On my way to grab a cup of coffee in the store one morning, I walked behind our sales counter and observed one of our newer countermen looking rather perplexed.
He was staring at a computer screen, holding the phone like a hammer, ready to give the computer monitor a good whack. Seeing that an attack on the defenseless monitor was imminent, I asked if there was a problem.
"You guys have so many places that you have to look to find a part, it's almost overwhelming," he said, exasperated.
Although that was an honest statement made by a new employee, it could have just as easily been made by any seasoned veteran of our counter. This particular new employee came to us from one of our "big box" competitors that handled more domestic parts than import parts. With his previous employer, all of the parts information was primarily found on one screen. Now working for an import specialist, he was discovering the necessity of using as many as six or eight different sites to search for data to find what his customers were requesting.
Where most domestic parts are identified easily by year, make and model, an import specialist must use this information and the vehicle identification number, or chassis number, supplied by the manufacturer to identify proper replacement parts. These additional numbers help the import specialist determine the unique characteristics of specific models that influence which replacement parts will be correct for an individual application.
This is especially important when dealing with Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen applications. A single chassis number on a Mercedes-Benz model tells the import specialist the origin of manufacture of that vehicle and can identify the model as "standard," or "gray market." This determination is extremely important in providing customers the correct parts for their vehicles.
A couple of my friends are mechanics for a major airline. In this line of work, every part they install must be exactly like the one they took off, in every way. Fit, form, function and appearance are all very important. When they describe their maintenance procedures to me, it reminds me of the many conversations I have had when making sales calls on import-specialist installers. Both the airline technician and the import specialist installer value - and demand - parts that are exact replacements.
Most of my thirty-five years in the parts business has been spent working with companies that focused on the domestic side of the automotive aftermarket. I have made thousands of sales calls on installers who work primarily on domestic vehicles. Compared to their import technician brethren, at no time did I ever sense the same degree of urgency about the appearance, fit, form and function characteristics of the parts I offered them. If the distributor cap I sold to a domestic installer was blue or black, it didn't matter, as long as it fit and worked. If a wheel cylinder was natural cast or painted, as long as it worked, they installed it.
True import specialist installers are not so accepting of aftermarket parts that are merely similar to the ones they are replacing. That's why for so many years, import specialist installers learned that OE dealers were one of the best choices for parts because they provided identical replacements.
The difficulties associated with identifying, stocking and selling import parts is why they have never been prominent in the majority of auto parts stores. Besides, there never used to be so many imports, so it wasn't worth paying a lot of attention to them.
Today, it's a different story. Sales of new domestic models are declining, while the sales of import vehicles are increasing rapidly. As Ford continues to work with Mazda; General Motors with Toyota and Chrysler with Mitsubishi, all of the lines are being crossed and everyone is thinking imports.
Very recently, a major import parts distributor was acquired by a well-known distributor of aftermarket parts. The news of this acquisition certainly got the attention of the whole aftermarket, but none more than those companies that had not addressed the issues of the import specialist market. Suddenly, every major aftermarket organization is interested in what is required to capitalize on this important segment of our industry.
Several weeks ago, I was asked if some members of our import group, S.I.P.S. (Society of Import Parts Specialists) could make a presentation to the members of APA. The purpose of the presentation was to familiarize their members with some of the challenges they will face in the future, as many of them will become more involved in serving installers who will be working on import vehicles. How do you describe a lifetime of differences in a one-hour presentation?
When the presentation was over, one person said, "That doesn't sound like it's so different from what we do now. Besides, we're not that fussy." Another commented, "That difference in packaging really isn't important to us."
Remember, it's not about what is important to the parts distributor, it's about what is important to the import specialist installer.
Import parts specialist have been around since the first British models hit our shores. Many more import parts distributors were born when traditional parts distributors ignored the opportunity presented by the influx of Volkswagen Beetles in the fifties, and later by the introduction of the earliest Datsun and Honda models. Today, the expansion of import models is global, with no end in sight. Every American model of automobile is influenced by import design, or manufacturing technique. They are definitely here to stay.
That's great, because import specialists across the country are prepared and ready to serve the needs of the people who will repair all of them.