Article > Editor’s Note

VIN: These Three Letters are the DNA of an Automobile

By Mark Phillips

Mark Phillips

I was fortunate to be part of Leadership 2.0, a 2-week-long set of courses at the University of the Aftermarket at Northwood University. The first week-long set of courses was held September 2008 in Midland, Mich. The group of 25 of us returned in April to complete our coursework.

It’s a great opportunity to not only meet with other aftermarket professionals, but more importantly, discuss some hot-button issues that are on our minds. It just so happened, that the coursework included making a presentation in front of the class that aimed to solve what we believe to be an industry problem. The class of 25 was broken into five groups of five. I was grouped with a manager of parts stores and a repair shop owner, among others, and it didn’t take long to get to a discussion of VIN.

To me, and everyone else we talked to, it seems counterproductive to rely on several sources of information just to find the correct part for an automobile. For example, during our research on creating a fully VIN-assisted catalog, we posed the question of how to find brake rotors for a particular 1999 Ford F-150 using current aftermarket cataloging. As anyone reading this knows, it’s not as easy as it sounds. There’s a whole slew of questions that need to be answered to find the exact rotors. For example, are they 5-,7-, or 8-lug? Is it for an F-150 with two-wheel or four-wheel ABS?

But when someone looks up the rotors in the Ford Microcat, what do they see? A blue highlight telling them exactly which part to grab. What’s the difference between the OE and aftermarket cataloging? It’s the information fed into each. It’s the VIN.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the manner in which an aftermarket catalog operates. But to be the best it can be, it needs true VIN information. Lookup without VIN is harder than it has to be.
VIN is the best way to ensure the aftermarket is getting the most complete information regarding parts. VIN is truly the DNA of an automobile.

It simply tells a vehicle’s story from the ground up. The question is, what’s the best way to go about getting full VIN information?

One possible avenue is to continue cooperative efforts with the OEs in hopes that one day a deal will be struck that will give us the information we need.

There’s never been a more appropriate time to seek this information. An estimated 2,000  new car dealerships are expected to close in 2009 alone. And with those closings will go the repair bays that some motorists mistakenly believe they have to rely on for warranty work.

The aftermarket can make a compelling argument that given the state of the automotive manufacturing industry and the rapid closing of new car dealerships and repair bays, that it’s never been more important to have unfettered aftermarket access to VIN.

There’s another way. The aftermarket could seek VIN through a modified version of Right to Repair legislation. Getting VIN through legislation certainly won’t be easy, but the rewards are definitely worth it. I think it’s obvious we all would benefit by the VIN, the whole VIN and nothing but the VIN. But what’s the best way to go about it?  

  Previous Comments
avatar   Wolfe   star   8/8/2009   10:43 AM

I have a super crazy idea (which means it will never work). Let's put the VIN into a barcode that is stamped on all registrations. This way, the customer just has to pull out a little piece of paper, have it scanned, and then they don't have to complain about trying to find it. Because unfortunately, when you ask a customer for their VIN, even though you can find it on the registration for them, they feel obligated to be the one to give it to you. If you tell them "I can get it off your registration," you are unintentionally insulting their intelligence. If you ask to scan the barcode though, they feel less stupid (basically).

avatar   Paul   star   7/20/2009   6:52 PM

I understand your concern, Terry, but customers will still need an experienced counterperson to help them figure out what part is needed. The VIN will just help to make sure it's the RIGHT PART.

avatar   terry   star   6/26/2009   3:04 PM

Our local GM parts counter won't sell a quart of oil unless you give them a VIN. If it is coming to the aftermarket it should be used as an option, not a requirement. When everything goes to VIN and high school dropouts replace countermen with 30 years of experience who is going to help the customer who only knows "It's a 350!"?

avatar   Olin   star   6/8/2009   3:36 PM

As a former Ford Tech, and currently a part-time parts counter person and full-time Technical Writer, I would say the VIN information would be nice to have. The bigger problem I see with part descriptions in catalogs--both electronic and printed--are inconsistent descriptions. I expect that between different suppliers, but it is really frustrating when it is the same supplier. Examples include providing one rotor/drum dimension in standard, and the other in metric---either use one or the other, or both! Other examples include cap and rotor descriptions, some of them tell you it is for a clip on or screw on cap, but need a build date for the rotor. And last, but not least, when a description is being written, put yourself in the customers place--what is going to be the easiest way for them to identify the part?

avatar   Dave Elliott   star   6/3/2009   8:38 AM

More and more we see the need for VIN in our stores. The instances of wrong parts are more common than we like to think about. If we had VIN it would do away with this, so long as the vehicle has not been modified. We do have VIN on our e-catalog at O'Reilly but it doesn't do as much for us as it could. Many of our customers want to give you the VIN but there is no code reference in the lookup. Then others, when asked for it, hem and haw about giving it to us. They don't care how many trips it takes to get the right part.

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