Auto Service World
Feature   October 1, 2006   by J.D. Ney

Are You the One?

As Few As One In Four Jobbers Fully Use Their Associate Program

It has been suggested by those around the industry that fewer than one in four jobbers take full advantage of their associate program, a number that by some accounts is actually getting worse.

What initially started years ago as a way for jobbers to combine forces in terms of buying power within the industry, has in recent years become a vast network of programs and opportunities.

However, it would seem that many jobbers across the country have not really made the adjustments along with their various programs, ignoring or perhaps not even aware of the secondary benefits of which they could be taking advantage.

Some of those underutilized attributes are designed to help jobbers organize and run their business, if they would just let them.

What Jobbers Like About Programs

Associate programs become more intricate and involved as the years pass, constantly seeking to evolve with industry demands and market realities.

Marc Alary, vice-president of marketing for Bestbuy Distributors, outlines some of the major selling points of what his company refers to as a shareholder program.

“Our program brings bottom line profitability to our jobbers,” he says. “Shareholders of Bestbuy can count on ongoing customized marketing solutions, national marketing tools, and big industry promotions.”

Aside from specialized marketing programs aimed either nationally or regionally, some jobbers simply enjoy the sort of local presence and instant reputability gained through a recognizable name brand.

Murray Hunter, regional manager for Uni-Select in the Prairies, speaks largely of choice as being the top criterion for many of the jobbers he deals with. “We really see two very different kinds of entrepreneurs,” he says. “Some guys really want to remain completely independent, while others find that the more centralized program suits them well.” As such, Hunter says Uni-Select has developed two separate programs to handle both kinds of business owner. The first, called the Auto Plus program, operates on what Hunter refers to as a “menu basis,” meaning independent stores can pick and chose which programs to purchase and use. The more expansive Bumper-to-Bumper program is what Hunter calls a “do it for me” model, in that the marketing programs are much more centralized and largely dictated to the jobber by the head office of the Uni-Select network. While the first has the advantage of flexibility, the second garners more in terms of brand recognition.

John Demay of Waterdown Auto Parts, a NAPA store in Flamborough, Ont., feels as though the visibility and brand recognition of his own store is a major advantage.

“Brand identification is a big part of the program,” he says. “Getting everyone on the same program is tough, from the techs to the jobbers. Putting that loop together is a hard thing to do, but our program seems to do it pretty well.” It’s that unifying quality from signage to shirts to labels that can instil in the customer the sense of reliability, and no one would suggest that that it is not a vitally important component of the jobbing business. But as Bob Bobert, general manager of Base Automotive Warehousing in Toronto, Ont., notes in an almost off-hand manner, cost is still one of, if not the major motivator.

“Obviously the primary things like marketing coverage and support along with identification are big selling points, but that’s notwithstanding purchasing power,” he says.

Essentially, while associate programs have long attempted to make themselves into something more than mere drivers of dollars and cents and into educational and promotional tools, it is important not to forget the fundamental importance of an association’s clout in terms of its necessarily larger buying power. It’s not exactly an idealistic or romantic view of today’s programs, but given the participation rates in some of the ancillary offerings, it would appear as though pure cost calculation remains chief among benefits.


Without a doubt, the most woefully ignored component of many associate programs out there today is training and educational seminars. Past reports on associate programs in Jobber News Magazine have found that a mere one in four jobbers actively participate in, or encourage their customers to participate in, the training provided to them as part of their various associations. Sadly, after talking to suppliers across the country, it would appear as though that number has not really changed much.

Bobert is candid in his view on the training side. “It’s like pulling teeth,” he says. “Some guys are in the position to see and realize the value of the training programs, but I think I can count those people on one hand,” he says. For his part, Hunter is slightly more optimistic about training utilization, but still notes some room for improvement. “Training is always a difficult thing, because it really depends on the enthusiasm of the individual jobber,” he says. “We run training programs in 11 different locations, and I would say that seven of them are a great success, but the others are certainly less so.” However, the issue may also stem from factors somewhat beyond the control of the jobbers, the technicians or the program administrators.

Demay cites a reduction in solid counter help as a major contributing factor to his own attendance at training events. While he is quick to point out that he and his staff go as much as possible, they often have to forgo the sessions due to more immediate business concerns. “All across the business, people are having a hard time finding good counterpeople; there is a real help problem,” he says. “If you’re light on people, you had better be in your store, and that takes people away from training chances. This year has really been tough on that kind of thing. We’ve even had to take sales guys off the road to man the counter from time to time,” he says.

Bobert also notes a downturn in both the business as a whole, and the new realities of diminished staff, as part of the problem. “The trend, specifically for the newer shops, is to run a place with two or maybe three guys,” he says. “So, while one guy is manning the store, the other is out making calls or deliveries. Well, that doesn’t leave much time to attend seminars or training sessions. Places like that simply can’t afford to take the time.” Hunter strongly agrees, pointing out, “We find that if the individual jobber is interested, then by large, they will find a way, but if you’re running a shop with one or two guys, then you’re obviously going to have a tough time getting to the sessions.”

Points programs: not redeeming

Much like the booming success of consumer points-gathering initiatives from banks and companies like Air Miles, several programs involve a points-based system whereby accumulated points can be redeemed for anything from branded clothing to electronics. While these types of schemes seem to be proliferating as fast as parts numbers, there also seems to be something of a backlash against them, with some jobbers simply asking to see direct bottom line benefits to program membership, as opposed to an abstract points program.

When asked how well his jobbers responded to points- based programs within his own company, Alary says bluntly, “Not very well. Points programs are of interest to certain people, but we found out that our jobbers prefer the money up front, and most people don’t like the idea of paying someone else to distribute prizes.”

Demay agrees. “Some of our customers like the idea of a points system, so I’ll get involved with them if they want to, but I’m not really a fan,” he says. “For my own business, with the way costs are these days, I’d rather see more immediate help there.” In many programs though, there appears to be some flexibility in providing reward incentives where they are wanted. “Some of our jobbers offer customized incentive programs to their customers, which they found worked best,” adds Alary.

What do jobbers want more of?

While many agree on the points they do like from their various program providers, citing branding, parts subsidies, and others listed above, by contrast each independent shop owner tends to find different points of contention or identifies various areas for improvement. Some, like Adrian Gordon of Gorwood Automotive, a Carquest location in Woodstock, Ont., aren’t even sold on the term “associate.”

“To start, that term associate needs to be banished,” says Gordon. “The business changes, and roles change. More and more, installers are known as service providers, and jobbers are becoming known for being suppliers. Wal-Mart has associates, so I like the term that is being used by Carquest in the States, and increasingly so in Canada, which is independent members,” says Gordon.

Demay also suggests several potential areas of improvement. “They really need to utilize their people on business management a little more,” he says. “There are specialized people in the field that are available to make sure the associates are planning well, but they are usually busy and in very high demand. It would help if the district managers had a better understanding of the jobbing business, and could serve in that kind of an advisory role, as opposed to being just sell, sell, sell,” he says. Demay adds that he appreciates the difficulties of the district manager’s job, given the fiercely independent nature of the business, but that there must be some way around it. “I can see that maybe some people don’t want to divulge their personal business information to a district guy, or even the specialist, but there are lots of guys out there that could really use the help,” he says.

Distributors will continue to push new programs and the added benefits of existing ones, while jobbers will continue to be pressed for time–often at the expense of those added benefits. It seems as though the jobbing business is caught in a self-perpetuating Catch-22. When asked why recommended and offered training programs are poorly attended, many point to the industry as a whole. Bobert suggests, “Business seems to be poor right now, and it’s just tough to convince people to spend any money on outside programs, and I don’t think it’s just us who are seeing that; everyone is having the same kind of year.”

Jobbers in particular will often cite, like John Demay, that there is simply a lack of reliable counter help. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see where good counter help will come from, if young employees are not given the opportunity to improve their own skills, and get the kind of training they need in order to become “reliable counterpeople.”

It’s an issue that the jobbing business is going to have to take very seriously in the coming years, as the older generation has to find replacements.

Hopefully those replacements come from the 25% of people who have been properly trained.

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