We live in the information age. One can learn about almost any subject in the history of mankind. News is available — almost instantly — about what is happening today. Anyone can go online and read prognostications about the future.
There are seemingly endless data available about people — our habits, patterns, likes, dislikes and so on. Big data is collecting information about where we go, when we go, how we do things. And that is being fed to companies to tailor products and services to us.
Yet, in the automotive aftermarket, data and information are sorely lacking. Neither are being utilized to their fullest potential, the way industry leaders tell it. Especially when it comes to selling products, it seems many in the industry are missing out on opportunities to draw in customers, showcase products and make the sale.
John Washbish, president and chief executive officer of the Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance, told attendees of a recent conference a story from a gas symposium way back in 1998 where a marketing expert predicted that data will one day be more important than the part. And we’re at that point now.
“If they don’t have the right data to [showcase] what it is, we can’t sell it, no matter how good it is,” he said at this year’s MEMA Aftermarket Suppliers Vision Conference. “So the data thing’s really got to get right.”
There’s been a lot of good work in getting data from manufacturers, especially around ACES and PIES, but there is still room for improvement in other areas, Washbish stressed. He pointed to what he called “the romantic” information — beyond the pictures and basic information. It’s creating a gap when trying to sell the part. There’s not enough emphasis on making shop customers or DIYers care about what they’re looking at so they, in essence, fall in love with what they’re buying.
“Where we like to look for enhancements is on the marketing end — the romantic data about the part. Pictures of the parts. You know, the romance,” he said at the Chicago event as part of a panel. “You can have a tire pressure gauge and you can have a tire pressure gauge with two paragraphs of explanations and pictures. And they both cost the same — the one that has the two paragraphs [of] explanation is going to sell more.”
It comes down to the suppliers making the move. They need to support their products with further details.
“So the replete data [is what] we’re looking for and there’s still a lot of vendors that are woefully inadequate in that space,” Washbish observed, adding that it’s an even weaker experience in related sectors. “The basic application stuff and interchange stuff on the automotive side [is] really, really good — heavy duty, a little bit more of a challenge is my experience.”
“If they don’t have the right data to [showcase] what it is, we can’t sell it, no matter how good it is. So the data thing’s really got to get right.”
Randy Buller, president and CEO of Parts Authority and fellow panellist, agreed with Washbish, emphasizing that getting ACES and PIES data from manufacturers has been great at times. Some of them have been helpful — but some haven’t.
“So like a bunch of apples, one or two apples spoil a bunch because you start to see conflicts where there’s bad data. Somebody might have a very clean list, and then somebody might have not a clean list,” he said during the session, Future of Aftermarket Distribution.
Sometimes, Buller noted, all the information is stuffed into one ‘box.’ Someone would take the time to separate out things properly. But that doesn’t happen all the time.
“You still have weird stuff coming out, and in the wrong places,” he explained. “And that’s why our catalogue teams need so many actual people. It does create confusion.”
On the topic of the needed “romance”, Buller observed that some may think the service advisor or technician doesn’t care about that stuff. Maybe they don’t at the end of the day and can get by with the basics — but they do need to know why a particular part is better.
If a company wants to claim their coil is better, explain why, he added. “They need to put that front and center. That’s not always on there.”
The aftermarket is in need of efficiency, pointed out Todd Leimenstoll, president and CEO of Auto-Wares. Too often products are returned because the technician thought it’d be the right piece. But if a key piece of data was included, they would have known it would been the wrong one from the start. So better data can eliminate those issues and boost efficiency.
“The more attributes we get in there, the more chance you’ve got of getting the right part of the customer the first time,” he said on the panel.
That’s not to say things haven’t gotten better. He estimates the last three years have seen dramatic improvements.
“I’d like to get our standardization as an industry cleaned up even more and get so that we’re more or less live feeding this information,” he recommended. “Because if we can get it in that position, ultimately, it makes all that inventory available immediately, whether it’s from the manufacturer’s door, our door, the part store’s door and getting that cleaned up. So I think we’ve made dramatic improvements.”
“Where we like to look for enhancements is on the marketing end — the romantic data about the part. Pictures of the parts. You know, the romance.”
Having the right data ties into boosting e-commerce. Shops told Jobber News in the Annual Shop Survey that they’re turning more and more to online ordering. A third of respondents said they were putting at least 90 per cent through in this manner. That’s up from not even a quarter (24 per cent) last year. About seven in 10 (71 per cent) said at least half of their orders are placed online.
They cited the ease of doing so, not needing to wait to speak to a counterperson and avoiding extraneous questions.
But the process isn’t without its issues. “Some of the online systems are cumbersome, not intuitive, don’t have clear parts descriptions, poor sorting options,” one survey respondent explained.
Selling online is advantageous for the distribution side of things as well.
“E-commerce is something that’s been around for quite some time, and it’s here to stay,” Buller said. “And I think like anything people get used to buying things in different ways. E-commerce certainly provides maybe some financial advantages for people who could wait for their parts. They have to pay freight but they might have a much bigger brand availability.”
With parts proliferation showing no signs of slowing down, an e-commerce platform is a way to service the wide variety of needs of today’s customers, he added. “So e-commerce is a great way to get that.”
But e-commerce can’t be a full replacement for the distribution segment, Buller pointed out. “On the other hand, if [a customer’s] car is down, we [hear] how important it is to get those parts right away and get the car off the lift.”
“E-commerce certainly provides maybe some financial advantages for people who could wait for their parts. They have to pay freight but they might have a much bigger brand availability.”
It’s just another tool available to jobbers and warehouse distributors to get products from suppliers into the hands of technicians. “I think it’s going to continue to grow. But I also think for the aftermarket distributors, the retailers included, [e-commerce] is a great way to put the products out there,” Buller said.
“The challenge for us is to put the right amount of the products and the correct products in striking distance of the installers in a cost-efficient manner,” he added.
And to ensure accurate information is included, Washbish emphasized. While there has been a good effort in the presentation to the consumer, improvements can still be made on the business customer end.
“A lot of the e-tailing presentation has moved over to make the presentation on business-to-business better than what it used to be,” Washbish said.
“But the game is getting it out there [in] 30 minutes or less by finding the right part. And so I think that all of us from a business-to-business [perspective] and those that are running a business [to] consumer [operation], they’ve done a better job at the presentation of the parts, showing the availability. That’s, as Randy said, when your car’s down, I got to get it fixed right now — how fast can that installer get the part? The installer likes to use our business-to-business tools to find the part, find out where we have it and get it ordered.”
And those learnings from the business-to-consumer side have been translating well to the B2B side of things,
Taking learning from the business-to-consumer side and translating them over to the B2B side has been successful, Leimenstoll observed.
“There’s been a good crossover between our business-to-consumer — things that we’ve learned, the information that’s required, the data that we feed out and bringing that over to our business-to-business side is really starting to pay off,” he said. “[On] the business-to-business side, we’re seeing more clicks, it’s going up continuously.”
Leimenstoll described three lanes when it comes to e-tailing. “We start off with the buy-online-pick-up-in-store — there’s a very big value in tracking how much of that business shows up in your stores. They’re out looking — they’re just checking to see if you have it — and they show up in your stores. We’re getting better data all the time on that to see how that’s paying off. And then we’ve ‘buy online, delivered at home,’ ‘buy online, delivered locally.’ And so all of those pieces of the e-tailing are there. Then you got the fulfillment side.”
All three lanes offer teaching opportunities to make your business better and stronger, he added.
“The challenge for us is to put the right amount of the products and the correct products in striking distance of the installers in a cost-efficient manner.”
Better support in a new normal
Automotive aftermarket distributors are looking for help on many issues from their supplier partners. Those providing that help are providing “tremendous value,” said Mauro Cifelli, president and CEO of Groupe Del Vasto.
While suppliers might be seeing a return to normal on their end of things, he pointed out at AIA Canada’s National Conference that ‘normal’ may mean one thing for suppliers but there’s a ‘new normal’ distributors are facing.
“In our case as the distributor, what that means is we are compensating for all of the volatility that’s in our supply chain,” he said at during the session Focus on the future – Industry leaders’ panel. “Inventories are sky high, our carrying costs are up and we’re trying to manage labour, we’re investing in technology and innovation to try to keep up with it with some of the volatility in the supply chain.”
Without the likelihood of returning to an ‘old normal,’ Cifelli called on suppliers and distributors to work closer together and collaborate more.
“As distributors, we’re going to continue to invest in transforming our business — that’s going to be critical,” Cifelli said.
Jasna Smiljcic, senior director and country leader with Gates Canada, noted that while there’s a lot of competition based on research and development, she wants to see more partnerships at the distribution level.
Change and adapting to change will always be there, she stressed.
Furthermore, if suppliers are wondering how to make themselves more appealing to distributors amid a growth of private brand popularity, Washbish has a simple answer: Provide better support.
“You suppliers that support your brands with feet in the street, standard training programs, etc., those are the things our technician customers like to have and like to hear,” he said. “So we are the champion of your brands, of the national supplier brands. Those are the ones that we would prefer to sell. We’d rather sell your name brand all day long.”
Technicians will ask the most important question with just four words: “What’s in the box?” Answering that question goes a long way to helping sell products, Leimenstoll said.
“When we’re talking to the independent service provider, that matters to them,” he explained. “And I think that’s something that all of us could do a better job with in making sure that we’re talking about: ‘When you open when you open my brand box, this is what you’re going to get and this is what you can expect.’”
And no matter how deflating it can feel at times, keep offering training.
“We just got to keep pounding it,” Leimenstoll said. “And I know sometimes it’s hard when we’re out selling training, and you walk in the room, there are only 20 people sitting there and there should be 200. But we’re going to keep pounding, you’re going to keep pounding, we got to get the training out there.”
“As an organization, how do you try to beat the big guy? You got to do something they can do. And I think [there’s] only one thing you can do.”
Big box competition
The challenge for the aftermarket is that they’re up against competitors from outside the traditional sandbox. Their digital presentation is slick. They may sell their parts for less. They come with big-name swagger.
For Leimenstoll, he stressed that the distributor’s advantage is having consistency when it comes to the people managing the relationship with the independent service provider and getting them closer to them than a big box player could.
“As an organization, how do you try to beat the big guy? You got to do something they can do. And I think [there’s] only one thing you can do,” he said. “When they have the same brand sitting there for 25 per cent less, that’s a little bit of a challenge in the fact that it’s going to start compressing the margins. And we’re seeing that right now. So ultimately, I think we’re sticking to our game plan.”
He also pointed out that distributors can do better on the value-added services, particularly training.
“It’s still a hand-to-hand combat location game. And if you’re in the right place, and you got the part and you have the relationship, you can win this game,” Leimenstoll further observed.
And the relationship becomes even more important as consolidation goes through much of the aftermarket.
“It’s still a hand-to-hand combat location game. And if you’re in the right place, and you got the part and you have the relationship, you can win this game.”
“For us, the two places that we get concerned about are not in our space. It’s the space above us, the vendors — the consolidation that’s happening there, which has taken some good vendors that maybe ain’t so good anymore — and then the consolidation underneath us with the professional installers,” he said.
Buller said he was “pretty confident” that the playbook for distributors will help them win at the end of the day. Of course, this isn’t an easy business. There are challenges — be they new ones or consistent ones — that come up every year. But this sector isn’t alone in having hurdles in its way.
“We make our adjustments on the fly. And I think I think the retailers are going to have their big share of problems competing with all of us as well. So I don’t think they’re sitting on the other side of the fence going, ‘This is easy. We’re just taking candy from a baby here.’ So I don’t think that’s going on either,” Buller said. “So I think it’s a fair fight. I think we’re all doing pretty good.”
This story originally appeared in the July issue of Jobber News