Okay, so you've just placed an Internet parts order! Just to show you how far we've come in the past decade, most veteran mechanics remember the old parts stores, the ones with the dirty windows, the cluttered floors and the greasy parts counters.
When you wanted a part, you described what you wanted to an elderly gentleman who casually strolled to the "back room" to pull the part out of a bin or off a musty shelf and then carefully jotted the item down on a hand-written invoice. If you ran a shop, you got the mechanic's discount; if you were an unfamiliar face off the street, you paid the full-tilt price. Heaven help you if you didn't really know what you wanted, because the old counterman would give you an icy, quizzical stare that said they didn't tolerate fools.
Needless to say, our industry has came a long way in parts acquisition and, fortunately for us, many Internet parts wholesalers have followed in the footsteps of the stodgy, old-time jobber stores by selling parts only to professional repair shops and doing so in a very cost-effective and expeditious manner.
Having said that, it's not hard to see why today's "hot ticket" in parts distribution is ordering parts over the Internet. Several technical developments, such as the spread of high-speed Internet service, have helped 24 hour, seven days per week, on-line ordering become a reality for many repair shops, not to mention the ever-increasing dependability of air freight and parcel delivery services.
At least one company has re-invented national parts distribution by supplying same-day (depending upon locality) and overnight parts service on some very hard-to-find import parts. Of course, since these folks now have their reputations firmly established, they are branching out into domestic parts as well.
But, nothing is perfect. Recently, my local jobber demonstrated the efficiency of his new Internet supplier by ordering a brake master cylinder for a late-model Hyundai. Despite the odds, the supplier's electronic catalog pulled up a valid part number, located the cylinder and promised an overnight delivery. Human error being what it is, the master cylinder ended up on a loading dock somewhere in the continental United States instead of the jobber's counter the next day. Oh well, we can't have it all, can we?
But there's more potential to the Internet distribution story than just same-day or overnight delivery. Although several large programmed distributors offer a wide variety of services via the Internet, I never realized the potential of the Internet in parts distribution until I began building a new, extremely "trick" engine for our hill climb racer this winter. While searching for specialized parts and information, I discovered that speed equipment suppliers have developed Internet sales into a very fine art. Do you need a tool to check the distributor gear mesh on a small block Chevrolet? One's available; you just have to know which supplier to contact. The same goes for other specialty tools such as a camshaft timing tool or piston compression ratio measuring tool (both of which were designed by the racing great, Smokey Yunick).
But if the speed equipment catalogs are any example, the possibilities of Internet cataloging for the automotive service industry are endless. Instead of posting camshaft specifications, one of our camshaft manufacturer's Internet catalogs posted a technical hot line phone number at which we could presumably find the timing tag information for the camshaft under consideration. Of course, telephone calls are highly inconvenient for Internet folks.
Cruising through the various Internet catalogs, I found one supplier who had supplied the basic timing specifications for this particular brand of camshaft as well as all of the specifications I wanted, such as lobe lift, lobe centers and intake lobe centers. Other speed equipment sites offered formulas for calculating carburetion air flow, compression ratios, and other vital data. Still others got into the nitty-gritty of how to make a garden-variety engine go fast. In short, the speed merchants not only helped you choose which part you wanted, but also sold the tools and information needed to install the part. Talk about wrap-around service!
Why order from the Internet and not from an over-the counter supplier? Let's face it; the traditional jobber is still a long way from becoming a marketing dinosaur. We need traditional jobbers for our minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour parts and supply needs. After all, nobody can afford to wait for an overnight shipment of one-eighth inch by two cotter pins. Jobbers do well supplying routine maintenance parts like timing belts and brake shoes, which, by the way, are also available through their respective Internet ordering systems. And, of course, there's always the personal, one-on-one service that can't be easily beaten by distant voices speaking from distant places.
But when we're getting into complex jobs that might take several days, waiting for an overnight order might be an advantage instead of an inconvenience. It's an advantage because the part might be a slow-moving OE-numbered part that the Internet supplier can ship from a national warehouse on a same-day basis whereas the earliest a local dealership might see the part is several days after it's ordered. As often the case, the rarer the part, the more efficient the Internet supplier becomes in the eyes of the professional installer.
BELLS AND WHISTLES
But, let's look at the future. Just about every parts distribution system is molding its plans around Internet distribution. Like the speed equipment manufacturers, traditional parts distributors may be looking at how Internet sales will benefit their wholesale purchasers.
To illustrate, we first have to remember that, via the Internet, the wholesale purchaser has now become his own counterperson. That might be good because some of the larger independent shops now operate their own parts department and procurement program.
Consequently, if we're ordering a part for a 1996 2.5-liter Chrysler Sebring LXi, we immediately discover that it may make a difference whether the LXi is an LXi convertible or an LXi coupe. The car is parked on the shop floor, so we can immediately identify model variations and we can immediately jot down the OE part number from the old part.
Several things are happening here. First, the shop becomes more efficient at parts procurement because it begins dealing with cataloging issues and eccentricities on a daily basis. Second, the parts ordering process becomes more efficient because the required information is immediately at hand. Last, error is reduced because a third or fourth party is eliminated from the procurement process.
It might sound unbelievably Utopian, but Internet parts distribution has the potential to change the whole independent automotive service industry simply because the Internet is very good at locating and transmitting information. Let's use our imaginations a little to visualize some of the changes coming down the road.
First, an Internet supplier has the capability of including a picture of the needed part to hasten identification. Thus, a Ford Delta Pressure Feedback EGR (DPFE) sensor that is listed in the catalog simply as an EGR valve pressure sensor can be readily identified via a built-in illustration. And, let's take the DPFE sensor issue a step further. Let's say that the supplier includes the voltage values and basic testing procedure via a button included with the DPFE sensor cataloging. Let's also imagine that the supplier might include the appropriate technical service bulletins associated with DPFE sensor failures and perhaps list the OE numbers that have been superceded by the current aftermarket number.
Does that sound like a lot to ask from any supplier, let alone an Internet supplier? Not really, because we must remember that we're shopping on what we used to call the Information Highway. Unlike paper cataloging, modern DSL connections permit extremely rapid access to all types of information. The TSBs and superceded numbers could be quickly pulled up by a few keyboard taps.
Does immediate access to service information seem insignificant in our current scheme of things? Not hardly, because model identification, parts identification and technical service information are part and parcel of any modern replacement part transaction. Aside from 24/7 service, information might be the only thing that separates the future from the past for Internet parts distribution.