Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2009   by Auto Service World

Knowledge Building: Free-Cat’s Out Of The Bag

There are few issues that have as great an impact on the aftermarket as cataloguing. This is not new. A great catalogue has past, proven to be a key competitive advantage for some industry players over the years. When paper was king, the companies that could get the best, most accurate catalogues in the hands of counterpeople and technicians first were sure to get the lion’s share of the business.

Those catalogues, weighty and expensive as they may be, also serve as advertising for the brands they carry, and they give reps a solid reason for a visit. Who’s going to refuse to see a rep who has an important tool to offer you for free?

Today, while paper catalogues still form an important part of the resources at hand, the emphasis has shifted to the electronic. Two key electronic catalogue suppliers–Activant and Wrenchead (WHI)–supply the bulk point-of-sale system providers with the software engine to power their lookups. Rinax, for example, gets its catalogue module from Wrenchead; Carrus gets its from Activant.

In a process that has been described as bureaucratic, parts and application data from scores of manufacturers–Activant says it has listings from nearly 1,600 manufacturers–is fettled into the correct standard format with pictures, packaging data, and labour times, and is then poured into any number of systems.

However, the time lag to perform these functions has been recognized as an issue for some time, leading some jobbers (particularly in Canada) to continue to rely on paper catalogues that are more current, and leading some manufacturers to resort to their own short-circuiting of the electronic system with CD mailings to ensure that their all-important new applications get out to the marketplace as quickly as possible.

And it is into this arena that Free-Cat was let out of the bag.

“This is a manufacturer-driven initiative,” says Bob Moore, the director of Free-Cat. “If you go back in time, in the pre-electronic catalogue days manufacturers had the responsibility of getting the data together and getting it out to the market.

What we are looking to do with Free-Cat is to recapture that responsibility.”

As Moore indicates, the not-for-profit Free-Cat organization was initiated by a group of automotive parts manufacturers–and quite a group it is.

The founding companies include Affinia, Bosch, A-1 Cardone, Dayco, Federal-Mogul, Gates, Standard Motor Products, and Tenneco.

“What has happened is that a variety of different people have gotten into the catalogue business. A lot of them did positive pioneering work, but the problem that we are suffering from is that it can take as long, and in some cases longer, to get electronic data into the market as it does to get the paper catalogues out.

“It can take three to six months to get a new part number out and it shouldn’t take that long.”

In fact the stated mandate of the Free-Cat organization is that “Free-Cat is a manufacturer-led, not-for-profit industry association that is dedicated to bringing the most complete and up-to-date product and application data to aftermarket resellers and service dealers, free of charge.”

Moore says that there are a lot of reasons the current ways of creating catalogues exist, but suggests that technology now available allows manufacturers who create the application data to, in essence, turn the clock back.

“This was an attempt to have the manufacturers go back to the way we used to do it,” he says–to, in a phrase, take control of delivering the application data to the marketplace in the way that they used to, and still do, deliver paper catalogues.

However, Moore is also quick to point out that it is not a lock-stock-and-barrel replacement for the fully functional e-catalogues that populate the computer systems of the aftermarket. And, he says, it’s not designed as a direct competitor to what Activant or Wrenchead have to offer. (Neither Activant nor Wrenchead chose to comment on Free-Cat for this article.)

Instead, it is a tool that the market can use in tandem with these other systems. “This becomes a research tool for the mechanic or counterperson who gets frustrated because he can’t find the application in his system.”

What Free-Cat does do is provide as up-to-date data as possible. It does this by providing participating manufacturers with a simple upload interface to a central database that is updated daily.

“Right now the position is that this is a research utility that enables parts counterpeople, buyers, warehouse distributors, and mechanics in the bay to get the most recent, most up-to-date information on a timely basis.”

What counterperson has not at least occasionally been frustrated at the difficulty of finding application data for a late-model vehicle, only to find later that the correct parts were sitting on the shelf, or having to scour several websites to find what part number a new application might need.

The point of Free-Cat is to provide an up-to-date parts lookup utility to the market that should reduce both the time required to locate those parts, and improve the success ratio of that inquiry.

According to Ed Rammel, a vice-president at Dayco Products, Inc. and the chairman of Free-Cat, “The founders of Free-Cat believe that electronic catalogues should be like their paper cousins: available to everyone in the aftermarket, free of any charges or fees. That is best accomplished when the data creators (the manufacturers) assume the responsibility and the expense for creating accurate electronic catalogues as they do with their paper books, then go a step farther and aggregate everything into a single electronic catalogue.” Rammel suggests that no one is in a better position or has more of a vested interest in the quality and timeliness of the data than its originator.

He explained that Free-Cat represents a simple solution to a very complex problem. Today, manufacturers can get parts into the channel faster than the information needed to look them up and sell them. Technicians need that information more quickly to avoid missing a sale or having to resort to the OE dealer as a source. “Regardless of the role you play in our independent aftermarket supply chain, Free-Cat will increase sales of new numbers and existing numbers that carry forward to new applications,” Rammel says.

Beyond its primary use by the market, the lookup utility is also being made available to developers for a fee. This allows it to be used as the “engine” to drive a more fully functional electronic catalogue and point-of-sale system. And the work is continuing to recruit more manufacturers.

“We are making an effort to use the standards to get as much data out to the marketplace as quickly and accurately as we can,” says Moore.

“This is not a competitive threat. Nobody is trying to put any established data provider out of business. What we are trying to do is go back to the way it used to be.

“Now, we have a proliferation of catalogues, and everyone of those wants the data in a [slightly] different format.

“Wouldn’t it make more sense if there was just one format that the manufacturers funded and that everyone could use for free?”

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