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FORDMUSCLE.com
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by Jon Mikelonis

Introduction
More often than not, the Ford enthusiast's trip to a major auto parts
retailer, like Kragen, AutoZone, Advance Auto, or Pep Boys, leaves something to be desired. The event is typically initiated by a walk through a parking lot bathed with every known automotive fluid, acknowledging a welcome sign that says "No Oil Disposal Today", weaving around a maze of out-of-place mini-bikes, and wondering why the basic social cues of eye contact and "just a minute sir" are absent from the retail experience. All of this and the enthusiast hasn't even requested stock and price for the parts they're after or dared to ask the counter person a technical question.

A Devolving Parts Counter
Complaints resound from serious do-it-yourselfers (DIY'ers) about the
general lack of knowledge exhibited by counter people at major auto parts retailers. Most likely you have experienced the dissatisfaction first hand. While it isn't objective for guys like us to expect every teenaged counter worker to visually distinguish the difference between a 351C and 351W, it is reasonable to expect them to navigate their way through their employer's own inventory system, acknowledge your existence, and call an audible if the situation requires one.

The performance aftermarket has trained serious DIY'ers and performance enthusiasts well. For instance, Summit Racing Equipment opens the virtual carpool lane if we have our part numbers ready during a phone order. So why is it that retail store counter help demonstrates resistance to the serious DIY'er by insisting he or she provide vehicle make and model to locate a part, even when the customer has their part numbers ready? Why is it that the employee freezes when a performance enthusiast shows up with a used part for a custom application and simply requests a matching replacement? A matching replacement that isn't logically found by a query on make and model.

Take these actual scenarios for example. Have you had similar experiences with major auto parts retailers in your area?

Sorry, We Don't Accept Part Numbers Here
A Ford enthusiast approaches an AutoZone parts counter one Saturday and requests an axle seal for his 1966 Mustang. The clerk can't find the part in the system and begins an unnecessary customer inquisition about ring gear, carrier bearing, and pinion diameters. Unable to answer those
questions the customer walks down the block to O'Reilly's, another major retailer, and requests the same axle seal. Within three keystrokes the O'Reilly's counter person finds the correct part in their inventory management system but O'Reilly's is out of stock. The customer writes down the part number, goes back to AutoZone and hands the part number to the counter person. Let's pick up the dialogue from there:

Customer:
  "Here's the part number I need."
 
Counter Person:
"What part are you looking for?"
 
Customer:
"The one on that piece of paper I just gave you."
 
Counter Person:
"What make is your car?"
 
Customer:
"That's not important, by reading the part number you'll know what part I need."
 
Counter Person:
"I'm sorry, I need to know the make and model of the car to look up parts."
 
Customer:
"I don't need you to look it up. Can you just enter the number I gave you into the little box that says part number on your computer screen?"
 
Counter Person:
"I guess. Here it is, it says wheel seal on the computer, not axle seal. That's why I didn't find it the first time you were here. We've got two in stock. Do you want them?"

Fan Belt Sales Resistance
A DIY'er enters Advance Auto to get a new fan belt for his 1974
Datsun 240Z with a 460 Big Block Ford . The customer offers the used belt to the counter person and simply says he wants a new one of the same size. Here's the dialogue:

Customer:
  "Can you measure this belt and give me one of the same size?"
 
Counter Person:
"What kind of car is the belt from?"
 
Customer:
"It's a custom application, can you just get one the same size as this one?"
 
Counter Person:
"I need to know the type of car the belt is going to be
used on?"
 
Customer:
"OK fine, it's a 1974 Datsun 240Z with a Ford 460"
 
Counter Person:
"Just a stock belt for a 6 cylinder Z motor?"
 
Customer:
I'll try somewhere else, thanks for your help.

The scenarios sited here are by no means the rule for all parts counters. Whether you are at AutoZone, Kragen, Advance Auto, or Pep Boys the dedication and quality of individual store management can create both superb and poor customer service levels within the same chain. However, occurrences like these are happening often enough to warrant speculation that major auto parts retailers are not focused on training those behind the counter to think for themselves. Combine your countless unsatisfying shopping experiences with the fact that independents are struggling to survive in today's marketplace and there can only be one answer.

(A Changing Customer Focus)
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In This Article:
FordMuscle readers have made their voices clear. Major auto parts retailers are failing to meet the customer service needs of the ambitious Do-it-yourself enthusiast. In this revealing Editor's Corner, FordMuscle digs deeper into the issue and speculates why it may be happening.


The parking lot at this particular national chain store suggests employees are more interested in feeding stray cats than cleaning up their image. One empty bottle of Dot 3 and an expended quart of Havoline sit conveniently under two drain pipes. A "Be Kind to the Environment Sign" adds an ironic touch as you walk towards the store doors. Does the condition of the parking lot indicate the customer service level you'll receive once inside?
 


You wiped your waste oil containers clean and secured them properly in your trunk or truck bed and headed down to the closest major auto parts retailer for disposal. As you pull into the parking lot a scrappy cardboard sign signals defeat. Are parts chains still interested in the business of more serious DIY automotive enthusiasts like you and me?

 

Ten minutes in line contemplating why you chose wrenching over golf as your primary hobby is compounded when the counter-help opts to take a call about tonight's "rave" over pulling your brake pads from inventory. Sure, you've been conditioned to expect minimal technical assistance from employees at most major retailers, however, undivided attention can make up for inexperience.
 

You finally extracted the items you needed from the "help" behind the parts counter and head toward the cash register. On your way a retail display reminiscent of Toys 'R' Us catapults you down a disorienting pathway. A Rod Serling like voice puts it all into perspective...

"You’ve passed through a glass door with a face of apprehension. Beyond it is another dimension; a dimension of soapy agents, a dimension of misplaced mini-bikes, a dimension of towering luminescent fluids. You’ve just crossed over into... the auto parts retail zone."

 


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