Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Auto Buffs Hit The Infobahn

Part shopping on the Internet

By Marc K. Stengel

JULY 3, 2000:  In less than five years or so, the Internet has changed the way auto buffs keep up with news about motorsports and performance issues. It has speeded the way they communicate with one another. It has streamlined the way they research and share technical information.

Perhaps most conspicuously of all, automotive e-commerce sites are everywhere, and more are on the way. The great irony, however, is that the very concept of e-commerce is so new, different, and imprecise that many of us don't really know who or what we're dealing with when we step up to this or that virtual parts counter. What follows, then, is a brief review of the current state of the art of the automotive aftermarket on the Internet.

In devoting this overview to the automotive aftermarket, I'm consciously setting aside the issue of buying or leasing vehicles over the Internet. This special subject deserves an in-depth treatment all its own, particularly since it actually involves the coordination of a variety of different businesses including auto dealers and wholesalers, insurance underwriters, financing companies, and credit and title reporting agencies.

When it comes to buying automotive parts and accessories online, there are four major types of Internet entities that an enthusiast is likely to encounter while cruising the Infobahn. There's the traditional "bricks-and-mortar" store with a new e-commerce "storefront." Then there's what the business world calls a "dot-com" operation, which has substituted "clicks" for bricks. There are the auction sites, which either specialize in online auctions of auto products or incorporate automotive "sections" within much larger auction activities. Then there are the "group-buy" arrangements, which also can either stand alone or operate within a special group like a car club or enthusiast forum.

Auction and group-buy entities are not so much new ideas as they are traditional, tried-and-tested ways of doing business that the Internet has "souped up" by overcoming such traditional barriers as time and distance. General auction sites like eBay and Amazon.com's "Auctions" are places to look for, bid on, or sell virtually anything under the sun, automotive and otherwise. Then there are more specialized auctions, like the Gurney Auction at the RaceSearch.com site, which is strictly limited to motorsports items from the collection of racing legend Dan Gurney and his All-American Racing concern, auctions.racesearch.com.

Web-based group-buy arrangements, like the one known as GroupBuy Center (www.groupbuycenter.com/), are another variation on a traditional theme made simpler thanks to the Internet. The traditional theme in question is the "scale discount" that accrues to buyers who can afford to purchase in bulk. At a group-buy site on the Web, there are usually a variety of postings for specific new parts or accessories for which a "group" is being sought. If, say, a group of 50 can be assembled for purchasing a certain exhaust system, the manufacturer will reduce the price to each individual buyer by some fixed amount--15 percent, for example. Potential buyers must register as for an auction--that is, with identity and credit card info. If the specified number of group members is reached, the sale is transacted, and the discount is applied.

If Internet auctions and group-buy schemes are traditional buying arrangements enhanced by new technologies, it might be argued that many big, splashy e-commerce sites on the Internet represent whole new buying arrangements made up to look more or less traditional. This is the case with the so-called "dot-coms" in particular, which are true "children" of the Internet by dint of their virtual lack of physical overhead. According to one interpretation, in fact, it might be said that the dot-coms are cleverly disguised group-buy schemes. Their traditional-looking Internet store-fronts resemble a typical retail parts operation, but when a customer places an order, there may not actually be any inventory on hand. Instead, the dot-com batches its orders at the end of any given day and then submits a bulk purchase order of its own for the parts its customers want.

As you can imagine, these dot-coms pose an interesting challenge for traditional retailers like J.C. Whitney (jcwhitney.com) and Summit Racing (www.summitracing.com) that are striving to become e-tailers themselves. After all, here are the giants of the aftermarket retail scene, with all this inventory in huge, expensive warehouses competing with agile Internet competitors who maintain no overhead--literally in some cases.

The response of traditional "bricks and mortar" retailers is to plunge into the Internet wholeheartedly, bringing decades of experience to the Web for the sake of retaining loyal customers as well as winning new ones. According to J.C. Whitney's Internet marketing director Rich Holbach, the company's online metamorphosis is more evolutionary than revolutionary. "We've been direct marketers with our catalogs for years," he says, so the Internet is just a natural extension of this process. "What we offer is a pretty good match with what the Internet automotive customer is demanding, namely a large selection of products that you don't normally find down at the parts store." For Holbach, the Internet reinforces his company's strong identification with its catalog business rather than detracts from it.

If an auto enthusiast understands any one thing, it is the importance of having a well-stocked tool box, since no one tool can perform every function. Powerful as it is, the Internet is itself just a single tool among many. Although it has a role to play in assisting parts buyers to find the best deals at the best prices, there's still no replacement for common sense, curiosity, and caution when it comes to transacting securely in the automotive aftermarket.


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