The search for aftermarket innovation

July 29, 2014
The most fertile ground for aftermarket innovation may be in how we sell, more than in what we sell.

I recently read an editorial where the author was extoling the virtues of bold, pioneering thinkers whose ideas transformed our lives. Among the examples he used were Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. He spoke of his admiration for their creativity, risk-it-all attitudes and pure chutzpa to take an idea and turn it into a new paradigm. 

Having long held that same perspective of admiration for such people, the author really captured my attention. He got me thinking about the aftermarket. The emergence of the aftermarket itself was a paradigm shift in its day and I believe that may have been the last one this industry has seen. In a world where making a part easier to install is considered an innovation and telematics is viewed as an enemy instead of an opportunity, are we likely to ever see true paradigm-changing thinking in our segment?

I realize that our industry is one that largely follows the OEMs. Our ability to “innovate” is restricted in large part to working within the parameters of how the OEM has engineered the vehicle. As such, product innovation is often restricted to being lower priced, easier to install, longer lasting or cooler looking. 

I am not casting aspersions toward engineers at parts suppliers. True product innovation often occurs within their ranks. However, their innovation typically appears in new vehicles first and as such is viewed as OEM innovation rather than aftermarket innovation. 

So where is the fertile ground for bold aftermarket innovation? 

If you think about it true innovation in the aftermarket can be found in how we sell rather than what we sell. Let me explain. Most of the top two (or in some cases three) brands in a specific category are viewed by the marketplace as first rate. While some brand preferences may exist, when pressed, most would agree that one is often as good as another.

What separates one brand from another is in how they sell. Sometimes it is a unique part numbering system that arranges the products by size, or a color-coding that makes picking the right parts easier. I have seen massive parts supersessions accommodated with peel off labels that negated the need for reboxing or relabeling. We all have seen how various technologies have been deployed to enhance the sale of auto parts.

My point is that the most fertile ground for aftermarket innovation may be in how we sell, more than in what we sell. Considering this reality, one could argue that true aftermarket innovation will not just be to react to OEM and marketplace paradigm shifts more quickly, but to actively campaign and prepare for them.

So that sets up where I want to go over the next few months. What do you, the readers, see as the coming paradigm shifts and what must we do to prepare for them?  Moreover, what fundamental changes to how we do business would we like to see evolve (or crash onto the scene?) If we could wave the proverbial magic wand what scenarios would we create? 

Such evolutions are not without precedent. In human culture we have witnessed profound paradigm shifts ranging from how we view ethnic groups to how we treat the planet. We have in my tenure in the aftermarket through our collective resolve changed how we refer to those who repair vehicles; moving from installers at dealers to technicians at service centers. In fact, we now find sociological changes precipitating the rebranding of our main trade association.

I contend that our collective focus and resolve should be able to anticipate and in some cases shape future trends and/or changes or reshape existing market paradigms. As such, I ask for your input. 

I’ll get things started with a couple of suggestions from each category. In the area of emerging trends, how will we prepare ourselves for the inevitability of the electric car? What changes to our thinking and behavior will it bring? What emphasis on training will it require? On service outlets themselves? On the type of people who will perform the service?

In the area of reshaping paradigms, how can we retrain/reprogram the consumer not to expect same-day repair in every instance? Can we do that? If we can't, what are the implications for our business models in terms of space, working capital and cataloging? How could we go about it?

We need to get some big thinking going and innovate wherever it can be applied. Let's start talking enthusiastically about the art of the possible. After all, this column is called, “Ahead of the Curve.”

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