Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2000   by CARS Magazine

The e-commerce option

As automobiles become more electronic, so too do the shops that service them. Most service centres now use desktop computers to manage their business, and the e-commerce industry has been quick to dev...

As automobiles become more electronic, so too do the shops that service them. Most service centres now use desktop computers to manage their business, and the e-commerce industry has been quick to develop software systems and websites to make it more profitable.

There are two basic choices for service stations interested in e-commerce solutions. First, there are Internet parts sellers, some working like catalogues that both do-it-yourselfers and professionals can access, and others catering strictly to the pro. Second, there are software systems designed to run the service station, from hard-core technical information to invoicing. A closer look at both reveals a wide range of e-commerce options for the shop, regardless of size.

With over 30,000 subscribers in the U.S. and Canada, California-based Alldata presents a good example of the latest software for service stations. The Alldata program provides diagnostic repair and estimating information, including technical service bulletins, recalls and wiring diagrams. It covers both domestic and import cars built in 1982 and forward. The current cost of the software is $300 US, with an ongoing user fee of $175 per month. The information, delivered on CD or DVD, is updated quarterly, and will eventually be updated daily and available as an Internet download.

For service stations that hesitate at the monthly fee, Alldata executive vice-president and chief operating officer Walt Samuelson, crunches the numbers for them. “Take a smaller garage, say a two bay that does about eight to ten cars a day. If our system allows them to do two more cars a month, because they’ve got that [Alldata] information and they can complete the repair on time, they’ll be making more money and they’ll have more satisfied customers. Many shops put a slight information charge on the invoice, so that if you are open 22 days and you were able to do eight cars a day, all you would need to add to the invoice of your customer is about a dollar per repair to cover the monthly system cost.”

Samuelson also says he’s had customers claim to add $100 a day and even $1000 per week in sales to their shops. That’s a lot of efficiency. Unlike most service manuals, information on the database is set up the same way for all vehicles, and Alldata offers two, one-hour training sessions with the purchase of the system. In the event of an obscure repair question, the program has a fax button that connects the user to Alldata’s main library, where the request is processed and the information returned to the subscriber. The system also interfaces with other garage management systems, like InvoMax, BAY-MASTER and Costar, so that the technician doesn’t have to shut one program down to go into another for billing, for example.

“We cover 20,000 vehicles,” says Samuelson. “How many manuals would you have to buy to cover that? Most independent shops can’t invest in that, so what they do is call their buddy at the local dealership or rely on a technician with some prior experience at another shop, which takes time. On the Alldata system in less than a minute you can find the information you need.”

Autovia is another on-line resource that provides shops with information on availability and pricing from a number of sources. Free to users, the cost of the service is absorbed by the suppliers, who are charged 2.5 % of all orders placed through the network. This is offset by cutting the typical 10–20 % cost to distributors of processing orders in the conventional manner. The concept is win-win. The garage gets quotes and information on parts from several suppliers at once, saving time and money, and the supplier gets the product out to the customer with less processing cost. Also, the installer is given an encoded I.D., so that suppliers can offer preferred customers extra value. And Autovia tracks customer data for suppliers, so that they can determine which products are being purchased by whom. The website currently caters to garages in the U.S., but it’s almost certain to come into Canada.

In the meantime, a product called ServiceEstimator II, combines part sourcing with accurate repair estimates, and is available in Canada. The program is a product of Triad Systems Canada, and is available for $949 Cdn. ServiceEstimator II provides aftermarket prices for accurate job estimates, plus access to 3 million aftermarket parts for vehicles from 1968 to present. Exact repair labour hours from 1973 to present, plus cross-referenced part interchanges and add-on parts for every repair are also features of the software. Service dealers can point and click to add all the correct parts and labour charges and print estimates in seconds. Triad’s EZConnect interface allows dealers to check a supplier’s parts availability and order parts any time of the day.

In the information age, even hands-on businesses like auto repair will increasingly need the services of software and Internet providers. It will make the difference between modern, efficient garages and relics. Says Peter McLaughlin, communications director for US heavyweight “I think the most important part missing in the aftermarket industry is information. In practical terms for the mechanic, he wants his part, because he knows that customer is counting on him to get the job done on time. And “can’t find the part”, is not a great thing to have to tell the customer.” SSGM

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