New japanese parts custom: serious fun

Jan. 1, 2020
During a recent speaking engagement in Japan, Editor Larry Silvey got to see firsthand how the Japanese market and merchandise their automotive products. His conclusion? We’ve got some catching up to do.

Comparing some of Japan’s automotive facilities to American automotive facilities is like...well...comparing the social graces of a Geisha, dressed in a colorful and ornate kimono, to Granny of the Beverly Hillbillies.

That may be somewhat of a surprise to you since we Americans tend to think of the Japanese as a people who are bound by customs and traditions. Of course, that is true in many facets of Japanese life; however, when you talk about the auto parts business, it’s anything but traditional. During a recent visit to Japan, I got to see firsthand how the Japanese market and merchandise their automotive products. And, as my lead indicates, we’ve got some catching up to do. Let’s take a closer look at how our Japanese counterparts attract customers.

First you need to consider that Autobacs Seven’s (dba Autobacs USA in this country) customers spend an average of two hours in the Super Autobacs store near Tokyo. Compare that to the few minutes customers spend in our stores. And, ironically, most of our merchandising techniques are designed to move customers through our stores quickly, so as to save them time rather than compelling them to use their time to linger and examine what we have for sale.

One reason customers might linger is because of the store’s size — 55,000 sq. ft. The other –– and real –– reason is that the store is exciting, even for those whose first love is not cars. That’s certainly not surprising since Autobacs, Japan’s largest auto parts retail chain, set out to create a Disney-like atmosphere where you get more amazed as you go from “attraction to attraction.”

Be prepared to be wowed!

From the moment you set foot in Super Autobacs, you know you’re in someplace special, someplace that you want to be. You’re there on a serious mission –– to buy auto parts –– but not at the expense of having fun.

One of the main attractions is the movie theater complex, which is strategically tucked away upstairs (yes, there are two stories to this huge store) so that shoppers must pass aisle after aisle of appealing automotive accessories. As strange as that initially sounds, it truly is pure genius on the part of Autobacs’ management. Going to the movies is just one more reason to stay in the store while the parts you buy are installed in one of the store’s bays. For the record, customers have a choice of three movies shown in the store’s three theaters, each with seating for more than 100 people. Interestingly, people who don’t shop at the store come to the theaters, which means Autobacs has an opportunity to lure them onto the sales floor during their visit. And, if not on the sales floor, then perhaps in the cafe which, of course, is another reason to stay in the store as well as being another profit center. Say you’re not hungry and you’ve seen all the movies being shown –– and you are interested in cars –– then Autobacs is where you want to be.

If the “World Tire Building” (a two-story tall, 25 yards long wall of wheels) doesn’t make you just stand there and gape (like I did), then the display of customized tuner cars will. Several of the cars on display are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars sporting every conceivable tuner product –– from wings and scoops to custom steering wheels and seats. The paint jobs on these cars are probably worth more than my house, or at least my car. Undoubtedly, this showroom full of these pocket rockets is enough to turn Jay Leno, consummate car guy, green with envy. Autobacs, of course, has set up shop in Stanton, Calif., home of some serious-minded car guys who are more interested in taking out a loan on a set of $8,000 chrome spinner wheels than making mortgage payments.

When service work is performed, customers are kept informed on the status of their cars in a couple ways. First, they can check a monitor in the service area to see when their cars were taken into service, when the technicians actually started work on those vehicles and when completion is expected. Or, if customers want to wander through the store, go to the movie inside the store or, if they just have to get some other business done and leave the sweat –– customers are given cell phones so that Autobacs can call them when the repairs are finished.

Some easily corrected missteps

The 35,000-sq.-ft. Super Autobacs store that opened in Stanton about a year ago, was received with open arms from car enthusiasts up and down the state. So much so that car club members hang out in the parking lot just to show off their cars, eyeball vehicles of other enthusiasts and trade stories. This kind of loyalty has led to some impressive sales –– $8 million in one year.

As with any start-up, Autobacs has had some missteps. According to the Los Angeles Times, an early shipment of fancy cup holders designed to fit on the driver’s side, which in Japan is on the right, have not sold well. I suppose those who have bought them either have really long arms or ask a passenger to pass the coffee.

A bigger blunder was the complete oversight of the need for SUV accessories. Why would Autobacs even consider these accessories when Japan doesn’t have SUVs?  There’s simply no room to park these behemoths in Japan. 

Another mistake that had to be corrected was the way it merchandised its products. Rather than displaying products by purpose, they simply displayed them by category, which meant car care products, like car wash and wax, were in one aisle while sponges, cloths and buckets were in another.

You can’t find this anyplace else

Now let’s move on to Carest, another Japanese auto parts purveyor. The parking lot features 400 parking spaces –– a fact that immediately bowls you over. Another shocker is that under one roof on one level you see a car dealership on one end. As your eyes move toward the middle of the building, the building transforms into a parts store and then, finally, an installation facility.

Without a doubt, this is the most beautiful (sorry, there’s no other word for it) auto parts store I’ve ever been in, which is saying a lot because over my 23-year aftermarket career, I have been in hundreds of stores across America.

When I crossed the threshold of the Carest parts store I was awestruck by the floor, which was every bit as attractive as some floors I’ve seen in some ritzy hotels. Of course, it wasn’t real wood –– it was a laminate — but to think that a parts store would even consider emulating a wood floor...well, floored me.

But before we (my gracious hosts and interpreter) took more than five steps into the store, something to the left, towards the repair facility, caught my eye –– a couple leather recliners made available for waiting customers. Oh, did I mention these recliners vibrate? Geez, somebody must be thinking about repeat business. Before I vibrated myself into slumber, I got up and looked through the large plateglass windows into the repair shop to see a work area more fitting for heart surgery than car repair. Absolutely nothing was out of place and even someone with a severe case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder wouldn’t think twice about eating off the floor.

Although I wanted to try the vibrating chair again, it was time to move back to the parts store. By now, I was ready for just about any kind of surprise this store might have...until...until...I turned around and saw it with my own eyes and smelled it with my own nose — a fragrance bar. This display was a work of art featuring a few dozen glass containers filled with different colored fragrances. It took a couple minutes for this concept to sink in. In fact, I’m still contemplating it. I guess you put a pinch of perfume behind each side of your headrest just for fun.

From there, we moved on to a display that wrapped me up like a cocoon. For lack of a better description, I’ll describe the Alpine audio and visual display as a “cone of silence.” Not silence from the context of quietude, but silence from the context that it completely consumed me. As I stood inside it watching an Eric Clapton (good music translates well all over the world) video, it felt as if Eric was playing a concert just for me. I didn’t want to leave.

Well, I was on a tour so I had to leave (but I want to go back!), so we moved on down an aisle that was filled with various tuner products that would entice anyone looking to “tune up” their vehicle. But what would catch anybody’s attention first in this aisle was the plasma screen monitor showing a drifting race. To those into “tuning,” this video no doubt would help them envision themselves in the driver’s seat, which, theoretically, should help sell more parts. Of course, like many of the other attractions in the store, this video helps keep customers in the store increasing the likelihood that they will buy products.

Because there is no wall between the parts store and the dealership, I just naturally drifted over there to look at the new cars. A welcome reprieve comes from the salespeople, who only help you if you request help, which is pretty likely since you will probably linger for awhile as you eat an ice cream cone that you can get from the ice cream counter strategically placed near the front of the showroom.

A little closer to ‘home’

The second largest auto parts retailer in Japan is Yellow Hat. Frankly, it’s a bit more predictable, (i.e., more like some of the auto parts retailers in this country). However, there are two notable exceptions. The most striking is a tricked-out car placed in the back corner of the store. It contains a premium navigation unit and audio and visual equipment. The other exception is the store’s installation facility to make sure that this high-end equipment is installed properly.

It is clear to me that the Japanese have set out to meet the needs of a younger customer base. We are faced with the same reality. Although you may think some of what the Japanese auto parts retailers are doing is extreme, it appears to be right in step with what customers want: a shopping experience that is fun and entertaining. Now, why didn’t we think of that?

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