This post is by Adrian Klingel, founder of myFitment, a provider of auto parts fitment management software for eBay and Amazon sellers.
The auto parts aftermarket is huge, with estimated US sales of $142 billion in 2015. But it’s still adapting to online retail.
That’s a big opportunity, as consumers are looking to buy all kinds of replacement parts and performance accessories online, from fuses and filters to tires and even engines.
In this article I’ll talk about who sells auto parts online, what they sell and where they sell it. I’ll also cover who buys the parts, and what they are looking for from sellers. I’ll talk about the challenges of selling parts including the all-important fitment data.
Finally, I’ll cover some of the up-and-coming sales channels that sellers should be aware of.
This post covers auto parts fitment standards in North America. Other standards exist worldwide.
Who Sells Auto Parts Online?
I see two different kinds of businesses selling auto parts online:
- White labelers and brand owners, selling primarily on Amazon.
- Resellers, including established auto parts retailers, mainly selling on eBay.
Businesses coming to the market with their own products tend to start out on the Amazon platform. The long-established businesses and resellers of third-party manufactured items do big sales on the eBay platform. There’s a little bit of an overlap between the two, but not a great deal.
Brand owners and white labelers go to Amazon because they own the brand. Whether they sell the item themselves or if it ends up getting stocked by Amazon, they’re going to win either way.
Third-party auto parts sellers can also be very successful on Amazon, but they are competing with other sellers as well as with Amazon themselves. They have to have a strategy in place – basically a stable of new products ready to come on deck – as they will sometimes hit the lowest margin they’re willing to operate at for their fastest-selling items and lose the Buy Box.
The established businesses who do well on eBay tend to be a mix of very sophisticated dropshippers, and people that have brick and mortar stores. Car dealerships are doing more and more business on eBay, as well as parts and accessories shops. Specialists have a presence there too, such as shops that cater to off-road enthusiasts. There are also small start-up businesses getting started on eBay, with a couple of third-party product lines that they think are going to move well.
Car salvage and scrap dealers tend to use eBay. You can’t sell used parts on Amazon. The used parts business is locked up pretty well by software platform Hollander. Used parts have a different set of challenges because the parts come to you without any information – you just have the vehicle it came off. There’s some research involved to tie parts to part numbers, and then find out what other vehicles they fit. Selling used auto parts is a really specialized industry, so I’m going to focus on new parts for most of this article.
Who Buys Auto Parts Online?
There are two sides to the auto parts market, which I see as the things you want and the things you need:
- The things you want are the performance and accessory parts. These sell to enthusiasts.
- The things you need are the parts that keep your car running – brake pads, water pumps and so on. These basic (and traditionally unsexy) items are the real backbone of the industry.
Enthusiast buyers already know the brand and part they want. They want to find the best price, but they also want to buy it from a reputable dealer. If someone buys many, many parts from Summit Racing and they always get great delivery and service, that can lead their purchase a little away from price and more towards a trusted outlet.
In contrast, those who are new to the enthusiast side of the market tend to shop primarily on price. But you should never disregard reputation completely. For example, on Amazon both reviews and the buyer Q&A are prominently displayed. On eBay the number of successful sales an item has had is highly visible. Both are non-trivial helpers in completing sales.
For the parts you need to keep your car running, there are two sides to the North American market. One is OE (or OEM – original equipment manufacturer), which are the exact same parts that were on your vehicle when it came from the factory. The other side is the aftermarket. The aftermarket is a really vibrant and thriving part of the automotive industry.
But there is a constant battle between OE and aftermarket. The dealerships want owners to come to them for servicing after their warranty is up, and buy OE parts. The aftermarket wants you to go to an independent installer who will buy parts from a local parts store (such as Advance, Carquest or AutoZone), or order online if they can get the part delivered quickly.
Many purchasers of aftermarket parts online are do-it-yourselfers. The majority of parts in the automotive aftermarket move through local channels to provide same-day availability to professional installers. They need to complete repairs as quickly as possible, so they can release a service bay to work on the next job. Whereas people repairing their own vehicles can afford to wait for a few days, and often find it more convenient to order online than visit a parts store.
On all of the online platforms there’s a constant battle against pirated parts and brands. Auto part piracy in the aftermarket and OE market is just like a game of whack-a-mole. Inauthentic items turn up constantly, and the marketplaces and brand owners try to hammer them back down as quickly as they pop up. Knowledgeable buyers look for sellers with a lot of history and experience on the platform to prove their good name and give confidence that they’re not going to get a pirated part. Anybody that’s bought a bad part before doesn’t want to repeat that experience.
Other than the enthusiasts, anyone who’s willing to invest time to make a repair themselves is looking for a couple of things:
- To save money on labor.
- To do this job just once.
People don’t want to replace the water pump in their vehicle every six months because it’s badly made, or manufactured with inferior materials – so quality is important. You might tolerate a low-quality item elsewhere in your home, but not when you have to spend a couple of hours fitting it to your car.
The range of people who will attempt to repair their own cars can be surprising. You certainly don’t have to be a mechanic, and a lot of people are becoming handy because of YouTube. You can find a video for almost any automotive job, either for your exact vehicle or one close enough to be able to follow. With the proper tools, and the ability to pay attention as someone walks you through the tear-down and the rebuild, anyone can become an expert in minutes.
People can save a considerable amount of money by making their own repairs, but cost is not the only factor. They often feel empowered through the process because it’s completely transparent and under their control. They know what the part does, and what goes into it. They’re informed, and want to buy a good part to complete the process all on their own.
Are Auto Parts a Good Opportunity?
When you’re talking about the automotive aftermarket, both performance accessories and replacement parts, it’s critical to look at the economy. Performance accessories – the things that you want – are strongly affected by economic conditions. In a poor economy, when you have questions about your future disposable income, those things are going to suffer in sales.
But in the same conditions, replacement parts – the things that you need – do exceedingly well. There are few bright spots in a bad economy in North America. The funeral industry is always steady, healthcare is always steady and replacement parts do very, very well!
When the economy crashed in 2008, we saw a lot of investment income come into replacement parts. If you attended the AAPEX and SEMA show that year in Las Vegas, the number of visitors and exhibitors was way down on the SEMA (performance parts) side. But on the replacements parts side there was a number of large investment banks visiting booths and ready to talk to many auto parts manufacturers.
The only thing traditionally that has a negative effect on replacement parts is high gas prices. When gas prices are high people drive their cars less, and if they’re driving their cars less there’s less wear and tear on the parts. In a bad economy that’s coupled with low gas prices, replacement parts are a very good bet.
I recommend that people do their own research into the types of parts they want to sell, but I would also caution them to not allow any personal bias to come into it. You may be an absolute expert on roof racks and love the product line, but you also need to see if you’re going to be competitive. First-time entrepreneurs tend to be biased to run the kind of business that they like, rather than the kind of business that customers will like. That can spell an early exit.
Challenges of Selling Auto Parts Online
Ecommerce is a tough business in any segment, but some of the typical challenges – like customer service – can be particularly significant when you are selling auto parts. There is also the unique challenge of fitment, which is difficult to manage but crucial to making your products findable on the marketplaces.
Pre-sale and post-sale customer service
Customer service can be important, but it depends on what you are selling. Windshield wiper blades, for example, fit a very wide variety of vehicles. You may easily have 10,000 lines of fitment for a wiper blade that’s 22 inches long – it either fits a standard 22-inch windshield wiper or it doesn’t. There should be very few questions for that kind of item.
But other parts are much more specialized. A replacement radiator, for example, might only fit a certain vehicle model with a specific engine size, and only if the engine comes with a transmission oil cooler. If that isn’t spelled out very clearly you’re going to need people with a strong understanding of the parts manning phones and answering questions.
For higher-ticket items, you’ll need more pre-sale interaction with the customer. Many sellers of replacement engines, for example, will request a telephone call from the customer before processing the sale – so they can be assured that they have read all of the fitment details before the engine is shipped. As well as being expensive, anything that needs to be shipped freight isn’t going to travel back up the supply chain as well as it travels down.
Why would a customer call back post-sale? There are a few common scenarios. One is that the product doesn’t fit. Customer error is common in this case. If they didn’t read all the fitment notes and are not well-versed in the industry parlance, then that part can come sailing back to the seller. Another regular (but less common) issue is improper packaging or a manufacturing defect. Or they may just have some general questions about the item.
Some people will call if they are struggling to fit an item. That is more common with items in the performance and accessory market than replacement parts, particularly ones that require some sort of a modification to the vehicle. For example, a roof rack that fits a variety of vehicles may require holes to be drilled for one specific vehicle – which might be an easy job or it might be a hard job. Customers are understandably nervous about modifying their vehicles, so there are likely to be more support requests if you sell accessories that require customization. Make sure you consider the costs of customer service by email and telephone for the specific type of products you will sell.
Photos and videos
Installation videos can help you sell your items, but good images are critical for certain under-hood replacement parts. Many such parts, for example a distributor cap or some sort of relay, are important because they often have small variations in their connectors. One connector might have three prongs on it, another might have four, and one might be on the back rather than the side. In those cases, it helps the customer enormously if you have multiple photos from different angles so they can compare it to the one they have in their hand. People don’t normally buy parts like that blind, but if they do you can expect to get a lot of returns.
Generally speaking, anything that is going to represent your brand well is going to give you an advantage. If you have shabby pictures and your competitor has excellent pictures, even if they’re selling at a slightly higher price, they will get the sale. Purchasing online is about price and it’s equally about trust. A low price coupled with unprofessional photos and a poor description will ring alarm bells.
People want to know that they’re buying the correct item that they need. One of the ways to give confidence in that is through fitment. Fitment is used to specify exactly which vehicles a part fits.
If you sell a water pump for an engine, you might say, “This fits the Ford Focus.” But there are a lot of different Ford Focuses out there, and they don’t all take the same water pump. Your information is partially accurate, but it’s of little use to potential buyers because it doesn’t tell them if it fits their exact vehicle. You are likely to either lose the sale or have a return – both bad outcomes. Returns cost you money for shipping and processing, and the lost sale is a missed opportunity – and you will never even know that you’ve lost it. When it comes to selling auto parts online, there are a lot of unknown lost sales for people that have incomplete, inaccurate or absent fitment data.
I see a lot of people come into this industry, ready to sell with dropship agreements in place. Then they realize they need to add fitment data for their stable of 10,000 SKUs. They go back to the supplier, but the supplier usually does not care one whit about helping them with the “marketing” side of things – that’s the seller’s job!
So what is required to get the right fitment data in place? There are two main steps:
- Figure out which vehicles each part fits.
- Get that information into the format required by the platform you are selling on.
It’s a big investment of time and can be technically challenging – fitment information is not a simple hoop to jump through. But, when done well, it becomes a real business asset that’s crucial to being successful as an auto parts seller. It should also become a regular business process that’s built into the launch of any new product alongside procurement, pricing and so on.
Read our post on how myFitment can help.
eBay and fitment data
On eBay, you can list an auto part and specify fitment using the standard listing interface. You have to point and click your way through lists of hundreds of vehicles to achieve it, adding an extra few minutes to launch a part (assuming the information about which vehicles the part fits is close at hand). An extra few minutes might not sound too bad, but it becomes a pretty ugly proposition if you have 20,000 to half a million SKUs to list – which is not uncommon.
Amazon and fitment data
Amazon, in contrast, does not have any user interface for specifying which vehicles a part fits.
There is a finder for parts already in the Amazon catalog, but if you sell parts under your own brand name, or parts that not in their catalog, you must use third-party software or generate an ACES (Aftermarket Catalog Exchange Standard) XML file yourself, which is very complex.
The Auto Care Association (ACA) manages this standard, and it is the language that everyone in the North American automotive aftermarket speaks when it comes to vehicle applications and fitment. Here’s more information on providing fitment data to Amazon (requires Seller Central access).
Both Amazon and eBay place restrictions on the number of lines of fitment you can supply. eBay’s restrictions vary by category. Amazon has also begun restricting fitment recently, prompted by manufacturers of universal products like seat covers that would have 35 variations on material and color for one particular SKU, with each mapped to 15,000 vehicles. That’s a lot of data, and it becomes useless when it’s used that way.
There are some innovative sellers out there that figure out how the restrictions work, and how to take advantage of them for maximum exposure. It’s another cat-and-mouse game between marketplaces and sellers. As sellers figure out how to work the system, the marketplaces impose more restrictions. Sellers change their approach to get around them, and once again the algorithm has to be changed. As long as the same rules apply to all sellers, that’s a healthy environment. It makes sense to work hard to maximize your exposure through fitment and anything else that’s available.
Fitment and performance parts
There is one instance where fitment is used a little differently. In the case of performance and accessory items that require modification to the vehicle, fitment becomes more of an advertising feature. Let’s say you’re selling 36-inch wheels – very fancy, painted, high grade alloy wheels. Those wheels are not going to fit any vehicle without modification, so your challenge with fitment is to decide which cars your buyers are likely to purchase those wheel for.
You could say that it fits everything and specify 12,000 lines of fitment (as some people do with seat covers for example). But that fitment is not really concise enough to complete the sale. If people see that something fits everything, it doesn’t convey as much of a warm and fuzzy feeling about the product as if they see their vehicle and maybe a few others listed. So with your 36-inch wheels, you should include some very sexy vehicles that you think buyers will really want to purchase the wheels for – maybe a Cadillac Escalade and similar vehicles that are very in-vogue to customize.
Perceived issues around product quality and liability issues have traditionally scared some people away from selling auto parts.
The possibility certainly exists to have warranty returns and liability issues, but in my 15-plus years in this industry I’ve seen almost none. I have worked in online sales, and I have spent time at the headquarters of a major distributor and it really doesn’t come up. The only example I have was a case many years ago, when someone was selling engine oil drain plugs that didn’t fit perfectly. Some people didn’t notice the oil leaks, so their engines ran out of oil and were damaged. The liability ended up around $30,000, which is pretty insignificant in the scheme of things.
Of course safety is paramount and should be taken extremely seriously. Also, this has nothing to do with manufacturer recalls such as the seat belt and rollover issues we’ve seen in recent years – this is only about the parts aftermarket. Fitment does come into this too – if you play fast and loose with fitment, specifying vehicles that the part doesn’t properly fit, you’ll definitely increase your return rate and could potentially open yourself up to claims.
Amazon requires pre-approval to sell in the Automotive & Powersports category – otherwise known as a gated category. Amazon does not make public their process or requirements for selling in the automotive category. Some sellers report that they received approval easily, while others have been asked for the URL of an existing online store or proof that they are authorized resellers.
eBay and Amazon’s policies on the particular types of parts that can be sold are not particularly restrictive, but they are worth being aware of. eBay’s list of restrictions can be found here. Broadly, most parts can be sold, though some are restricted such as refrigerants and lock picking devices, and a number are expressly forbidden such as odometer modification devices and stolen property.
Amazon’s policy is similar, and as with eBay is designed to ensure that you do not help others break the law with the devices you sell on Amazon. These include speed camera radar jammers and license plate covers. Amazon’s policy can be found here.
Alternative Sales Channels for Auto Parts
Other than the two gorillas Amazon and eBay, Sears is very up-and-coming for selling auto parts. They’re serious about pursuing this space and I believe they will provide a very good additional marketplace. Newegg is another channel that is pursuing aftermarket parts sales.
In time, Sears and Newegg may prove to be great channels for auto parts, but I would recommend being established on eBay and Amazon first. You will be competing with sellers on those platforms anyway, whether you’re on them or not, so it makes sense to be there first.
Setting up your own ecommerce store gives you more control than the marketplaces, letting you set prices more independently, and creating your own brand identity and tone. I find a lot of sellers approach websites and marketplaces in combination. Marketplaces bring the buyers when they’re first starting out, but the margins are better if they can drive traffic to their own store in the long term. You can leverage the marketplaces, particularly eBay, to become an established name and then have people buy from your store. But bear in mind that having a store brings even higher expectations of customer service, and telephone support is likely to be important.
Fitment is as important for your own web store as it is on the marketplaces. Most of the people I know that have been successful with their own store, have invested time and money into a parts look-up that can deal with industry-standard data. You need to be able to get data up there, and manipulate it easily. There are one or two Magento plug-ins that I’m aware of that do it, but they still tend to require some customization.
Selling Auto Parts Internationally
Unless you are selling batteries or other hazardous materials with international shipping implications, the more countries you can sell to the better. There are many, many auto parts that are sold overseas.
I see a lot of enthusiast performance parts being sold to the Middle East, for example, where there’s a lot of disposable income and an appetite for customization. There are also good markets in Eastern Europe, Russia, Australia and South Africa. International shipping is complicated and can be risky, but the eBay Global Shipping Program makes it much easier for sellers starting out. They have a hub in Kentucky that sellers ship their international orders to, then eBay handles all the international paperwork and logistics.
International customers buy from abroad because they are determined to get the part, and they’re not able to buy it where they live. They want to have the best buying experience they can, but ultimately it’s their determination to purchase the part that’s pushing them.
If you have established your own auto parts brand online, you can potentially do well selling your products through brick and mortar stores. There is a relationship to build with the stores, and margins will be tight, but it’s possible to drive enough sales through a well-established nationwide parts store to make up for that – if you can handle the volume.
Moving in the other direction, all of the savvy brick and mortar stores are going online. For anyone that has parts in stock, or maintains inventory for another reason, it makes sense for them to be online and move that inventory faster. The first challenge is controlling stock levels and ensuring that they’re forecasting properly. That can depend on the kinds of parts they are selling. Air conditioning parts, for example, will be seasonal. They’re going to need some insight into typical buying patterns, but if they’re already selling those parts offline then their online sales will generally follow the same trends.
In this post, I’ve talked about the type of businesses who sell auto parts online and what kind of parts they sell. I’ve also explained who buys parts online and why.
Many of the challenges of selling parts online are the same as every other product category, but there are some specific issues to address. The most important is the unique problem of fitment. It’s crucial to handle fitment well to be successful as an online parts seller.
Finally, I covered some of the “alternative” sales channels for parts sellers to consider – Sears, Newegg, international and offline.
The potential for selling auto parts online is huge, and growing. I hope this article will help your business take advantage of it.
Adrian Klingel can be contacted through myFitment.