I vividly remember walking the AAPEX trade show floor in 1999, staring down at my long list of companies I wanted to visit. Normally, the list of companies I try to see are the ones you'd expect at an aftermarket trade show: well-known manufacturers and suppliers. But for this show, there were a bunch of names on my list I had never heard of, names like Autovia, Glopex and Sparkhorse.
They were the Internet companies, and they had invaded the automotive parts business, just as they had invaded every other business. Pets, furniture, food - and of course, auto parts - were all going to be revolutionized by the Internet.
Well, as we all know, that didn't happen. However, it was an exciting and somewhat confusing time. In one episode of The Simpsons aired at the time, Homer excitedly mentions to Marge, "Did you know that they have the Internet on computers now?"
In the beginning, it was almost technology for its own sake. As it turned out, it was probably just the wrong business model for the right technology.
The application of any new technology goes through a natural lifecycle. Early adopters will always exist. Gaining broad acceptance of a technology is really the tough part. I was an early adopter of satellite radio, for example, but as XM and Sirius are finding, gaining more general acceptance is a tough hurdle indeed. I love my satellite radio, but will a large enough portion of the population love it too? Time, as always, will tell. Often (but not always) the best technologies eventually win converts.
Such as it has been with the Internet. We look back with almost a sense of nostalgia when we hear a quaint, turn-of-the-century term such as the "Information Superhighway." Today, it is a robust, common tool that people and businesses use for pretty specific purposes - maybe not for food, maybe not for pets, but it's looking pretty good for auto parts.
This month's feature article, Getting Connected: Managing Technology Through Parts Store Management, covers how the Internet is changing the way repair shops order parts and how parts stores are sourcing parts. It's pretty cool technology that's not in widespread use, but it's catching on with some of the more progressive installers and distributors in the market. Things have certainly changed since those early days of the Internet. Today, I routinely buy things on the Internet, and correspondingly, businesses are doing more business through it. At the Global Automotive Aftermarket Symposium in May, a panel of repair shop owners said that they order about 70 percent of their parts from their local distributors over the Internet - it's just easier and faster. They are the early adopters and for them, time wins over technology. (It's not technology for its own sake.)
And isn't that what will ultimately determine how fast Internet parts ordering adoption spreads? How does technology make business better, faster or more efficient? It has always been a powerful tool, but that's all it is - a tool. To give it purpose and meaning, it needs to be used in a greater context, a context that the industry is beginning to understand.