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How NAPA Revolutionized The Parts Industry

In the early days of motoring, drivers were using their cars to travel farther from home than ever before. However, poor road conditions meant breakdowns were inevitable. Car part stores did not exist, and often times drivers waited weeks or even months to receive replacement parts for needed repairs. Manufacturers, dealers, and independent service stations started to realize the importance of keeping replacement parts stocked in convenient locations near repair facilities.

In 1919, most cars and trucks were equipped with Continental Engines. However, no single dealer carried an adequate stock of Continental replacement parts, and it was difficult for independent shops to obtain them. In order to implement better service standards, Continental appointed distributors around the country to become “parts stations.”  By 1924, there were parts stations across 31 cities selling to local shops and fleets, and supplying jobbers in the surrounding areas.

Many of the "parts stations" owners stumbled upon similar problems and decided to establish occasional meetings in Detroit to discuss best practices. This was a key factor in shaping the future of the parts store. In April 1925, a group of 28 men, representing parts stations spanning the country as well as independent parts manufacturers, gathered at Detroit’s Statler Hotel. They worked together to facilitate their own warehousing operations and broaden the distribution of automotive parts. The State of Michigan granted them a charter authorizing the organization of the National Automotive Parts Association (NAPA). Their goal was simple: help independent business owners get the parts and supplies they need when they need them.

For NAPA’s founding fathers, one of the first orders of business was to identify the best sources for parts and the best kind of manufacturing partners. On the second day of their meeting, they invited 11 manufacturers’ representatives to appear before the group to present their products – everything from pistons and radiator hoses to spring bolts, ball bearings, and bushings. Soon the distribution system that NAPA created and perfected became the industry standard. In addition to choosing manufacturers, the board of directors also discussed securing lines at a preferential discount. C.E.Hamilton, one of the NAPA founding fathers, introduced the idea of a functional discount. This enabled parts stations to offer lower net prices than their competition.

In 1926 another NAPA innovation was introduced. NAPA established an interchange bureau that allowed store owners to exchange obsolete part numbers for current numbers. Obsolescence prevention was a pivotal decision for the young organization; and like the NAPA distribution system, it has become an industry standard.

NAPA realized early on that guaranteeing overnight delivery of supplies for virtually every car and truck, regardless of make, model or age, was critical to success. If store owners placed their orders by 5pm, NAPA delivered the items the next day. Over the years, NAPA fine tuned its system and started its own trucking program to assure overnight delivery to small town NAPA stores bypassed by the country’s interstate highway system. It was all part of the company’s abiding commitment to service – and to the independent NAPA store owner. In fact, the NAPA principle of serving and protecting the store owner was a top priority. The organization firmly believed, “If it’s not good for our jobbers, we don’t want it”.

NAPA realized it made good business sense to provide training materials to support store owners and their customers. Beginning in 1935, NAPA published a series of service and technical manuals that offered critical updates about part changes to the NAPA stores’ independent repair shop customers. As technology marched on, NAPA instituted one of the first product information schools for store owners during the 1950's. A joint project of the manufacturers and the warehouses, these product presentations kept NAPA store owners up to date with vehicle engine and design changes. In the 1970's the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) was organized. It was designed to set new standards in service excellence and was instrumental in certifying technicians. A few years after its founding, ASE partnered with NAPA to recognize outstanding people in the field. The first NAPA/ASE Technician of the Year was presented in 1981.

NAPA’s focus on customer service is the reason NAPA stores excel in making the retail consumer feel special. NAPA stores often help retail customers change an air filter, battery, or set of windshield wipers; and during hot weather, include ice chests full of water and soft drinks in their delivery trucks for repair shop customers. Some NAPA stores have a “nothing waits” delivery policy or dedicated phone lines for their best wholesale customers. As one independent NAPA AUTO PARTS store owner put it, “Service is the only real thing anyone has to sell. Everything else you can put in a can and take someplace else.” No doubt, the founding fathers of NAPA would agree.

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