Article > Business Operations

Strategies to Decrease Automotive Aftermarket Parts Returns

By Gary Goms

From a jobber’s perspective, nothing is more discouraging at the end of the day than seeing a large pile of returned parts waiting in the “backroom” for processing.
From a jobber’s perspective, nothing is more discouraging at the end of the day than seeing a large pile of returned parts waiting in the “backroom” for processing. No matter how small and inexpensive the part, each represents valuable time spent in looking up the part number, pulling the part from the shelf and perhaps delivering the part to the repair shop.

From my own perspective, I know that most professionals find themselves returning parts for a legitimate reason, such as a customer canceling an appointment. In most cases, this is a normal and acceptable cost of doing business. On the other hand, I’ve seen some professional, and many amateur mechanics, seriously abuse the privilege of returning parts by using a jobber’s inventory to compensate for their own lack of planning and technical expertise.

The real-world cost of restocking or returning parts in a jobber store can easily add up to another staff position or a cost of living increase for existing staff. It’s therefore in everybody’s interest to reduce parts returns as much as possible by adopting a set of strategies that identifies the need for the part, correctly identifies the application for the part, and reduces a shop’s wait time by delivering the part as quickly as possible.

In-house testing can be used as a strategy to reduce electrical parts returns by determining whether the replacement part is needed or not. To illustrate, bench-testing the old battery or starter can be very helpful in determining if that part will solve the customer’s problem or result in still another returned part. Many jobber stores have also prevented warranty returns by adopting a strategy of bench-testing all rotating electrical parts before they leave the store. As simple as electronic battery testing has become, it’s equally as easy to test a new battery before the customer’s own eyes to prove that the battery contains the cold-cranking amperage that’s listed on its label.

In these tough economic times, many DIYs and untrained professionals attempt to diagnose electrical and electronic problems by replacing the part with one from your inventory and then returning that part for credit or warranty if it doesn’t solve the problem. Electric fuel pumps perhaps lead the list of warranty returns, followed by credit or warranty returns for major electronic parts like engine control modules (ECMs) and powertrain control modules (PCMs).

Many jobbers won’t accept electrical and electronic returns simply because a part like an electric fuel pump, PCM or ignition module can easily be damaged by a defective related part or by incorrect installation. If an order is being placed for a relatively slow-moving and expensive electronic part like a PCM, the need for the part should be established by a methodical diagnosis instead of an untrained, intuitive guess.

One strategy for preventing a confrontation over returning an expensive electronic part is to look at the sales history of the part. If the part has a very scant sales history, the best strategy would be to inform the would-be purchaser of that fact and also warn him that the part is non-returnable once it’s removed from its packaging.

Diagnosing a faulty electronic part like a PCM can be a daunting task even for an ASE-Certified Master Automotive Technician with the L1 certification in advanced engine performance, let alone an unskilled and poorly equipped amateur mechanic. Whenever it’s apparent that the DIY is in over his head with an electronic problem, the parts professional should suggest that he seek the help of a qualified professional before gambling his money on the purchase of a non-returnable part.

The modern automotive replacement parts market is incredibly complex and part identification errors can be incredibly expensive. One example I experienced this summer was a misapplication of a replacement powertrain control module (PCM) on a ’96 3.3-liter Dodge Caravan. A retail chain sold the vehicle owner a replacement PCM and returned the original 3.3-liter PCM to rebuilders as a core.

The problem with the replacement PCM was that the engine wouldn’t start due to a lack of spark. By accessing the module identification mode on a professional-grade scan tool, I found that the replacement PCM was configured with one coil driver for a 3.0-liter engine with a distributor and single ignition coil. The original PCM for the 3.3-liter engine, on the other hand, was configured with three coil drivers for a distributorless ignition system with three separate ignition coils.
In short, the parts store lost the original PCM in the core pile and was unable to locate another remanufactured PCM for the 3.3-liter engine application. I found a relatively hard-to-find remanufactured 3.3-liter PCM through a jobber outlet, but the higher base price combined with the missing core charge made it much more expensive than the retail store part. To make matters worse, the replacement modules sent to me by the retail store were incorrect due to cataloging or labeling errors. The last contact I had with the retail store indicated that they were “still working” on the problem they had inadvertently created by not verifying that they had sold the correct PCM for the application.

Going back to the basics, if the store had implemented a strategy of obtaining the correct VIN, date of manufacture, engine type and model of the vehicle in question, the initial mistake might not have been made. If the order was originally placed over the telephone, the counterperson should have confirmed the vehicle identification by repeating the make, model, VIN and part identification to the customer.

In addition, it’s important to never blindly trust cataloging on VIN-sensitive parts like PCMs. The new part should have been physically compared with the old part at the point of sale. In addition, the original equipment (OE) part number should have been cross-referenced with the replacement part number to ensure that the identification was correct. Last, many electronic catalogs now include illustrated buyer’s guides so that a photo of the new part can be compared to the old part.

The problem of correct part identification is going to become more complex as vehicles become more electronically sophisticated. Practically all 1996 and newer OBD II PCMs must be programmed for the VIN application before they’re installed. Newer on-board body control and networking modules must also be programmed or initialized with manufacturer-specific equipment before they will operate correctly.

Auto repair is rapidly becoming a professional’s domain. Selling replacement electronic parts to people who aren’t properly trained to identify the need for the part and install it correctly is a loser’s game in today’s sophisticated repair market.

One of the best strategies for reducing returns is to have the part in stock and deliver it as quickly as possible. As strange as that may seem, I know from my own experience as a shop operator that when a jobber can’t for example, cover all of the parts I might need for a brake service, I tend to order extra parts like calipers and other hardware to cover any eventuality I might encounter in the brake service. For me, the alternative might be tying up valuable shop space with a vehicle waiting for still another overnight part order.

In other cases, when many shops are faced with what they feel is an unreasonable wait time, they simply re-order the parts from another source and return their original order to its original source. This might seem unscrupulous, and it might well be. But it’s a fact of life in the independent service market.

According to my expectations, an expendable parts inventory like brake parts should have at least enough breadth to cover at least 80 percent of daily wholesale orders. It should also have enough depth to fill at least three or four orders per day of a popular part number or SKU.

Of course, these numbers are strictly hypothetical, but they should illustrate the point that, without enough breadth and depth in an expendable parts inventory like filters, lubricants, ignition, brakes and suspension, a jobber will fail to fill the wholesale orders he needs to sustain a presence in the wholesale market. Since all parts inventories are local in their structure and needs, the best strategy for reducing returns is for the jobber to constantly review lost sales records and groom his inventory to reflect local demand.

Gary Goms is a former educator and shop owner who remains active in the aftermarket service industry. Gary is an ASE-certified Master Automobile Technician (CMAT) and has earned the L1 advanced engine performance certification. He is also a graduate of Colorado State University and belongs to the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).
  Previous Comments
avatar   Dan   star   12/3/2009   6:45 PM

Old adage: "When all else fails, read the instructions!" Trouble is, most customers leave the instructions laying on your counter as they head out the door.

avatar   Pete   star   12/3/2009   1:43 PM

This article didn't go far enough, as of the past few years most of the tech's can't answer many of the questions that need to be answered to get the right part the first time. An example would be a chevy truck alternator. Three options and do you think the guys on the other end of the line would know which one....nope.. They have you send 2 or 3 options and have said if you don't, they'll call someone that will.

avatar   WILL   star   12/2/2009   7:39 AM

Ed's got a point. "West Virginia" chrome does seem to fix a lot of issues. I was fond of bailing wire when I started working on cars. PB blaster works wonders as well. The only directions people seem to read anymore is for their computers, they sure don't read a vehicles manual or Chilon's manual to at least get a clue.

avatar   Ed   star   11/30/2009   11:58 AM

Manual? Instructions? Directions? These terms are all foreign to my gender. Only two tools you need, PB Blaster and duct tape. If it needs to move and doesn't, PB Blaster. If it moves and doesn't need to, duct tape. A hammer is also a substitute for the duct tape.

avatar   dEBBIE   star   11/24/2009   8:30 PM

Remember the old saying. If the electrical problem you bought isn't the problem, you now haave a spare. And if it isn't the problem and you take care of your customer anyway, just once, then they find the real problem, your patience with them will earn you their respect and confidence for their next auto failure. Besides, its a good oppportunity to sell them a manual

avatar   Ed   star   11/17/2009   1:45 PM

You must also realize what I previous posted, those at the corporate level didn't start at the counter. They started at university, which led them to an internship, which segwayed into a series of cubicles, then corner office to finally one with their name on placcard on the door. They may not know what the difference is between a 351 Cleveland and 351 Windsor is, but they sure know how to work an Excel spreadsheet and Powerpoint.

avatar   Ed   star   11/17/2009   1:40 PM

Prime example here, Civic owner comes in, he tells me his symptoms and "his diagnosis", I disagree and explain what I feel may be the root cause. He disagrees with me, asks for an ignition control module, I retrieve the part and inform him that electrical parts are non-returnable if installed. He shrugs it off and begins putting it in the distributor he brought in with him. He returns two days later, claims it is defective and our competitor verified it was. He doesn't want me to test it and when I do and it passes, he claims our machine is rigged. I knew he wanted his money back, he didn't mind exchanging it for another one, however when I wrote "No return - warranty exchange" on the box, he didn't like that at all.

avatar   Jeff   star   11/16/2009   3:02 PM

I have run into this time and time again. I have had commerical accounts say "Fine just send it back and I won't call and order parts from you anymore" Now I'm stuck with a part I can't resell and a loss in sales. There are times when you just take the loss and move on .

avatar   Elliott    star   11/14/2009   1:45 PM

Another problem is that people come in and buy parts thinking that they are going to save money, then go to their repair shop or dealership with the parts. Then they are told that the work won't be warrantied unless they buy the parts through them. The customer doesn't have the knowledge or time and doesn't want to be stuck with the part or a warrantyless repair. The customer ends up having everything done the shop's/dealership's way and returns the parts they bought from you. It happens constantly.

avatar   WILL   star   11/12/2009   10:00 AM

I agree with Greg and Ed. Higher ups want to make the customer happy then question us about return percentages. We are not "Try It, Buy It Auto Parts". The customer is NOT always right. Recommend them to a reliable repair shop is what we should do instead of them coming back attempting to return that "Flash Required" ECM/BCM.

avatar   Greg    star   11/11/2009   6:57 PM

Been behind the parts counter for a number of years and have seen the same thing with all the parts stores. Counterman says no to a return but customer calls corp. and they over ride us. Leaves us looking stupid and lets people know that all they have to do is call if we say no and someone above us will say yes. So how do we control returns?

avatar   Ed   star   10/31/2009   7:02 PM

The problem that will always plague this industry is the lack of trust placed in the counterperson. Customers would sooner trust their next door neighbor's cousin's friend who knew a guy who had a similar vehicle to theirs with a similar problem and it was XYZ that needed to be replaced. Not listening to simple logic and reason, they also expect to return these parts after they have been used and they didn't fix the problem. We are not a lending library of parts.

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