The owner of our company is completing construction on a 32,000-square-foot auto repair strip mall on 2.3 acres of land in a heavily populated new area of North Las Vegas. Our new auto parts store will be part of this project. The store is in the most prominent location in the development and we are surrounded by many popular businesses that will draw excellent traffic to our facility. It was obvious from the beginning of this development that our new location was going to require a new way of thinking about how we attract and serve our customers.
As an import parts specialist, we have always served the needs of both installer and retail customers. Our specialty has been to stock parts for all import vehicles and to make them available to anyone who needs them. This has not always required a very sophisticated approach in terms of store appearance. Don’t get me wrong, our stores are fairly neat and clean, but just having the parts has usually been more important than our presentation.
I have always been amazed to walk through the stores of our big-box competitors and see the types of merchandise they offer their clientele. The cashier is usually near the front of the store, which is surrounded by candy bars, chips, gum and sodas. Am I in an auto parts store or a 7-Eleven? The big, smart retail guys are all alike as well, because I find the same items near the check-outs at the national electronics stores, and of course, all of the "Marts".
I have spent my whole 35-year career in the "traditional" auto parts business. What is "traditional" anymore? For me, this has always meant the most complete offering of quality replacement parts, knowledgeable staff, excellent customer service, utilizing both inside and outside salespeople and of course, a fleet of delivery vehicles to bring the parts directly to our installer customers when asked to do so. Snacks and drinks were never part of the deal. But why weren’t they?
A long time ago, someone once told me, "If the railroads were able to think outside of the box and see the future, they would have owned all of the airlines." Imagine that. Is it possible there could have been a Union Pacific, or Burlington Northern Airline, if someone could have just recognized that they were in the transportation business, instead of the railway business? As "traditional" auto parts stores, how much are we missing by not recognizing the potential of our businesses?
New situations require new thinking. As I stood inside of the four huge concrete walls that were soon to become our newest auto parts location, I had to wonder what would be inside of this "box." Do we, like the railroads, need to start seriously thinking outside of our normal parameters?
Import specialists, like everyone else, concentrate their energies on delivering parts and services to satisfy the needs of all of their customers. All of you can quickly think of the names of the three or four largest auto parts distribution chains in the country, but you will also note that none of them are import specialists – yet. Those big chains serving the more traditional side of our business I am sure have taken a lesson or two from each other. In recent years, some have attempted to enter the installer market that had previously been served exclusively by the traditional group. All of the lines are being crossed.
I started asking myself as I was looking at the big empty box of concrete and steel: How much time do we spend thinking "outside of the box" for our company? And what could we be doing that we have not done before?
It became clear that possibly something short of candy bars, chips, gum and sodas was going to become a part of our new venture. No one in our company is an expert at retailing and we presently do not have the mix of products that would support a respectable retail display. The answer was to be found outside of our company.
More than fifteen years ago, I was fortunate to have made friends with a gentleman who was just starting to think about the retailing of traditional auto parts stores in a different way. Today, he owns a very successful company in a suburb of Minneapolis, MN and he provides retailing strategy and products for many of the automotive distribution and c-store chains throughout the upper Midwest.
It is the experience and vision of his company that will be at the center of the design and development of our newest import auto parts store location. His company had never heard of EMPI or BugPack, two very important retail product lines for an import specialist that still serves the needs of die-hard air-cooled Volkswagen owners. Also, the company couldn’t understand why no one in Nevada buys bug deflectors. Well, for one instance, there are no flying insects in the desert.
That’s why we live here!
We couldn’t imagine how they knew that we had to have a "main aisle" that would attract 95 percent of our customers to buy 100 percent of whatever we put on both sides of that aisle. We didn’t know how to display high-theft items away from traffic areas, or even what the high-theft items were these days. And if you wanna’ talk oil . . You have to have a lot of oil! A lot of oil! It’s definitely been a learning experience. But, we are discovering the perfect mix of products that will satisfy our customers and demonstrate our import specialty that makes us what we are.Every person in every business can impact the success of the company they work for by taking the initiative to discover how the efforts of the company can be improved. Most of the people I meet in our industry, in the most responsible positions, came from a background of being a counterman. Those people took the individual initiative to set themselves apart from others by demonstrating they could "think outside of the box" and make a difference. What’s stopping you?