Embracing technology is best for business

by Renee Cormier

When Ben Franklin opened Franklin Auto Parts in Redding, Calif., in 1980, he had no idea how technology would impact his business.

Originally, Franklin owned three stores in Southern California. But the economy, as well as personal reasons, convinced him to move north to grow his business. He purchased a rundown store called Rother Auto Parts, which had been in Redding since 1933. He later opened another location in nearby Anderson and expanded his warehouse to keep up with competition and accommodate several major product line expansions.

Franklin's has always relied on knowing what customers want, providing good service and not making price the primary issue. But when employees showed an interest in the Internet, Franklin Auto Parts used the technology to educate their customers and get their name out in the community.

According to Franklin, many people in the auto parts business have grown up in the industry and were hesitant to embrace new technologies. His goal was, and still is, to move his wholesale customers online.

"Some of the real small shops are so antiquated," says Franklin. "We want to try to get as many customers as possible to be online with us so they can look up parts and place an order without having to talk to anyone."

While that may sound impersonal, Franklin insists it makes excellent business sense. "There's no wait time. They can get on and off. Those customers that order online usually receive their part 25- to 50-percent faster than if they have to come into the store and wait. It allows us to be more competitive on price and keep our overhead costs down."

However, Franklin doesn't abandon his customers to the Internet. "We wanted to talk to everyone rather than just place an order--it results in too many returns. We are trying to handle that more effectively with a little one on one. Some things are simple. Our business is not. It's an education, letting people know what each product or part does."

At first, many of his customers were unfamiliar with computers, so Franklin paid for a phone line, set them up with the online catalog and helped them navigate the system. Now, he says, people are more familiar with the system and computers, but if they can't find what they are looking for, the store and warehouse is a phone call away.

Part of the computerization of Franklin Auto Parts is a program that gives customers access to immediate price estimates and handles billing. "People don't realize that if they spend the time now, it makes it easier in the long run. It helps our customers improve their business. Although the majority doesn't yet use it--it's probably only a dozen or so customers--it's those with the most sales volume."

The company has an online newsletter that incorporates company, industry and manufacturers' information, which they plan to enhance with employee contributions.

"One thing we are getting ready to do is send our newsletter with our statement--announcing promotions, calendars and just the state of our business. That's what we have planned in the next month. We're sending our wholesale guys to classes so they can get involved in it. It also lets the counter guys get involved and be part of the planning."

Franklin employees' computer savviness sparked another method of communication when employees began building and hosting websites for various racing and community events it sponsors.

"We started a website for Shasta Speedway. It's one way of helping them and getting ourselves in the limelight."

The Internet has allowed Franklin Auto Parts, which sells mostly to Shasta County and some surrounding counties, to garner national and international sales, although that makes up only a portion of the business.

"We got online just to get online about eight years ago. We were one of the first to get online in our buying group. We were hoping we could do a lot of volume on the Internet. But the problem that most people will find is positioning. You have to pay more for positioning or come up with a new twist to get farther to the front. There are ways to get more hits, but it's so fulltime that unless you have the name and recognition, it's difficult to keep the volume," Franklin comments.

Although Franklin achieved some success with Web browsers, he noted that advertising in small markets made an impact too.

"If you go to states like Idaho or Montana and run an ad in a local paper, they are syndicated. It will run all over the state and you'll get more response from that than if you ran it in a large metro area. Is it cost effective? That's always the question."

Franklin recognizes there are issues in the industry that need to be solved for technology to continue moving forward, but he embraces what's available and looks forward to working more cohesively with customers and manufacturers online. He also sees the need for a comprehensive program that can ultimately tie everything together--online ordering, cataloging, Internet site and product information.

Franklin has proven himself to be a huge advocate for computerization and technology in the industry. His goal is to get his customers to take advantage of what's available to improve their bottom line while he continues to improve his.

The Vital Stats

Years in business: 25 years

Growth plans: Franklin Auto Parts expanded its parts warehouse during the past year, but the company has no immediate plans for additional growth.

Annual sales: $7-10 million

Number of employees: About 60 to 65

Wholesale/retail ratio: 60/40

Snapshot of Franklin Auto Parts: Franklin Auto Parts bought Rother Auto Parts in 1980 and has expanded to two locations in Shasta County, Calif. It is a privately held family business and a warehouse distributor for all major lines of automotive parts and supplies. As Shasta County's leader in automotive parts sales, Franklin Auto Parts supplies both retail and wholesale customers with parts as well as a machine shop.

Affiliation: Independent Warehouse Distributors, LLC (Auto/Truck Pride)

Competition: NAPA, AutoZone and Kragen

Locations/Facility size: Two locations, with 30,000 sq. feet at the main store and warehouse, and 5,000 sq. feet at the second store.