It was supposed to be the silver bullet for commercial sales of auto parts. When jobber stores implemented e-commerce capabilities, their repair shop customers would flock to the solution, researching, shopping and buying parts over the Internet. Self-service by the repair shops would enable jobbers to substantially reduce their parts counter staff costs. Profits would soar even as customer service increased by virtue of access to more detailed information.
A decade on, the picture is somewhat less rosy. Despite widespread availability of e-commerce, overall adoption has barely reached double digits and the growth rate is painfully slow. Labor costs have continued to rise while a new layer of software expenditure has become necessary just to keep up with the competition. It’s no surprise that some jobbers have developed a somewhat cynical attitude toward technology. What happened? Here are a few possibilities to consider:
1. Calling is More Convenient. Repair shops are busy, interrupt-driven environments. Service technicians spend much of their day running around the shop with their hair on fire. It’s the antithesis of a desk job; sitting at a computer feels like (and management may consider it to be) idle time. While unavoidable to a degree, any time not spent actually fixing cars generates costs, not profits. So why would a technician opt for self-service when help is just a phone call away and doesn’t require leaving the shop floor?
2. Relationships Matter. Day in and day out, service technicians talk to the same folks at the same few jobber stores they buy from. Friendships develop. They trust their go-to guys for valuable information and expertise on issues from parts quality (“Yeah, we’re having pretty good luck with that new brand.”) to diagnostic input (“Are you sure? That part hardly ever fails.”). Can any of the current e-commerce solutions claim to deliver a similar quality of experience?
3. Responsibility is Shared. The “elephant in the room” in the auto parts industry is that one out of every four or five parts sold to repair shops is returned. The range of reasons for these returns is a blog for another day, but suffice it to say there are issues on both sides of the transaction. Self-service would seem, perhaps unfairly, to shift the balance of responsibility to the repair shop. If you ran a repair shop, might you be hesitant to start using e-commerce for fear that the jobber would then change their return policies?
4. The Technology Gap. There are still plenty of shops without broadband Internet service or a decent, well-maintained PC. Moreover, repair shop employees may not be particularly computer savvy, and their managers are probably not IT specialists. Even if there is some IT infrastructure, what happens if more than one technician needs to order parts at the same time? E-commerce can create a bottleneck in the repair shop that seldom exists when orders are placed over the phone.
5. Lack of Information. For all the detailed data available through e-commerce, some very important information is usually missing. For instance, when ordering parts, one of the repair shop’s top criteria is how quickly the parts will be delivered. Time is critical — the normal expectation is a half hour or less. Few, if any, e-commerce systems have access to such logistics data. Another issue is lack of order acknowledgement. Assuming that e-commerce is fully integrated into the parts counter workflow (and that’s a big assumption), many systems do not indicate whether an order is being processed. Even if they did, the technician won’t be sitting at the computer waiting for such an acknowledgement. The unfortunate reality is that phone calls often get priority treatment at the parts counter. Some e-commerce users resort to calling the parts counter anyhow, just to make sure their order isn’t languishing on the printer!
6. Inefficient Shopping Process. As previously mentioned, repair shops typically find it necessary to do business with several jobbers on a regular basis. Therefore, adopting e-commerce is not just a matter of learning a single system; each jobber is likely to have different software. It isn’t easy or convenient to switch among several systems and perform the same search repeatedly – a parts counter clerk using the same system all day long can do the job much faster.
7. It’s Hard to Change Behavior. Even when a system is better, faster, or cheaper for the customer, getting them to change their habits is difficult. Without those advantages, it’s nearly impossible. As with any solution, it’s always about more than just technology. While e-commerce between repair shops and jobber stores is bound to increase, widespread adoption will require compelling benefits for both parties and a better approach to solving the problem.