Best Practice: Retail

Jan. 1, 2020
NAVASOTA, Texas - About 20 years ago as several bigger chains began moving into the Houston market, Mike Thomas decided to sell his seven auto parts stores and relocate here about 70 miles away in a town of 7,000 residents. He established The Auto Pa

NAVASOTA, Texas — About 20 years ago as several bigger chains began moving into the Houston market, Mike Thomas decided to sell his seven auto parts stores and relocate here about 70 miles away in a town of 7,000 residents. He established The Auto Parts Store of Navasota (TAPS), a combination parts store/repair facility.

Located downtown in a three-story Civil War era masonry concrete building, the 12,000-sq.-ft. first floor is divided between parts counter/retail space and service bays, while the other floors are used for storage. “We have some older stuff up there for vintage cars,” says Thomas. With a number of car collector customers, the company services a lot of older cars, particularly mid-’50 Chevys, he explains.

Business is split evenly between wholesale and retail. Although most sales are automotive-related, like many parts stores and repair facilities in rural areas, TAPS helps customers keep other types of equipment running, including diesel and farm tractors, other farm machines and construction equipment. In fact, the store specializes in assembling hydraulic hoses for farm tractors.

Thomas may have left Houston behind, but he hasn’t been able to completely escape competitors. In fact, competition has stiffened for the independent retailer in recent years with an O’Reilly Auto Parts and a Genuine Parts-owned NAPA store now located within 600 yards, which created a downtown cluster of parts suppliers. However, Thomas notes, the proximity of the other stores actually is an advantage for customers because it makes it easy to check other retailers if their favorite store doesn’t have what they need in stock. 

To set itself apart from other parts stores, customer service is the prime directive at TAPS, which recorded $750,000 in revenue last year. “We’ve always felt that it’s best to go the extra mile,” he says. “And we felt the philosophy would pay off, although it’s hard to point to tangible results. But during a time when everyone else is struggling to keep the volume they had in previous years, we’ve maintained despite new competition. We seem to keep the same customers.”

Customer loyalty no doubt stems from the special attention they receive from the staff at TAPS. “We pretty much know everyone on a first-name basis,” reports Thomas. “A lot of times we’ll have a customer who is fixing to go out of town who will let us know they’ve left our number with their wife and that they’ll settle up when they return if anything breaks down in their absence.”

Exemplary customer service isn’t reserved for customers in the store either. “We have a lot of people who come in and ask if we can come out and look at something and point them in the right direction [regarding a repair]. We probably do that 30 times a day,” he reports. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the TAPS service technicians to travel off-site to repair vehicles and equipment.

“It’s not just about selling parts, it’s calling around to find out who can help with a problem,” says Thomas. As a result, he is not averse to moving beyond his two primary suppliers to locate whatever a customer needs.

Another special TAPS touch is a customized emergency kit the store gives to customers departing on vacation. Inside the box are parts such as hoses, belts and thermostats for the customer’s vehicle, as well as more generic items such as oil and duct tape. When the customer returns, he brings the box back and only pays for what was used. Unused items are restocked. Customers are always surprised the store would do that for them. “It means a lot to people,” says Thomas.

With a veteran staff averaging about 15 years, he says providing customer service is easy. “My job is to listen and monitor and reinforce it,” he concludes.

The Vital Stats

Years in business: 20

Revenue: $750,000

Growth plans: On hold for now until economy improves.

Number of employees: 6

Snapshot of TAPS history: Relocated to Navasota in early ’80s after selling seven stores in Houston.

Wholesale/retail ratio: 50/50

Competition: O’Reilly Auto Parts, Genuine Parts-owned NAPA store, both within about 600 yards.

Affiliation: None

Facility size: Average store is about 12,000 sq. ft. including service area.

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