Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2004   by Andrew Ross, Editor and Publisher

Standard Operating Procedure

Take a quick glance at this issue’s reports on the recent Aftermarket eForum, and you will realize that the conversation is at a whole different level from what many of us fill our days with; computer-speak acronyms were the order of the day.

With very few exceptions–only two that I can think of–nobody even mentioned an auto part. One was a reference during the panel on the paperless warehouse, and another was during a detailed discussion on getting the data exchange standard implemented, a session which, for reasons of space, I had to relegate to the also-ran pile. (There were, in fact, more than a dozen presentations; something had to give.)

Still, that second reference does deserve some mention, as it involved the first product line to be fully integrated into the new Product Information Exchange Standard. That initiative began as a challenge and ended up as a bigger challenge, to see what was required to get a manufacturer’s computers and product data–Dana’s Wix filter line–to talk to a distributor–O’Reilly Auto Parts; and both parties are recognized as being pretty adept on the data front.

Without getting too much into the details, it was clear that all parties in what has become known as the Technology Enabled Standards-Based Trading initiative realized it was going to be a bigger job than they thought.

In the end, it took some 14 months to get the data right, twice as long as expected and at twice the cost. But it was worth it, they say. Remember this was for just one line. In one interesting aside, gaps in data from the supplier were revealed: gaps that made the job of identifying the product more difficult than expected. Little things like the word “filter.” If you work for a filter manufacturer you may not feel the need to state the obvious, but integrate that part into a database with hundreds of thousands of others, and the necessity of stating the obvious should be, well, obvious.

However, the limiting factor in all this great streamlining, cost-saving approach is you, the jobber. In a recently released piece of information, Activant, which has the lion’s share of the installed computer base in the aftermarket, said that approximately half of all the new systems it was putting in were replacing ancient System 12 units.

My question is this: what good is a standard if the guys who sell the products at the end of the chain can’t make use of the data because their computer can’t read it?

I posed this to a number of industry executives at the eForum and was met with varying degrees of concern, ranging all the way from total apathy to lightly veiled scorn for those jobbers who aren’t embracing technology.

While, strictly speaking, the attitude that each jobber is the author of his own destiny is sound, the stakes are too high to dismiss. Sure, each jobber should plan to stay apace of change, but when there are so many jobbers currently ill-equipped to take advantage, it is in the interest of the entire market to at least have a strategy to get you onboard. That, at this stage, seems to be lacking.

Which means it is up to you. Today, right now, pick up the phone and make sure the computer system you have in place can handle the data-exchange standards. If not, find out what needs to be done, and put a plan in place to make the changes. It might cost you some money to get there, but I estimate you have at the very least a couple of years before it will become unavoidable. You had better find out before then.

It is often the case that we talk about agility as the key to success. In this case, it is fortitude. It is going to be a long road, but you have to stick with it. And, considering the pressures facing the aftermarket in terms of parts proliferation and profitability, you should start now.

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