GRAND OPENING OF RockAuto.com, YOUR FAMILY RUN AUTO PARTS STORE ON THE INTERNET
Madison, WI - October 23, 2000 Welcome to the Grand Opening of RockAuto.com! RockAuto.com uses the power of the Internet to provide customers with low cost, high quality auto parts from more than fifteen respected manufacturers with the same no-nonsense, honest service once offered at the local independent auto parts store.
Nearly two years ago, the Taylor family -- three generations of automotive engineers who work on their own cars -- decided to build RockAuto.com as a family business. Jim Taylor, President of RockAuto, sums up his motivations: "I liked working on cars, but I didn't like going to auto parts stores. Except for sale items and some 'no brand' generic parts, prices were high. Often, after waiting in line, I'd learn the part I needed wasn't in stock and had to be special ordered--meaning another trip to the store, 'no return' terms and added delivery costs. And condescending questions like, 'How many doors does your Mustang have?' convinced me that there might be a world of useful parts out there that the chain store was unable or unwilling to give me access to. I wanted to jump across the counter and get a look at that part catalog myself."
The Taylors quickly found that the few computerized parts guides in existence were difficult to use (having been designed more for countermen than customers) and didn't cover the full range of parts manufacturers offered. So they built their own parts database using data obtained directly from manufacturers.
RockAuto.com carries full product lines by American Designers, Autolite, Cardone, Dynagear, Edelmann, FRAM, Gates, and other well known manufacturers; not just the high volume parts in most stores. And RockAuto.com lists applications from 2001 models all the way back to the 1940's. Owners of many older cars and imports may find parts they thought were no longer available. (Need shocks for that '59 Chevy? A radiator hose for your '72 Fiat? RockAuto.com has them!) Drivers of modern vehicles will find great prices on a full range of do-it-yourself replacement parts -- including items they may have thought were only available at new car dealers. (Time to change the cabin air filter that keeps dust and pollen out of your '99 Cougar or Ford Contour? RockAuto.com has it!)
The exclusive RockAuto.com catalog allows customers to quickly pull up the complete list of parts for their cars. Pictures of many parts are available to confirm a part is right. Customers can navigate through the entire catalog on one screen -- like finding file folders in Microsoft Windows. There is no wading through page after page and typing the make and model of the car over and over again like on other Internet sites. Tom Taylor, VP of Marketing, says: "I really enjoyed testing the catalog throughout its development. It may sound odd to a non-car nut, but I liked seeing all the parts available for my cars, friends' cars, and dream cars as fast as I could move my mouse. Who would have thought window crank handles for my old Chrysler 300 were still available!"
As a family business, RockAuto has a long-term focus. The strategy is to respect customers' time and earn their trust, so they'll come back and tell friends about the service they received. The RockAuto.com catalog is easy to look at and pleasant to use; no bright colors, confusing menus, or flashing advertisements to waste customers' time. RockAuto.com does not use "cookies," sell customer info or keep credit card number databases. And there are no handling fees or inflated shipping charges. (Shipping costs are standard UPS rates based on weight, destination and speed of delivery.)
Parts are shipped straight to the customer from warehouses in Wisconsin and Iowa. Returns, product questions, and other customer support are handled via toll free number and e-mail.
Tom Taylor, VP Marketing
Local Auto Parts Dot-Com Rocks On
The implosion of the dot-coms may have been the key to a Madison-based dot-com's success.
When the Taylor family was starting their online auto parts business RockAuto.com a year ago, they knew the tech wreck meant they essentially were on their own - and things have turned out just fine.
"I really think it helped us starting out slowly," said Tom Taylor, vice president of marketing for RockAuto.com. "We didn't have millions of dollars in venture capital money to use up real fast. As we grow, we waste a little bit of money on marketing ideas that don't work, but not millions of dollars."
"The hurdle to start making money was low," Taylor added. "It took just a few months to pay for the infrastructure."
Starting from scratch without any specific expectations, RockAuto.com saw its sales grow quickly and then settle into about a 20 percent monthly growth rate prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Growth has resumed on its former pace in recent weeks, Taylor said.
For competitive reasons, the company won't give out exact sales figures, but Taylor said RockAuto.com was profitable after three months.
"We are still driving 20-year-old cars - mostly because we like them - and clipping grocery coupons, but RockAuto.com is making money," he said. "I am not an accountant but I think that puts us several million dollars ahead of Amazon.com."
More importantly, it puts the firm ahead of CarParts.com - the auto parts equivalent of Amazon.com - which no longer is in business.
Industry giants Auto Zone and NAPA have Web sites, but Taylor said they focus on driving business to their stores.
Not having the name recognition of those giants was a major hurdle, Taylor said.
"People would send us e-mails before they bought anything that were so cynical and negative that it was really shocking," Taylor said. "It seems like there are so many scams on the Internet."
Many customers questioned whether the company's low prices meant the parts weren't brand name as advertised and weren't under warranty.
RockAuto.com addressed the credibility issue by adding customer testimonials and emphasizing that the business is family-owned.
"Something we're seeing now that's exciting is about one in six customers is a repeat customer," Taylor said. "We were afraid that there wouldn't be any loyalty - just people searching and looking for the best price - so that was real encouraging for us."
RockAuto.com's customer base is still mostly hobbyists working on their own cars, with perhaps only 10 percent professional mechanics, Taylor said.
"(Professional mechanics are) a really big part of the auto parts business and it's a tough nut for us to crack because they have established local parts connections set up and they're concerned about shipping," he said. "They're used to getting parts that day."
Taylor added, though, that there are enough hobbyists to keep the company going "for a long time" - the "do it yourself" market is estimated to be more than $30 billion annually.
Making RockAuto.com as simple and easy to use as possible probably has helped in attracting and retaining customers, Taylor said.
About 90 percent of RockAuto.com's sales have been in the United States, with the other 10 percent going to 30 other countries. The most expensive part sold was an engine rebuild kit that cost $589, the least expensive part it sells is an oil drain plug gasket that costs 8 cents.
The cars the parts are being bought for almost track the top 10 vehicles sold in the United States, with Ford and Chevy pickups topping the list, Taylor said.
Some of the more interesting parts searches have been air conditioning parts for an antique Cadillac limousine in Europe, dozens of shocks for a tractor manufacturer in the Midwest, and spark plugs for a Harley racing motorcycle.
The company learned some valuable lessons along the way, including not to ship a set of struts with a tiny oxygen sensor in the same box with no packing material, Taylor said.
Since launching last October, the company has added thousands of parts pictures to its online catalog, making it easier for customers to order the correct part. A few product lines were dropped from the catalog and many more were added, including brakes, exhaust, and engine rebuild kits. RockAuto.com now features parts from more than 30 manufacturers.
"Continuing to add new manufacturers to the catalog is something we can do indefinitely and this will continue to contribute to our long-term growth," Taylor said. "It gives us new brands, new car applications, and sometimes lower prices that bring in new customers."
Since it outsources the packaging and shipping to an auto parts warehouse, RockAuto.com doesn't expect to have to hire beyond its four family members for the foreseeable future, Taylor said.
"It's worked really well," he said. "I look at it as we're really doing what the Internet was supposed to be in the first place. You have low overhead because you use existing infrastructure and you don't have to worry about real storefronts and brick and mortar."
RockAuto.com has no specific expectations for its future, other than to continue growing with the Internet.
"(President) Jim (Taylor) is fond of projecting out that if we keep growing like we are, in five years we'll have the gross national product of Canada," Taylor laughed. "We'll do real well if we can keep growing at 20 percent." On the Net: www.rockauto.com.
Published: 9:32 AM 11/01/01