Auto Service World
Feature   November 1, 2005   by Andrew Ross

E-Catalogue Controversy

Why is there still so much paper on the counter?

Peer out of your office at the counter that forms the front line of your jobber store, and it is likely that you will see nearly as many paper catalogues there as were present in the pre-computer age.

There is no question that the promise of e-cataloguing, in terms of efficiency and potential cost savings for everyone up and down the distribution chain, is attractive. Suppliers of the systems have not been reluctant to talk about the advantages, and few jobbers will disagree that advantages are there.

Yet the reliance on paper persists.

“The number one reason is that you have counter personnel who have been in the parts business for 25 or 30 years, and they have learned to work with paper,” says Wayne Heimpel, owner of Heimpel Automotive in Kitchener, Ont. The Bestbuy shareholder has been on the e-catalogue bandwagon for some years. In fact the current system on his counter, an Amador system catalogue, will be the third e-cat he has had in his business.

He says that jobbers struggle with the human factor; reluctance to rely on the computer screen is no small issue. “I have been to jobber stores where they have said the only way to fix that is to pull the books off the counter for a month and make them use the e-catalogue in order to break the habit.”

Heimpel says that habit is a key reason many jobbers aren’t relying more heavily on their e-cat resources. “I myself probably go about 50/50.”

But there is more limiting the penetration of e-catalogues in Canadian jobber stores than just habit. After all, if they have been around for so long, surely they could have become second nature by now if it weren’t for other factors.

“There are certainly lines that are a lot easier to use the e-catalogue for,” and some that aren’t, he says. Plus, when a technician calls and doesn’t have the complete information–make, model, year, and engine–it is sometimes easier to check among the options on paper to see if it makes a difference.

In the e-cat world, it is certainly easier to put multi-part orders together. Instead of going to a half a dozen books, you can pull it all together onscreen, generate the pick order and the invoicing, a streamlining of processes that can only add to a counterperson’s efficiency.

However, most agree that it is a not a replacement for an experienced counterperson– despite what an overzealous representative might have told a jobber, or at least how the benefits communicated to that jobber might have been interpreted.

“Having seen it from many sides, I can tell you that catalogue developers sell this as a way to reduce your counter staff salaries by replacing the experienced guys with inexperienced guys,” explains Antonio Ramos, assistant manager, Aftermarket Sales and Service, Denso Manufacturing Canada. Having worked in the aftermarket for some years before recently moving to Denso, he has had the opportunity to see the situation from the manufacturer’s and jobber’s standpoint.

“Whenever I am out and about, I take a look into different types of parts supply operations. Whenever I see a really young person at the counter I go in and ask for a few parts. You would be amazed at how they take whatever they find on the computer in front of them to be the gospel truth about everything. Press them for more information that is not on the computer screen, and they fall apart, get defensive, and tell you to look it up on the Internet.” Ramos says that, to his mind, that kind of approach does nothing for the aftermarket.

Check any experienced counterperson’s catalogue rack and you’ll find highlighted part numbers, notations and changes in the margins, and the occasional interchange suggestions. Though e-cat systems can provide similar note and comment functions, many counterpeople aren’t as comfortable with that process. That is a key reason why some are so tied to paper: they know the process and the format so well. It is second nature.

However, for a new generation of counterpeople, that is becoming true of the e-cat as well.

“There are those who swear by [the e-cat],” says Peter Quattro, president of CAPP Associates. “For efficiency, you can’t be using paper catalogues. There is no question that with the customer-connection environment, these catalogues have to be accurate.”

Total reliance on the e-cat, however, does not appear to be an overriding issue in Canada for reasons of both habit, as noted, and reality. Reasonable expectations of what an e-cat can do for a business include an improvement in efficiency (fewer keystrokes to retype) greater accuracy, and a more easily integrated connection with customers.

All of these things weigh in favour of the e-cat. The factors that have held it back are significant, however.

One of the most quizzical realities of the e-cat in Canada has been that paper catalogues have, traditionally, been more up-to-date than the e-cats. Jobbers with e-cats have often relied on paper catalogues for late model applications, while they await the inclusion of those applications in the e-cat sometimes more than a year later.

“It depends on the catalogue, but jobbers have known that it could be anywhere from 18 to 24 months behind [the paper]. So jobbers need to keep those paper catalogues on the counter to get those late model applications,” says Bob Worts, sales manager, Carrus Technologies.

One might think that the process of getting the data to a jobber on a disk might be easier and faster than having it collected in a catalogue art department, getting electronic files delivered to the printer, printed, collated, bound, shipped to a mailing house, reshipped to a WD or Rep, then forwarded to you, the jobber. One might think that, but it ain’t necessarily so.

The short answer is that manufacturers have a lot of experience making catalogues. They have only been making a concerted effort to provide e-cat data for a relatively short time. The first industry standard format, the Automotive Aftermarket Industries Association (AAIA) Electronic Catalogue Standards was only introduced in 1997, and that standard needed some work before it really, well, worked.

“There was some confusion on the part of manufacturers and electronic catalogue developers that held unreliable data,” says Khalid Mouallem, Amador Business Computers. “People who tried to use cataloguing within the first three or four years after the initial release of the AAIA standards may have had a bad experience and have been reluctant to try again.”

That reality is unfortunate, because things are rapidly improving, says Steve Bieszczat, vice-president information services for system and e-cat provider Activant Solutions Inc.

“Manufacturers have better electronic data available. They seem to be taking it much more seriously. We’re getting much more sophisticated data to work with.”

In touring the U.S., he sees more and more businesses taking a comprehensive, e-catalogue approach to selling. “There are very few parts sold out of a paper catalogue. If you took the number of transactions, it would probably be 80% to 85% out of the e-cat.”

A large part of the ability to see this kind of reality, and greater utility in the near future, has been the introduction of the AAIA Catalogue Enhanced Standard (ACES) standard in 2003, a standard that has itself seen significant enhancements in its short life.

“The ACES standard worked out quite well. And so we produce a lot of ACES data. We used to breathe hard when it came in, but now we don’t even notice it.” While it is not quite seamless just yet, it is close, and getting faster.

Rather than the e-cat being an afterthought, he says, it is becoming an integrated part of the catalogue process. “More and more, we are seeing updates that are clearly not tied to a paper catalogue production cycle. There is an emerging trend toward sending us updates monthly or bimonthly. They don’t wait for the paper anymore.”

An additional piece of good new particularly for jobbers in Canada is that the lag time they had experienced for Canadian data is disappearing.

“Canadian jobbers have seen less utility there than the U.S. as a result of the considerably less image, or cover to cover, availability as compared to the U.S.,” says Tony Alderdice, North American sales manager, who manages Canadian sales for Activant. He acknowledges that the depth and timeliness of information for Canadian users was not at the same level as their U.S. counterparts. That, he says, has now effectively become a thing of the past.

“It has really only been in effect since April or May. Canadians are no longer second-class citizens when it comes to catalogue data.” He says that the ability to get simultaneous release of Canadian and U.S. data is tied into the ACES and Product Information Exchange Standards (PIES), that only took effect in the last two years.

“So basically it’s as if, from an Activant standpoint, there is a whole new animal from a process and updates standpoint. No longer is the Canadian data lagging behind the U.S.”

This isn’t to say that every jobber in Canada can take advantage of the new tools, which brings up another issue.

He says that about 32% of the Canadian aftermarket employs legacy, non-internet ready systems, a statistic that considers all point-of-sale system providers.

“It comes down to the fact that we are trailing the U.S. in the adoption of new technology,” says Alderdice. And similar statistics reflect the slower adoption of CD- and DVD-ready systems that can take advantage of the data and illustrations, leaving jobbers with these older systems out of luck when it comes to fully up-to-date e-cataloguing.

“No wonder they still have catalogues on the counter.”

But those systems won’t last forever. “The legacy systems in the marketplace have just about run their course,” says Activant’s Bieszczat. “You know when you have a comfortable pair of jeans and just about that time you put your knee through them? The systems are just about to that point.”

There are, it should be clear, a number of intertwined issues that keep paper in common usage: everything from the silicon and metal computer platforms to the flesh and blood technology that uses them.

“When we first got into cataloguing we realized that there were some individuals who would just never use them no matter what they were like,” says Jerry Fugina, Rinax Computer Systems. “There are still some expert counterpeople who are still expert at looking parts up in paper catalogues. They will still do that no matter whose e-catalogue they have.

“It will change as the younger guys come up who grew up with computers. They aren’t interested in having a parts job unless there is an electronic catalogue. They just don’t want to look in paper all day.

“And, whether the counterperson uses one can depend on a lot of things. It can depend on the mix of vehicles. If they have a lot of exotics and imports, maybe the electronic catalogue they have doesn’t have extensive coverage in exotics and imports. Electronic catalogues are typically better at mainstream parts and mainstream vehicles.

“Some with a lot of domestic vehicles, cars and light truck, will do particularly well using the electronic cataloguing more. But, we have some customers who have significant business in heavy truck. You are going to see those guys looking in paper catalogues.”

So, it seems, answering the question “Why is there still so much paper on the counter?” isn’t simple. There are ample reasons why the paper catalogue is still here, and equally compelling reasons why it is a medium that will become less and less in demand.

“In order for this to happen, two things have to take place,” says Amador’s Mouallem. “First, warehouses and jobbers need to get rid of their green screens and go with PCs or Windows terminals so they can see more than just the part number (i.e. images, diagrams, specs, installation instructions, etc).

“The second is that electronic catalogue developers and manufacturers need to concentrate on getting this information out to the warehouses and jobbers. The AAIA PIES standard allows for this type of data to be transmitted electronically along with AAIA catalogue data. To date, very little of this information has made it to the warehouses and jobbers.”

“You can’t do paper anymore,” offers Bieszczat. “You look up the parts, and it flows to the invoice. You can’t rely on paper; it’s just not efficient enough. On the e-cat you can see three brands at once and three prices at once. You can’t do that with paper.”

And even the best e-cat is no replacement for a good counterperson. “It’s not an either/or situation,” says Heimpel. “You still have to have a feeling for the vehicles and what engine should be under the hood and what the most popular parts are.”

There will probably always be some paper catalogues on the counter, in the same way there will always be a need for a counterperson who knows more than what a catalogue says, electronic or paper.

And, while you shouldn’t put away that catalogue rack just yet, you may want to start planning what to do with that extra counter space.

Online Catalogue Standards Tutorial

The AAIA, which has managed the creations of ACES has an online tutorial on the whys and wherefores of the standard, available at Click on “Technology & Standards” and then on “ACES” to reach the presentation.

ACES has come a long way since its introduction in 2003. The progress continues, as ACES 2006, targeted for release in January, will extend the standard with several additions and other enhancements. Below are some changes and enhancements to the ACES format.

Recent ACES releases:

* Latest release includes 2006 model-year vehicles and adds more than 75 new part terminologies.

ACES 2006 highlights:

* Qualifier Database (QDB) – Qualifiers tied to the data that can be used to filter the final view.

* Full Validation for 1985 to 2006 vehicles – Ensures only valid vehicle configurations can be coded to ACES data.

* Internationalization – Support of multiple languages and units of measure.

* ACES 2006 extensions add additional value to ACES data without requiring extensive recoding.

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