Word-of-mouth keeps family retailer growing

Jan. 1, 2020
In Chehalis, Wash., a small community between the Seattle/ Tacoma metropolitan area and Portland, Ore., a young couple named Roy and Wilma Baxter established their first store in 1936, and apart from the interruption of World War II, their endeavor h

In Chehalis, Wash., a small community between the Seattle/ Tacoma metropolitan area and Portland, Ore., a young couple named Roy and Wilma Baxter established their first store in 1936, and apart from the interruption of World War II, their endeavor has grown into one of the leading auto parts and high-performance suppliers in the Northwest, 70 years and three generations later.

A lot of that growth has occurred in the last decade, when the Baxter Auto Parts chain went from just four stores in the Portland area to 21 stores in two states and counting.

With their headquarters in Delta Park, a suburb of Portland, a third-generation Baxter oversees this development. Ty Baxter, the company’s products manager, is in intimate contact with their burgeoning retail market. He notes that despite all the new stores, word-of-mouth is still a valuable commodity.

“We have a lot of return customers that have been working with us for years,” says Baxter. “When we turn the key on a new store, easily within the first week we’ll get someone that’s been in our store at such-and-such location.”

Their long history in the area helps get customers in the door, but they have to work to keep them. “We like to think that we are the best service auto parts store in the Northwest,” Baxter explains. “We try to make sure we have a good selection of product, a good showroom display area that’s neat and tidy, and most importantly, that our employees treat people with respect (and) give it their best effort.”

Reputation has always been a byword in the Baxter lexicon because as a regional chain they now compete against national chains. “We don’t say that we are going to out-price or out-select [them],” Baxter explains, “but we are going to out-service [them]. We are going to give you a better turnaround time on any special orders, we are going to have a broader selection of inventory in our stores and we are going to be priced fair.”

Providing a sense of uniqueness

Every one of the Baxter stores is a little different. For example, some stores have a better representation of truck accessories. Another store has always catered to the hot rod guys. “It gets people to explore the different stores more. I’ll see someone from a Portland store in a Vancouver [Wash.] store who’ll be wandering around because things pop out at you differently.”

In the past 15 years, the Baxters have opened a store a year. With so many stores in new markets, the family has grown adept at promoting their reputation. “We do a lot of advertising,” Baxter admits. “Six times a year we do different newspaper ads, and I believe that counts as 16 separate sales ads ranging anywhere from eight to 16 pages.”

When they open a store, they’ll actually look at the region’s sales through their wholesale division and “come in with a small mix of product, and adapt as our customers need different products.”

Baxter notes that the Internet has increasingly impacted the retail market, primarily through price comparisons and particularly with aftermarket accessories, but not enough to make it a sales tool.

“We compare customer accounts from year to year and look at dollars in sales of specific brands, and throughout our stores we have shown steady growth even with the Internet in place on the accessory type items,” he says.

For now, the Baxter website primarily complements their print ads and helps customers find their numerous locations — something that will undoubtedly increase in the future. “In the next five years, we would like to have over 30 stores,” Baxter relates. “We feel that there are plenty of holes in the market to fill, and we want to make sure that the stores are better interconnected with one another.”

The Vital Stats

Years in business: 67

Growth plans: In the next five years, Baxter Auto Parts hopes to open 10 more stores.

Number of employees: 428 total, averaging 12 employees per store  

Wholesale/retail ratio: 40/60

Snapshot of Baxter Auto Parts: The first store was opened in 1936. Massive expansion began after 1990, and in 1997, they began expanding into Washington state. They recently opened their 21st store.

Affiliation: Auto Value (part of The Alliance), AAM Parts Pro

Competition: Schucks, AutoZone, NAPA, CARQUEST

Locations/facility sizes: 21 stores in Oregon and Washington, most about 8,000 to 10,000 sq. feet