Everything’s the same, but everything’s different

Jan. 1, 2020
Visiting sister stores is an eye-opening experience.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to work in several of our branch store locations, and the contrasts have surprised me. I’ve been in three locations, all within a 25-mile distance from my “home” store. Each one has a larger population base and more competition than what I’m accustomed to, but the mix of vehicles seems pretty much the same. These are all stores within the same chain, with the same product lines and management philosophies, but with entirely different operating methods driven by customer demand.

The thing I found most amazing is how differently people perceive quality and service. We carry a nationally known brand of brake products as well as a store branded line and this gives the customer lots of options. The choices on friction products alone run from the latest ceramic high tech compounds down to something that’s low priced and will stop the vehicle, along with various mid-grade options. One store seems to sell the top shelf linings almost exclusively, while the stores in adjacent towns seem to sell mostly mid-grade or below. The odd part of it is the store selling the higher quality linings is in an area that is very much a blue collar working man’s town, while the other nearby locations are surrounded by some very affluent communities.

I’ve also noticed that when working with a customer I don’t know, retail or professional installer, they rarely refer to the products as top-grade or otherwise…it’s “the expensive ones, the cheap ones, or something in between.” If price is a reflection of quality, then it seems areas that might have a more expensive mix of vehicles would sell more of the “expensive” pads. But that’s not really so. This situation doesn’t carry across the board, either. We have similar choices on just about all of our product lines, and in an area where you may sell nothing but top-shelf, race-quality chassis parts, an oil filter that costs more than $2 will gather dust on your shelf.

A customer’s idea of service also can be difficult to grasp and adapt to. In one store, scheduling or even anticipating customer needs by repair shops was almost nonexistent. It seemed every other call I took was from a technician who had the car on the lift with the old part on the floor and the vehicle’s owner waiting while the repair work was done. This puts a lot of pressure on your ability to keep up with inventory and your delivery service. There are enough other parts stores in town that someone else is bound to have it if you don’t, so ordering it for the next day usually doesn’t happen. Some of these guys also have no concept of time and how long it really takes to get from one end of town to the other through traffic and construction. This doesn’t seem to happen much with the shops that are out in the country, but I can think of several people who would order the same part from a couple of different stores and use the one that got there first. Just once I’d like to tell these guys that all sales are final and returns will only be limited to replacement of defective parts, but I doubt that would get a very favorable response.

It’s an interesting and sometimes eye-opening experience to be able to see how other markets operate. Working in the same environment with the same customers day in and day out gives you a great deal of expertise, but it also can lead to complacency and outright boredom if you let it. I’m glad I have the opportunity to participate in a little “cultural exchange” once in a while just to shake out the mental cobwebs.

Mike Gordon, a 20-year counter sales veteran, works the counter at Sanel Auto Parts, Concord, N.H.

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