An E Commerce Holdout Softens

June 25, 2004
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GRAND HAVEN — In an industry where a large portion of clients’ revenue is centered on a tight distribution network, an online marketer or e-commerce consultant might not receive the warmest of welcomes.

“The automotive distribution chain is a tough nut to crack,” said Luanne Brown, owner of eTool Developers. “They’re afraid to go e-commerce because they don’t want manufacturers to sell and they want to keep using these warehouse distributors — and the warehouse distributors don’t want manufacturers to find out who the retailers are.”

Historically drawn to small retailers, performance auto enthusiasts — including drag racers and classic hot rod owners — not only purchase parts from local shops but often develop close relationships with the proprietors.

The performance auto parts shop is as much the center of the hobby as the garage in which the parts are installed or the strip on which the vehicles cruise or perform.

An exclusive network of distributors provides parts to those retailers, and that distribution system has mostly survived the birth of the Internet unscathed. Retailers, distributors and manufacturers have all been content to stay out of the e-commerce arena, and most have shown little interest in change.

“The industry is about 10 years behind as far as IT goes,” Brown said. “But they are slowly getting on board. They’re not that interested in e-commerce yet, but they are all interested in electronic cataloging.”

Through her relationship with the Special Equipment Market Association (SEMA) and Performance Warehouse Association (PWA), eTool Developers is bringing manufacturers and now distributors online without disrupting the status quo.

Although Brown would like nothing less than to provide every manufacturer and distributor its own Web sales presence, eTool is providing the industry with a means of not only keeping the distribution network intact but making it more efficient.

The first step has been to convert the parts catalogs into electronic format.

“You see these counter people with tons of these paper catalogs,” Brown said. “And it costs so much to update them. It is so much better online, and the industry is just starting to come onboard with that.”

While providing marketing sites for Magnuts and InjectoClean, eTool has facilitated development of an electronic catalog for Barry Grant Inc., manufacturer of BG Fuel Systems, Demon Carburetion, Nitrous Works and Rush Performance Filters.

The key to eTool’s success in the industry is that rather than offering e-commerce, it is providing catalog databases and a locator system. An enthusiast will still have to go directly to a retail outlet, but the Internet will help them find the nearest location.

The PAR, a group of performance automotive retailers sponsored by the Performance Warehouse Association, last month unveiled a locator Web site at www.parlocator.com that directs enthusiasts to the nearest three, five or 10 PWA retailers that stock a specific brand and provides maps to those locations.

That site was developed for eTool by gNetworks of Grand Rapids, the exclusive developer of online products for all of eTool’s accounts.

The two companies have a relationship dating back not only the three years of eTool’s existence, but also to the previous employers of both companies’ principals. Brown was with Media 1 Interactive and gNetwork’s Deign Hughes was vice president of Sagestone Consulting.

“We’ve been working with Luanne on a number of opportunities that she has,” Hughes said.

“She has a particular interest in the high-performance auto parts supply chain, and she has developed some strong relationships there that she is able to take advantage of.”

The PWA has invited Brown to its annual conference this September and will endorse her as a service provider of Internet marketing.

Although the intention is that she will provide locators and marketing sites for other manufacturers, Brown knows that as a more technologically savvy generation takes over the hobby — especially within the realm of the sports compact enthusiast — the demand to buy parts online will increase.

“E-commerce is a black sheep for a lot of these manufacturers,” Brown explained.

“But what’s happening is, there’s a lot of these small online parts distributors popping up and shipping products — and the warehouse distributors are realizing that they are going to have to get on board or they are going to lose business.

“I hate to tell people this because I’m really sitting in a prime position to make this happen for these guys,” she said, “but I think it’s to the point where they know it’s inevitable and they will have to find teams to do it.”

Brown began eTool with a core competency in the development of training and instructional manuals and marketing presentations in digital formats using animation computer software for Web sites, CD-ROMS and personal assistants.

“What I really want to do is get back into training,” she said.

“I want to create animation that trains a specific tool or simulates what a tool does, or how you can, say, get more drivability out of a carburetor. I want to provide tools that can be used by end-users as well as salespeople.”

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