Walk into any auto parts store today, and you will see clutter-free counters sparsely decorated with phones and computer terminals. Gone are the racks of catalogues with their worn corners, illegible hand-written notations, and strategically placed cardboard dividers.
Granted, it took a while for both jobbers and manufacturers to make the technological leap and climb on board. Even some counter staff (you know who you are) had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. But now, 15 years later, just try and pry that computer terminal out of their calloused hands.
“In the old days, a good counterperson had all the information in his head. Today, with technology advancements and the resulting parts proliferation, it just isn’t possible to work that way. The skill set of a counterperson has changed. Now a good parts person needs to know how to listen, how to research (online), and how to follow up with a customer. With the information age putting everything at your fingertips, Web surfing is more important than even knowing how a water pump works,” explains Stephan Van Kessel of Parry Automotive, a Modern Sales Co-op member.
“We took the catalogues off our counters 15 years ago,” says Bestbuy shareholder Dale Devlin of Halton Automotive. “Sure, we still have a reference library the staff can utilize when needed, but that just doesn’t happen very often any more. Our counter staff are very knowledgeable and very good at the cataloguing part of the job. It’s their bread and butter. It’s what they do. The e-catalogue of course is extremely helpful and it does ease the learning curve for junior staff, but you just can’t replace experience with software, at least not yet,” says Devlin.
“It’s getting harder to find paper catalogues, and if an update is missed, it’s at least a year away; with online catalogues, if you find an error, it’s fixed immediately,” adds John Wood of Car Parts Oakville, a NAPA Associate.
“With the proliferation of parts today, it’s so necessary to be computerized. Business is so different today compared to just a few years ago. With recent changes in vehicle technology and the needs of our customers, we couldn’t operate any other way,” adds Van Kessel.
Based in Orillia, Ontario, Parry Automotive was the first company to go live on the original Triad computerized management system (Epicor) system back in 1981. The company is currently using the Epicor Prism system and is moving to Epicor’s new Eagle platform, which allows users to monitor and manage business performance while on the road, in a customer location, or anywhere else, via smartphone or any other mobile device. “We have migrated to their new platforms as they have come along. This is our fourth upgrade. It allows us to stay relevant with the new opportunities that exist with the newer software,” says Kessel.
The new release 21.1 of the Eagle software includes a new mobile manager application that enables authorized users to view sales, inventory, pricing and customer information on a dynamic basis via a mobile device.
While large jobber chains like NAPA have their own in-house systems (TAMS with TAMS2 pending), most independent jobbers utilize business management programs from software companies like Epicor, Wrenchead (WHI Solutions), or CAPP Auto.
Today, jobber-related business management software solutions offer built-in efficiencies like e-catalogues, e-commerce, parts ordering, shipping, and invoicing; they also allow users to mine all kinds of useful data that was formerly unattainable.
Epicor recently introduced an upgrade to its Vision software. Release 9.8 allows users to improve purchasing and stocking decisions based on local and regional demand for specific parts. The newest version also includes several new tools designed to help users increase operational efficiency and ensure customer satisfaction.
Epicor’s Vista solution provides detailed snapshots of parts demand based on electronic catalogue lookups and other important down-channel information, including VIO data provided by R.L. Polk. By integrating this information into the Epicor Vision software, users can customize local inventories based on actual part consumption, anticipate and address emerging service trends and increase sales, margins, and customer loyalty.
“We combine all our systems, from our CRM to our Sales Force to Epicor, and mine all the data we can to stay competitive. One thing we don’t lose sight of, though, is the good, old-fashioned customer relationship. It’s still important to be talking to your customers every day,” advises Van Kessel.
With older vehicles lasting longer and newer vehicles requiring more specialized parts, jobbers are forced to carry larger inventories, stocking parts from 2013 right back to the mid-1980s.
“It can be difficult to juggle that mix, but if you don’t have the ability to have the part in a short order of time, you are not going to get the sale, and that’s the bottom line,” adds Van Kessel.
While statistics show import vehicles are now overtaking domestics in new vehicle sales, jobbers are still seeing closer to a 50/50 split, depending on location. Being in a rural location with more light trucks and SUVs, Parry Automotive is currently seeing more of a 60/40 split between domestic and foreign nameplates.
“We are a diversified jobber-distributor, so it’s not just automotive. We sell marine, agriculture, and industrial components. In addition to our own in-house Epicor management system, we also utilize different manufacturer websites and, when need be, we turn to the catalogues. I would say the majority of my staff uses the e-commerce catalogue 95% of the time. There is still a slightly less than 5% component [that is] not using it. Counter staff have to be experts in everything the customers are calling for, and manufacturer’s websites are a good resource for diagrams and understanding terminology,” adds Van Kessel.
“We also deal with a very diverse customer base out here,” says Devlin. “We want to do our best to serve all the different options, including the online component, which is growing every day.”
Halton Automotive uses CAPP Auto software, which offers front-end sales information to back-end financial reporting features. Features include real-time, anytime, open to purchase, transfer and return logs, and email/fax interface, to create seamless and secure information exchange. “We were looking for a very detailed system, and it just doesn’t forget a penny anywhere, and it’s proven to be just what we need to control our processes,” says Devlin.
CAPP Auto ERP solutions also offers a selection of optional add-on modules, such as e-commerce, delivery dispatch, EDI (Electronic Document Interface), bar-code scanning, and shop work orders.
“Our customer base is made up of installers, owner/operators, fleets, industrial clients, and people walking in off the street. CAPP Auto helps us decide which parts to keep in inventory and what to add to continue to serve our market efficiently,” explains Devlin.
“Counter staff are comfortable using the online catalogue now; however the younger staff are way better at surfing around. They each have their favourite manufacturer sites up on their desktops all the time, in case they need to do a quick search for a customer. We have a lot of repair shops around that we deal with that run their own management systems, like Epicor, Protractor or GEM-CAR, and are connected to us so they can order parts automatically when they fill out their customer work orders. They just dial into our system and it puts it right on the work order for them. It’s all very seamless now,” explains Wood.
While new software programing is designed to provide greater efficiencies, it generally brings with it a requirement for new user skills, and often creates new challenges to be overcome, usually by the next software release. This never-ending loop of progress is the new norm for jobbers.
Repair Shop System Expands Across Canada
GEM-CAR’s auto repair shop software, which has been available in Quebec for more than a decade, has recently expanded into Ontario and Western Canada. “I was using business management software that I found painful to use for years. The company basically had backed me into a corner with empty promises,” explains Les Suter of Suter Automotive in Aurora, Ontario. “I finally made the switch to GEM-CAR and found that this program runs so deep compared to what I was using before. It does everything from producing work orders, setting margins, to job scheduling, includes a punch clock, and offers seamless parts ordering and even bar-code scanning,” adds Suter.
Located near the Aurora Go Train station, Suter Automotive specializes primarily in foreign nameplate repairs, and most of his clients commute to Toronto for work so they tend to drop off and pick up after hours. “The email aspect of the program has streamlined our billing process and the ability to add ongoing reminders on the work orders for future service intervals is a plus,” says Suter.
GEM-CAR provides built-in messages that can be added to invoices as reminders for periodical service. According to Bob Worts, director of sales and marketing for North America, GEM-CAR guarantees that any repair shop that uses this software program will increase sales by a minimum of $5,000 per technician over a one-year period.
“We have fewer surprises at the front desk now with scheduling,” adds Suter. “Three of my largest suppliers came on board shortly after I told them about the program. They took a look and within a couple of months they were on my desktop.”
One of the unique, user-friendly features of the GEM-CAR software is everything is done from one screen. “When you enter in a new customer, it automatically goes to the calendar. From there you double-click and it returns to the work order. If you book an oil change, it will automatically block off the time in the calendar. To order parts, the user just clicks on a supplier on the desktop and puts the parts into the bucket, and they are automatically ordered and added to the work order,” explains Worts.
Endorsed by parts supplier companies including Auto-Camping and ACDelco; integrated with Prolink, Weblink, Dave, WHI, and many others, the training and coaching sessions provided by GEM-CAR allow technicians to learn the program at their own pace.
“Before installing GEM-CAR, managing parts required a huge investment of my time from when the order is placed to when it arrives and is added onto the work order. Now, as soon as I order the needed parts, they are automatically added to the invoice. My next step is to utilize the punch clock and bar-code features to further streamline my operation,” adds Suter.