Hartford: A DIFM heavyweight

Jan. 1, 2020
This Battleground?s high do-it-for-me population leaves contenders fighting for share.

Connecticut’s been competing over territory ever since 1614 when Dutch explorer Adriaen Block came upon the Pequot Tribe while sailing up the Quinnetukut River.

This Hartford Battleground has been on the frontlines — literally — of both the American Revolution and Industrial Revolution, and the turf remains under contention as automotive operations compete for market share amid a slow-growing population afloat with rising incomes.

Although Connecticut is the nation’s third-smallest state (surpassing Vermont and Rhode Island), it ranks No. 1 among all 50 in per capita income with a 2002 figure of $42,706.

About half of the motorists within the seven-county Hartford Battleground opt for do-it-for-me services, according to a study of the marketplace by R. L. Polk & Co. The national DIFM average is 35.8 percent.

Do-it-yourselfers account for 20.1 percent of the national aftermarket; Hartford’s DIY level stands at just 8.27 percent. Tweeners, those alternating between purchasing parts and/or services, account for 42.5 percent of the Hartford market, compared to a 44.1-percent nationwide tally.

Statewide population growth is essentially static. However, formerly tranquil outlying settlements are seeing increased development driven by job relocations, migration from urban centers and New York City-oriented commuters seeking a New England ambience amid lower living costs. More than half of the state’s population is over age 35, and the disposable incomes of Baby Boomers fuel a significant classic car segment. 

Aftermarket executives seeking to set up stakes in this Battleground may encounter New England democracy as developmental details and building regulations are discussed with government bodies. Preservation vs. growth conflicts are possible; an operation willing to tastefully refurbish an historic structure may find smoother sailing. But, be certain of exactly where you are when surveying a possible store site. Meandering borders can be complicated amid the many boroughs, towns and villages throughout the state.

Stepping into the ring

“There are a lot of options for parts,” observes Doug Fernandez Jr., vice president of Turnpike Motors in Newington. “It’s amazing that they can all get a piece of the business.”

Turnpike most often turns to NAPA, Advance and Manny’s Auto Supply, Inc. in Wethersfield. And that’s not all: “There’s an Advance Auto Parts right across from our shop and a Pep Boys down the street.”

According to the Yellow Pages, NAPA has 49 locations within a 50-mile radius of Hartford. (Local listings also include a few New York- and Massachusetts-based operations, reflecting an economic and cultural closeness dating back to Dutch fur-trading days.) AutoZone is in second place with 40 outlets, followed by Advance’s 35 stores. CARQUEST checks in with 26 sites; Pep Boys has 11, and Wal-Mart is on the move with 56 centers and counting.

“I see the big box chains going more after the installers,” says Lewis Nixon, president of Nixon Auto Supply, Inc. of Vernon, east of Hartford in Tolland County. “The discounters get the business from installers interested in price, price, price,” he adds.

For Nixon’s niche, this amounts to opportunity as he specializes in procuring hard-to-find parts and providing pedal-to-the-metal delivery. “The NAPAs and CARQUESTs are out there battling, too,” he reports.

Connecticut’s population patterns have traditionally revolved around smaller communities typified by urban mill towns and rural agricultural settlements. Fernandez sees development migrating outward from central Hartford and converging upon once-isolated villages now poised for sprawl.

Other on-the-grow places cited by Fernandez include Manchester, Suffield, Simsbury, Granby, Hebron, Marlborough and Farmington. “They’re the next ring.”

Apparently, a great aftermarket shakeout has yet to hit Hartford, although a few operations have bemoaned a “soft winter” and showed signs of behind-the-counter chaos.

No knockout parts choice

“I’m not seeing people (owning parts stores) going out of business, but we do have plenty in the area right now,” notes Norman Boulais, manager of Bundy Motors in the town of Tolland. Since opening in 1977, the facility has undergone three major expansions based solely on word-of-mouth referrals with no advertising campaigns.

“We rely on our customers to tell other people,” says Boulais. “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

Bundy does maintain an impressive Internet site, keeping in line with Hartford’s rating as the 12th most wired American city. However, other Hartford-area aftermarket operations seem lacking in regard to a widespread online presence.

Multiple sources are used to obtain the necessary components. “I don’t have a problem getting parts delivered,” Boulais remarks. “I have more of a problem getting the correct part delivered.”

George Hallahan, general manager of All Star Automotive in Rocky Hill, is equally annoyed with the performance of the parts delivery sector. “A lot of them are late, and often when they get here it’s the wrong part anyway,” he contends.

“It costs me overtime and gets me aggravated,” Hallahan points out. “I call around to see who can get it the fastest and the best — quality is important to me. I use Pep Boys for antifreeze, oil and stuff like that.” The full-service operation includes foreign and domestic repairs along with performance enhancements. High-end vehicle parts usually come from dealers.

“There are certain cars I won’t put an aftermarket part on,” Hallahan says. “I give the customers the option,” he notes, “but I feel more comfortable with dealer parts.”

Tolland County

Population: 136,364

Median Household Income: $59,044

Just to the east of Hartford and site of the Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry, Tolland County is seeing an influx of new residents. As Connecticut’s fastest-growing county from 2000 to 2003, the population increased more than 6 percent to an estimated 141,000-plus. (The bold faced figures heading the county profiles denote official U.S. Census results from 2000.)

Per capita income also is up: Between 1997 and 2002, it rose 20 percent to $33,496, according to an analysis by ePodunk, an Ithaca, N.Y.-based firm that researches geographic, economic and lifestyle trends. More than 73 percent of the residents own their homes, with a median value of  $151,600.

“Business is really good,” reports Rick Landry, owner of Tri-Town Lube in Rockville, the county seat. Widespread development has him optimistic over the future. Tri-Town’s first call goes to CARQUEST, followed by NAPA. Landry says both companies achieve a 90-percent accuracy rate with their parts deliveries.

The DIFM tally for Rockville/Vernon stands at 47 percent, according to Polk. Tweeners account for 44 percent of the motorists within this collection of historic villages and newer subdivisions along the Hockanum and Tankerhoosen rivers.

Midas, Firestone, Sears and Goodyear service centers are among the customers of Nixon Auto Supply, nestled in Vernon along the Hartford Turnpike. While Nixon has a good supply of fleet accounts — serving landscapers and other local businesses — the larger industrial-strength motor pools are gone. “That’s pretty much dried up in this area.”

Now an independent who buys most of his parts from a MAWDI facility in Massachusetts, Nixon belonged to the Big A program group until it ceased operations in the 1990s. The Big A sign remains over the door, however. “We still fly their flag; people recognize that.”

Over the years, the company’s retail sales have given way to a focus on commercial customers, amounting to a 70-30 DIFM/DIY split.

“The cars are getting more complicated,” observes Nixon, pointing to the niche he has created to overcome encroaching discounters. “I don’t think they can beat our service,” he explains. “We go the extra bit for hard-to-find parts.

“I don’t see us being squeezed out” by the big boxes, Nixon continues. He views NAPA and CARQUEST as more formidable competition, made less fearsome by the area’s growing DIFM population base.

Middlesex County

Population: 155,071

Median Household Income: $59,175

During the 1990s, Middlesex was the state’s fastest-growing county as its population grew more than 8 percent. From 2000 to 2003, new residents arrived at a pace slightly above 4 percent to exceed an estimated 161,000. Per capita income rose 23 percent from 1997 to 2002, reaching $38,854.

Acme Auto’s location at Old Saybrook, the oldest town on the Connecticut River, sits amid a 74-percent DIFM rate.

A 65-percent DIFM ranking is tied to Deep River — site of another Acme location — as is Portland, claimed by tweeners at 52 percent and DIFMs at 40 percent.

The county seat of Middletown and its 59-percent DIFM figure is aggressively moving forward into the modern era, carefully cultivating a balance between development and heritage in a manner befitting its median household income of  $59,175.

In East Hampton, more than half of the motorists are classified as tweeners, and 39 percent fall into the DIFM category. The median household income here is $66,326, with ongoing development pumping more dollars into the aftermarket.

“They’re building a lot more” throughout the area, according to Anita Calvo, co-owner of East Hampton Auto Parts.

Sales at this relatively new NAPA facility are at least double what they were a year ago, she reports.

Litchfield County

Population: 182,193

Median Household Income: $56,273

The Litchfield Hills area is famous for covered bridges, waterfalls, rocky peaks and rolling fall foliage-rich forests that present New England at its finest.

No. 4 on the list of fastest-growing Connecticut counties at 3.1 percent, Litchfield’s estimated 2003 population approached 188,000.

With the old water-wheeled mills and factories now converted into picturesque boutiques and eateries, the county’s home ownership rate exceeds 75 percent with a median value of more than $156,600.

Litchfield’s 2002 per capita income of $38,309 is a 21-percent increase over 1997’s level. Typical of a relatively well-off population, Litchfield’s DIFM numbers run high, with Salisbury reaching 91 percent.

The towns of Lakeville and Washington are both 86 percent DIFM. Sharon (75.5 percent), Roxbury (71 percent) and Norfolk (70 percent) are other top DIFM spots.

Litchfield, the county seat, stands at 77 percent DIFM. Tweeners are dominant in Torrington — the location of Acme’s Litchfield facility — at 45 percent, compared to 43-percent DIFM.

The land o’ Goshen posts a 68-percent DIFM tally, while nearby Canaan comes in at 57 percent DIFM.

At the 3,000-sq.-foot Canaan Tire & Auto on Gandolfo Drive in Torrington (near Canaan), maintaining adequate staffing is an issue for partner Jim Day. “I run short-handed,” he explains. The establishment remains closed on Saturdays, and Day himself is consistently on the go to stay on top of the business. “I’m hard to catch.”

On Canaan’s Elm Street is Dave’s Tire & Auto Repair; Driving Impressions USA is seven miles away in Lakeville.

Woodbury’s 67-percent DIFM ranking does not appear to be helping sales at Southwood Auto Parts on Main Street, although the 10,000-sq.-foot NAPA affiliate is open seven days a week. President James P. Weaving reports “a tough winter” while looking forward to the warm-weather motoring season.

Advance has two stores in nearby Waterbury, and the Naugatuck Advance outlet on Rubber Road is nine miles away in New Haven County.

New Haven County

Population: 824,008

Median Household Income: $48,834

Yale University may have a lock on being New Haven’s most recognizable institution, yet the county has five other colleges within its borders and a long history as an industrial powerhouse with a plethora of deep thinkers.

The Naugatuck River Valley, which straddles New Haven and Fairfield counties, has become a rust belt relic accenting the economic and cultural diversity of the area. The friction match was invented in Beacon Falls, and the town of Naugatuck gave us the wonders of Naugahyde upholstery.

Waterbury offers an example of the economic paradox that modern-day New Haven has become. One portion of the town boasts the Hartford region’s top DIFM ranking of 91 percent, while another section accounts for the highest DIYer rate of 75 percent.

“This is a very tough economy,” says Ted Aub, owner of AA Automotive Parts in Branford. Over the past few years “we’ve seen some more shops going out” of business as higher overhead (including steep workers compensation costs) and competition takes its toll, he notes.

“The good shops are backed-up” with overflowing bays, Aub observes, “while the bad ones prey on those who can’t wait” to have their repairs done.

“I’m one of the few true independents left” in the nation, let alone the region, Aub contends. “I’m fully and totally independent” with no program group affiliation. “I’m a traditional jobber.”

With two drivers and a 3,000-sq.-foot facility on Meadow Street, “we’re a small shop and we’re going to stay that way,” says Aub. “I’ve been in business 30 years. If you develop a client base and take care of them and your people you’ll stay in business and do fine.”

Discount parts purveyors are a reality that Aub rejects on principal while acknowledging their price-pressuring presence. “Every food store and drug store is selling our (aftermarket) products but they can’t sell our knowledge. They can scan the bar code but that’s about all they can do for you — we go all over the state if necessary” to adequately serve a customer. “At my age I don’t want to open a (car parts) supermarket.”

In 1820, the meeting that established Yale was held at the still-standing Academy Building in Branford. The town, population 28,683, has a median income of $58,009.

Branford’s DIFM level stands at 67 percent with only about a 3-percent DIYer rate, although tweeners account for 30 percent. The community, with close access to U.S. Route 1, I-95 and I-91, certainly appears to be well served regarding automotive needs. Town leaders have done a good job at attracting diverse aftermarket enterprises with more than 20 operations already in place, including Midas, Monro, Firestone, United Tire, NAPA, Eagle Brothers and Branford Automotive Supply.

Windham County

Population: 109,091

Median Household Income: $45,115

Connecticut’s “Quiet Corner” is starting to make some noise as its population has increased almost 10 percent since 1990 to rank as the state’s third-fastest growing county. The 2000 per capita income of $28,526 is 18.5-percent higher than 1997’s amount, and the county has a home ownership rate of 67 percent with an average home value of $117,200. Hispanics comprise 7 percent of the population.

“Windham’s a sleeper,” says Acme’s Joe Cassarella. “There are definitely some possibilities in Windham.”

Acme has sewn-up a presence in Willimantic, the county seat once known as “Thread City” for its fine textile products. Acme further serves the Quiet Corner, with an outlet to the west in Tolland County covering the Storrs/Mansfield area, and points east. (Willimantic is 28 driving miles from Hartford.)

Surrounded by a large sea of DIFM drivers enjoying some of New England’s prettiest and quaintest surroundings, car counts are up considerably at Hoffman Motors on Boston Post Road in North Windham, according to owner William Hoffman.

“We’re busy,” he says, pointing to encroaching business and residential development throughout the area and newer faces coming through the door of his thriving service center.

Hoffman indicates that he shops around for parts, with NAPA being a favorite source. He does have several choices available, as positioned along Boston Post Road in North Windham are Advance, a Wal-Mart Super Center, JW Automotive and Willimantic Auto & Truck Supply.

New London County

Population: 259,088

Median Household Income: $50,646

Since 1997, the county’s per capita personal income has increased more than 25 percent to $35,106. Although the population rose just over 1 percent during the 1990 to 2000 decade, residential and commercial construction is cruising into a diversified cultural mix ranging from traditional Connecticut Yankees to recent immigrants — including a sizable Portuguese-American contingent. Sixty-seven percent of the homes are owner-occupied, with a median value of $142,200.

Offering full vehicle service is no gamble for Dennis Raymond in North Franklin, owner of Raymond’s Auto Repair. “My bays stay full all the time,” he reports.

“If they didn’t stay full, I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage or my help,” Raymond remarks, referencing the high cost of doing business.

Expenses aside, “I don’t have a lot of troubles,” he continues, citing an ongoing influx of patrons and good service from his parts suppliers. “I gain a lot of new customers because we’re a state emissions station,” says Raymond, who claims drivers complying with pollution control standards usually return for other repairs once they experience the quality of his company’s work.

Raymond’s reputation thus attracts customers from a wide area, he says. Polk reports that the area around Franklin has decent DIFM prospects such as Norwich (49 percent DIFM) and Colchester (52 percent) in New London County, and East Haddam (53 percent) and Moodus (58 percent) in neighboring Middlesex County. Franklin itself has a population of 1,835; its median household income is an eye-popping $62,083. A 57-percent tweener market complements a 35-percent DIFM rate.

Raymond avoids buying from large discounters, citing time, quality and accuracy concerns. “We deal with a lot of parts,” he explains. “We need (competent) delivery.”

Raymond does have issues with pricing, lamenting how consumers are buying retail parts at rates identical to what he’s charged at wholesale. “I’m paying the same price as some guy off the street, yet I have to warranty the part and the work,” he says.

“We’re always trying to explain to the customer why we charge more for the same part from the same place,” Raymond notes. “(Parts stores are) trying to sell retail at the same price we’re paying. They should either stick to retail or stick to wholesale.”