to manufacturing training down the road, because "there's always room to learn, especially in this field."
RETAIL: Hands-off, but accessible
On the retail side, the sources we spoke with are happy with their vendor relationships. For the most part, it's hands-off — and they'd like it to stay that way.
Randy Chase, vice president of Big Wheel Auto Parts in Kent, Wash., says that being an Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance (Parts Plus) member has enough perks that he doesn't really need a lot of branding help from vendors. For things like point-of-purchase displays, he'd rather just take up the task on his own.
"We have good relationships with most of our vendors," he says. "We're happy with the status quo, and it works very well."
Tim Smith, secretary of Smith Auto Parts in Fairfield, Iowa, agrees. While about 85 percent of his inventory is recycled parts, the remaining 15 percent of new parts is becoming a growing segment for his company. He, too, has good relationships with his suppliers and looks forward to increasing that part of the business.
If Smith could have one request of vendors, though, it would be for them to remember the recycling business. "I really wish they would promote using their used parts more," he says.
Like Smith, Crosstown Auto & Truck Parts in Kalamazoo, Mich., deals mainly in recycled parts. However, the company does offer aftermarket gas tanks, radiators, door handles, headlights and taillights.
"For us, warranty and accessibility are the main issues," says Carmen West, Crosstown's office manager. "I don't want to have our customers wait on a part."
To that end, West says she's glad to see more vendors offering online ordering. However, customer service and follow-through also are extremely important, she says.
"I'm having a hard time with one vendor, where the product was not available, but they did not let us know that and kept us waiting," she explains. "We've been dealing with this individual for several months now. Now we're involving corporate, and I hope we can work it out because we spend $10,000 a month with them."
As for warranties, West notes that the company's reputation is built on guaranteeing customer satisfaction. When a vendor becomes too difficult when dealing with returns, Crosstown moves on.