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.
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
IDENTIFYING THE NEED
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.
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.
IDENTIFYING THE APPLICATION
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
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
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).