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Looking for auto parts? // No need to drive far

Any motorist who has tried to replace a burned-out turn signal bulb learned long ago that yesterday's service stations have become today's filling stations.

They just sell gas.

So more and more Americans have become do-it-yourselfers whose glove compartments brim with screwdrivers, fuses and tire pressure gauges. And the trend has set auto parts retailers off on a building binge in the Tampa Bay area.

Look around.

Discount Auto Parts plans to have almost as many stores as the Checkers fast-food chain has outlets in the area. Industry behemoth AutoZone Inc., which now has a store in Crystal River and plans more this summer in Dade City, Dunedin and Bartow, is poised to open up to 20 more in the region. And such local veterans as One Stop Auto and Ace Auto Parts are substantially expanding their store counts this year.

It's gotten so wild that three new auto parts stores are rising within a block of one another in northwest Hillsborough County.

"Within five years, there will be twice as many auto parts stores in this market as there are now," said Gerald Klein, president of St. Petersburg-based One Stop Auto Parts. "It's going to get super-saturated as the chains work to drive out their competitors."

What's going on here? Sure, people are driving their cars longer than ever (see chart). And with the cost of the average new car at $20,000 and rising, the demand for less expensive alternatives is expected to increase, too.

But aren't today's cars supposed to be harder to fix than ever? Nationally, the growth in do-it-yourself backyard mechanics has actually slowed. Replacement auto parts sales nationally have been growing only modestly. And with Detroit changing parts on new models with unprecedented abandon, how can any small auto parts chain hope to stock all the right parts?

The fact is it's getting much tougher for small stores to keep up. So the efficiencies of scale and the convenience that big chains have brought to the market have become a huge competitive advantage. And in a market of 38-million do-it-yourselfers and a $95-billion replacement parts industry, a handful of growing chains have found plenty of wiggle room to elbow their smaller brethren out of the business.

"We used to curse the incredible proliferation of parts that Detroit has given us, but it has really helped, because it's caused so many competitors to throw in the towel," said Tom Cox, president of Ace Auto Parts.

"The mom-and-pop stores are dropping like flies," added his brother Bob, Ace's executive vice president. "We get calls every week to buy someone out."

Meanwhile, chains like Pep Boys and Western Auto _ which get most of their revenues from repair work _ have expanded their parts selections. Western, which is owned by Sears, Roebuck & Co., has even started its own chain of standalone auto parts stores, Parts U.S.A., in other markets. Meanwhile, the parts explosion has prompted discount chains like Wal-Mart and Kmart to cut back their selections of repair parts.

Florida has become a fiercely competitive mecca for the auto parts chains to duke it out.

It should be no wonder. The Sunshine State, which has a growing population, a comparatively low average household income and a climate suitable for year-round repair work, now ranks third in the country in used cars on the road.

A changing industry

Once the gritty province of people with grease on their hands, auto parts stores used to be found mostly in off-the-beaten-track industrial areas. They catered to mechanics, parts installers and shade-tree mechanics. The stores kept bankers' hours. The clerks typically were know-it-alls who acted that way. There were as many different price lists as types of customers.

For years, these retailers straddled the fence, catering both to professional mechanics and to do-it-yourselfers.

In the past 20 years, however, retail companies have seized on these shortcomings to snatch the consumer market.

Stores today are clean and five times as big. Auto parts chains are fighting with drugstores and fast-food outlets for prime retail space that's convenient to lower- and middle-class neighborhoods. Customer-friendly clerks often have been trained by the likes of Dale Carnegie to handle people who don't know a clutch from a caliper. And stores are open seven days a week and late into the night.

Five minutes before its 9 p.m. closing last Thursday, a Discount Auto Parts store in St. Petersburg had 14 cars in the parking lot _ two of them with the hoods up.

Such popularity has led Lakeland-based Discount Auto Parts Inc. to instigate a building spree as a defensive response to the arrival of AutoZone in its hometown market.

It promises to be a clash of the titans.

With 1,143 stores and plans to open 260 more this year, AutoZone is the industry's 500-pound gorilla. If what's happened elsewhere is any guide, the small operators that cannot afford the big ad budgets, inventory and prime real estate will suffer the most.

"It's very expensive to break into a new market," said Peter Fontaine, chief executive officer of Discount Auto, which will boost its three-state store count of 304 by 110 in the next 13 months. "AutoZone can and will come in here, but the question is, how happy will they be? We are going to be very competitive."

Responded Laura Nevins, spokeswoman for Memphis, Tenn.-based AutoZone: "We don't base our store location decisions on where our competitors' stores are."

It is wrong, however, to compare the arrival of the big auto parts chains to the arrival of Home Depot, Toys "R" Us or any other retail chain trying to dominate one category of retailing with a huge selection.

This is a different business, driven by different economics and a distribution system experts see as inefficient and highly fragmented.

Auto parts stores are not selling Barbie dolls or house paint that anybody might buy. They must adjust the parts stock in each store to the cars that people already own in that neighborhood. Detroit alone puts out more than 400 models. Meanwhile, parts _ and the specialized tools needed to install many of them _ are becoming less uniform.

The explosion of new parts that automakers have been foisting on auto parts stores is graphically represented on one wall of a One Stop store.

Two decades ago, there were 20 types of V-belts hanging there. Today there are 400.

And with cars getting older and older, chains stock parts that cover two decades of technological change.

The total number of available replacement parts is now well over 200,000. So an auto parts store that used to keep 3,000 parts in stock must carry about 20,000 to survive.

And a retailer must be able to quickly and cheaply get hold of the 180,000 other oddball parts that today's walk-in customer wants.

"Just a few years ago, we carried less than $200,000 in inventory in a store," said Bob Cox of Ace. "Now you have to carry more like $400,000."

As a result, computer technology has revolutionized the business. That's fine for big chains that can afford sophisticated inventory systems. But it's a major investment and headache that few mom-and-pop operators can afford.

Parts stores still do not carry all the arcane parts that auto dealers do, a gift the automakers bestowed on their dealers to help prop up their service departments. But thanks to parts industry lobbying, manufacturers this summer will have new car parts listed in their store computers within 75 days of a new model's debut.

That will eliminate a yearlong wait for paper catalogs to be printed so clerks know what parts fit the latest model vehicles. In the past, auto parts stores had to turn away customers because they did not have the information.

Computer terminals, in fact, have all but replaced the bulky paper catalogs that have anchored the service desk in auto parts stores. Computers not only tell the clerk which part fits, but where it is _ even if it's in another store or a warehouse.

"Only some of our old-timers still rely on the catalog," said Tom Cox of Ace.

There is a big upside to the parts explosion for auto parts stores.

The industry markup for walk-in costumers _ regardless of the marketing hype, pricing varies little among auto parts chains _ is about the same as in a department store. So the relentless upgrades in parts technology have powered big profit gains (see chart).

Twenty-five years ago, for instance, the profit on a sealed beam headlight was $1.64 on a $2.99 retail price. But today's cars come equipped with halogen lights that retail for 10 times that. So the gross profit has skyrocketed to $14.90 per light.

Auto parts stores also are a platform for peddling a huge variety of accessories for car buffs' ever-changing yen to personalize their vehicles. Few products have the staying power of fuzzy dice. Plastic crown air fresheners were a rage that lasted only two years. New this year: a $29.95 kit to stop thieves from stealing your air bags, and, direct from the 1950s, blue dot tail lights.

Stocking what sells

Juggling inventory, however, remains the key to success in this business. And the most efficient operators, such as Discount, use such state-of-the-art techniques as just-in-time delivery and automatic replenishment from suppliers to maintain an edge.

On top of tracking exactly what sells, Discount uses public information culled from auto registrations to keep a data base of which types of cars are based in every neighborhood it serves.

These days, parts for big-selling imports like Toyota are as easy to find as those for a Chevrolet.

But chains rely on a regional warehouse or bigger hub stores that can deliver orders for off-the-wall parts to smaller satellite stores.

"But if you want an alternator for a Jaguar, we'd deliver it from a hub store that day," said Fontaine of Discount Auto Parts.

The specialization of today's increasingly complex cars also poses challenges.

Some stores offer testing equipment for many electronic components free and lend many of the new specialized tools to motorists who don't have them.

Still, the complexity under the hood has not deterred people who like to fix their own cars or can't afford not to _ even if they risk blowing a $900 computer module fiddling with the electrical system.

"People who feel constrained for time are more likely to change their oil at a quick lube shop, but the cost of vehicle maintenance and repair is still going up," said Rob Ebbins, research director for the Automotive Parts and Accessories Association. "So even with an aging population, a lot of consumers who were brought up to maintain their own vehicles have plenty of reason to continue learning how to do so.

"I just saw a news clipping where experts were saying cars are getting so complex few Americans will ever be able to work on them. The article was dated 1957."

One lure to the business has been the fatter profit margins brought about by advanced technology in automobiles.

+ Suggested retail price

++ Gross profit

1971

Sealed beam headlight $2.99+

$1.64++

Shock absorber $12.88+

$5.42++

Universal joint $7.77+

$5.21++

1996

Halogen headlight $29.97+

$14.90++

Strut $49.97+

$21.03++

CV joint $99.87+

$45.42++

Sources: Automotive Parts & Accessories Association, Automotive Marketing, Discount Auto Parts Inc.

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