Talking Shop: Weighing In on In-Shop Cataloging

Talking Shop: Weighing In on In-Shop Cataloging

Paper catalogs have their place, but in-shop electronic catalogs are changing the repair shop/store dynamic.

For the past 35 years, Harry, the archetypal, second-generation shop owner, has been telephoning Joe, the archetypal counterman, to order parts. And for 35 years before that, it was Harry’s father Clyde who owned the shop and was placing the parts orders.

As if stuck in a time warp, the telephone conversation today isn’t much different than when Clyde ran the shop. Listening in, you would hear the dialog go something like this: “Hey, Joe, this is Harry. I need a throttle position sensor, spark plugs, air filter and fuel filter for a 1998 2.4L Road Warrior with automatic transmission.” To which Joe responds, “Okay, Harry, we’ll deliver this stuff in a few minutes.”

Of course, you know what comes next. A few minutes later the phone rings at the shop: “Harry, this is Joe. Gotta know if a throttle switch is the same thing as a TP sensor, if it’s a single- or dual-overhead camshaft, turbocharged or non-turbocharged and if the manufacture date is before or after 6/98.”

To which Harry replies, “Okay, Joe, I’ll check and call back.” A few minutes later Harry calls and says, “Yeah, Joe, throttle switch is the same thing, and it’s overhead cam, turbocharged and the manufacture date is 7/98.” Now Joe answers, “Okay, Harry, we’ll deliver in a few minutes.” A few minutes later: “Harry, this is Joe. I lost my notes.”

The above Harry and Joe dialogue comes close to sounding like the old Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” routine. In fact, the Harry and Joe comedy skit plays thousands of times each day in the automotive aftermarket. Of course, Harry and Joe have become so used to doing business this way that they seldom question how and why this has become their standard operating procedure for the past 50 years. Let’s face it; if Harry and Joe tried to run a restaurant this way, breakfast would quickly turn into lunch and lunch into dinner. As for dinner, it would quickly dwindle into a midnight snack!

Clock’s a Ticking
As for Harry the shop owner, he still doesn’t have his parts. His technicians are clustering around the soda machine and his customer is staring longingly at the shop across the street. For sure, this isn’t a pretty scenario. The clock is ticking and, so far, neither Harry nor Joe has made a single dime on this transaction.

The problem is the ticking clock and the lack of parts. Like you, the only way Harry makes money is when his technicians are installing parts on vehicles on a timely basis. Likewise, the only way Joe makes money is when parts are flowing out the door on a timely basis. Time is money and Harry and Joe are burning it up by the bundle.

Communication Breakdown
Obviously, Harry and Joe have a failure to communicate. Harry has the car and Joe has the parts. Because neither has any psychic ability, Joe can’t see the car through Harry’s eyes, nor can Harry read Joe’s parts catalog through Joe’s eyes. But what if we began to think outside the box and bring Harry’s car to Joe’s auto parts store? Or, better still, why not bring Joe’s parts catalog to Harry’s auto repair shop? What a concept! And if Harry had Joe’s cataloging, he could simplify the communications process by calling in part numbers rather than vehicle descriptions. And Joe could save time and money by handing the parts invoice to his stock puller for delivery without bothering to verify the differences between a throttle switch and a throttle position sensor. What a concept!

Paper Has Its Place
Just about any repair operation has a need for cataloging. Since paper cataloging goes back to the beginning of time, we’ll discuss it first.

Even in the modern world of the high-speed Internet, paper cataloging has its place. Many shops, for example, still don’t use computers on a daily basis. Others simply don’t have a need for extensive product cataloging. Other shops are located in areas that still don’t have a dependable Internet service. A half-dozen catalogs placed behind the service desk will do just fine, thank you, for many small general-service, quick-lube, alignment, tune-up, exhaust and automotive air conditioning shops.

In contrast to in-shop electronic cataloging, paper cataloging offers the convenience of immediate access, compactness and stand-alone capability. It may also offer a more comprehensive coverage of the product line.

Paper cataloging works especially well in dedicated service bays. Paper cataloging also works well in mobile repair shops and in farm, ranch and construction shops as well because it demands no supporting infrastructure. Even with the Internet, we should never ignore conventional paper cataloging since it remains a simple way to represent and sell product in a non-electronic environment.

The Catalog Disk
I recently received a DVD catalog disk from my sales rep that covers tune-up and driveability parts. Of course, driveability diagnostics is a specialized area, so I’m not as interested in undercar parts as I am underhood parts. With that said, I use a laptop computer in the service bay to operate my repair information system and store results from driveability testing. The fact that I can slip a disk into that same laptop that will allow me to search through an entire line of driveability parts is, in particular, an advantage for me and my counterperson as well.

Going back to the Harry and Joe skit, I can correlate terminology. For example, I can see if a TP sensor is the same as a throttle switch. I can also see if I need to know whether the engine has one camshaft or two and whether the manufacture date is pertinent or not. Because I enter my own data, I can be more assured of getting the right part in a timely manner than if I ask my counterperson to do the same thing.

And then there’s the sheer “niftiness” of having your own parts catalog close at hand. By simply being able to review the availability of thousands of items, I’ll be more likely to make my regular parts supplier a first-call source, rather than resort to calling other area jobbers and dealerships as I have in the past. All in all, the idea of a catalog disk has as many applications as a paper catalog itself. It’s portable, doesn’t require an Internet connection, and gives immediate and complete access to a specific product line.

Electronic Catalogs
Currently, complete parts distribution systems are now being built around in-shop electronic cataloging. Most average-sized and large auto repair shops are also integrating their operations around electronic cataloging because the service writer can immediately determine the price and availability of any part available through the electronic catalog. Let’s put it another way: Any auto repair shop has to generate enough daily sales revenues in order to pay the overhead and render a profit.

Historically, timely parts acquisition has been a shop’s biggest stumbling block toward profitability. Any system that can improve or alleviate parts acquisition woes is as essential to a shop’s operation as a set of wrenches.

At least one such system allows the service writer to select the pricing structure, product line, vehicle line, part type or part manufacturer. In many cases, the service writer may also identify the part via color illustrations, which alleviates terminology and identification issues. In short, the in-shop electronic cataloging system eliminates many potential sources of miscommunication and error while informing the service writer of many different parts selection options.

For the shop, an electronic parts catalog substantially reduces ordering time. Considering that most shops bill their time at least a dollar per minute, an average telephone parts order costs the shop at least $5. The electronic catalog can reduce order time and expense by at least half.

For the jobber, the time required to answer telephones, pull up cataloging, ask the appropriate questions, print the invoice, pull the part numbers and deliver the parts should be cut in half. In most cases, in-shop electronic cataloging should produce fewer returns and less stocking headaches.

What are the infrastructure requirements for dealer electronic cataloging? First, a shop must have the necessary level of computer literacy and, second, a reliable dial-up or high-speed DSL Internet service must be available. The DSL service is the most desirable because communication is practically instantaneous. With that said, electronic cataloging is as essential in today’s auto repair shop as the paper catalog was in days long past.

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