WHOLESALE: A part of doing business
Patriotism aside, the reality is that foreign nameplates have earned their place alongside the Big Three automakers in recent years. In fact, Consumer Reports released a list in November that names Honda, Toyota and Subaru models as among the most reliable vehicles on the road today and puts certain models from U.S. brands like Pontiac and Buick in the least-reliable category.
Mike Thompson, Phoenix-based CSK Auto Inc.'s vice president of merchandising, notes that the entry of import vehicles a generation ago marked an important change in how dealerships service vehicles.
"The quality they came in with challenged Detroit to be better," he explains. "Dealers used to keep busy just doing warranty work on the Big Three. Now they're trying to get regular business — oil changes, tire rotations. It's been quite a big dynamic shift."
That shift in services trickles down to wholesalers, he adds, noting that CSK does wholesale in addition to its retail business.
Ron Dahlhaus, general manager of General Parts Group, LLC, a Totowa, N.J.-based wholesaler consortium, says that many wholesalers are already prepared for import business.
"It's just another vehicle on the road," he says. "I'd say imports are probably 45 percent of our inventory."
That said, Dahlhaus notes that they try to stock American-made lines like Bendix and KYB as much as possible, including those made for import brands.
Alan White, a third-generation partner in Carolinas Auto Supply House in Charlotte, N.C., says he has seen an impact in the last decade as to how certain aftermarket lines, especially accessories, have dropped off.
"We have gotten into some of the add-on stuff like air dams and wheel covers, but overall it seems to me that fewer people can tinker on the import cars like they used to do on domestic cars," he explains.
Still, White contends that his import/domestic ratio of inventory has been about 50/50 for several years now.
"We sell a lot of crash items, so the bumpers, fenders, etc., should hopefully continue for the near future," he says. "As far as accessories, we'll just have to keep our eyes open."
White also points out that the economic struggle U.S. parts manufacturers have been facing will continue to have a direct effect on how jobbers stock inventory, for better or worse.
"It's actually easier for us to e-mail, fax or even call someone in the Far East, place an order and have it delivered at our door than deal with some of our domestic suppliers," he says. "It's amazing how aggressive the overseas manufacturers have become. We are now able to import containers from some vendors in Taiwan or China on an open account basis. Imagine doing that 15 years ago!"
RETAIL: DIYers still drive American
On the retail side, walk-in business is still focused on parts for the Big Three.
"Yes, we offer import auto parts, but we have for the past few years," shrugs Dianne Strausser, owner of Thumb Auto Parts in Yale, Mich. She notes that being in a rural area, customers are more apt to come in looking for parts on an American vehicle, a trend that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Ralph Babbitt, president of Babbitt Automotive in Staten Island, N.Y., believes that the do-it-yourselfers who drive foreign cars are often more likely to look for inexpensive parts on auction sites or other Internet resources.
"Most of our clientele is still driving domestic SUVs," he says. "The younger guys who are looking to 'hop up' their foreign cars — well, we're not getting much of that action. They're looking to get parts for less expensive than I can offer. We just don't go to that level of volume."
Still, everyone agrees it's important to roll with the punches in order to keep giving what the customer wants. Les Rowell, manager of Best American Auto Parts, Houston, Texas, notes that the owner started the business with the intention of living up to its name: selling American parts only. However, it was soon apparent that being patriotic and distributing non-domestic parts didn't have to be mutually exclusive.
"I was at a man's wrecking yard a few years ago and what he said to me made complete sense: 'If it's got a tire, I'll sell it,'" Rowell recalls. "I mean, why not? We still fly our colors and offer great service."
While Best American is primarily a salvage parts store, Rowell has been stocking more new parts, such as headlights, mirrors and intakes. However, again, they're all Chevy, Ford and Dodge. "It's what people come in for," he says.