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Battling the big boxes

Profile: Bouquet Auto Parts survives competition, recession through service, employee expertise

Posted: August 30, 2010 10:43 p.m.
Updated: August 31, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Bouquet Auto Parts Manager Owen Powell, left, and employee Lars Svancoe look over new lights which arrive at their store on Monday afternoon.

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Joe Klein, of Santa Clarita, works in the movie industry as a special-effects technician — a fact that conjures up visions of high-tech resources and top-secret technology.

But sometimes when Klein needs a special gadget or custom equipment, it’s to Bouquet Auto Parts that he goes shopping.

“In one case, we had to build a go-mobile for a stunt car,” Klein says, referring to a small cage that can be attached to a vehicle. The stunt driver actually drives the vehicle from the cage while the actors sit inside and pretend to do so.

“The guys at Bouquet Auto Parts came down to see what we needed and helped us out,” Klein said.

“We needed help building it, and they found all the parts for us to build it.”

City grows up around local business
Bouquet Canyon Road was still a two-lane highway used by a smattering of local Saugus residents and visitors trekking to Lombardi Ranch when Bouquet Auto Parts opened in 1989.

The independent, locally owned auto parts store is still in business at the corner of Bouquet and Seco canyon roads while many other businesses have come and gone through the years.

The city has experienced tremendous growth since its incorporation in 1987; it is now the fourth largest in Los Angeles County with a population projected by the California Department of Finance to exceed 181,000 this year.

The rapid growth has translated into increased competition for Bouquet Auto Parts as more independent and chain-store auto part suppliers opened their doors.

“Small business is the backbone of any economy. In Santa Clarita, there are more small businesses here than any other form of business,” said Jason Crawford, economic development manager for the city of Santa Clarita.

“This is one of the reasons why the city develops programs that will benefit the small-business owner, which in turn will benefit our entire community through jobs, local spending and access to goods and services.”

Local economic strength
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, small businesses represented more than 99 percent of all employer firms in 2007 and employed a little more than half of all private-sector workers.

While small businesses may employ fewer people at each location, that does not necessarily equate to less employment in the overall community.

“Small businesses are vital to the local community and tax base. For every one chain store, there may be 10 to 20 local businesses that, combined, hire more employees than some of the local chain stores,” said Owen Powell, manager of Bouquet Auto Parts and a local resident since 2006.

“A lot of people don’t realize the full benefit of small businesses in that the owners and employees of these businesses also live locally,” said Ed Masterson, CEO of the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce. “The people have jobs, so they pay taxes and turn around and spend money at other local businesses. It becomes self-perpetuating.”

Bouquet Auto Parts is locally owned, and all six employees live in Santa Clarita.

“Not to say that the large chain stores aren’t important to Santa Clarita, because they are, but small businesses continue to be the backbone of a lot of communities, including our own,” said Masterson.

Parts availability
Powell said Bouquet Auto is able to compete with chain auto parts stores because of product availability.

“We’re very responsive to the local community in a way that chain stores can’t be, due to size and corporate structure,” he said.

“It might take three to seven days to get a part ordered from a local chain store, because they have to go through their regional distribution centers,” he said. “We can often supply the part on the same day it’s ordered.”

“We’re not restrained by a corporate rule book.”

Powell said Bouquet Auto Parts does whatever it takes to get a customer the part he needs.

“We’ll track down any part. Last week, we got a water pump that a customer needed for their ’73 Rolls Royce.”

The local auto-parts supplier is able to tailor its inventory to vehicles local residents drive most. And it replenishes inventory on a daily basis.

Special-effects technician Klein has a hobby working on classic cars and hot rods.

“Most auto-parts stores have no idea what to do with a car that has so many different manufacturing parts,” he said. “The guys at Bouquet Auto Parts understand, and any time I have an odd request they know what I need and help me out. Anything I need, they get it for me.”

Customer Perry Keiser, of Saugus, has been shopping at Bouquet Auto Parts for about eight years and relies on the business to find unusual parts. He and his sons have a hobby building four-wheel-drive vehicles, which they sometimes customize.

“They have lots of sources and will do the research for me,” Keiser said. “Then they get back to me with what they found.
They’re really helpful, a big benefit to me because I work and don’t have the time myself.”

“Chains operate based on how many turns they get from a product, and stock the most in-demand products,” Powell said.

“We’ll stock any part we know our local customers need. We will even supply parts for their boats and trailers.”

A representative of a local chain auto-parts store in the Santa Clarita Valley could not speak on the record, but he confirmed the accessories and parts the store stocks are based on decisions made by a corporate office. The company tracks part numbers and, if a product hasn’t sold in four to six months, the parts are returned to the vendor.

The employee said the store could also order a part overnight — if it was a part routinely stocked in its distribution center.

If not, the store would need to place a special order, and those parts can average three to five days turnaround time.

He confirmed that the store employees do not track down parts for customers, but rely on the warehouse center to do so.

Selection and prices
The one advantage the larger auto-parts chain stores do have is greater selection and larger quantities. Based on their larger volume purchasing capacity, the chain stores often have lower prices on accessory items. One shopper, John Latushko, of Saugus, agreed.

“I do use the chains to get soft parts and accessories because the local auto parts stores don’t always carry some of the items or have as broad a selection. But I rely on Bouquet Auto Parts for everything else.”

“Hard parts” — the parts that make a car run — make up 90 percent of Bouquet Auto’s business. The percentage is lower for chain stores, which tend to offer more accessories or “soft parts.”

Prices on hard parts do not vary greatly between an independent or chain store operation.

In a price survey conducted at Auto Zone, Kragen Auto Parts, Pep Boys and Bouquet Auto Parts, there was very little
difference between the price checks on a water pump, front-brake pads and starter solenoid for a 2001 Chevy Camaro,

Bouquet Auto Parts’ prices ranged from $1 to $20 less on comparable products.

Service with a personal touch
Another differentiating factor is often the personal service that an independent business provides.

Small businesses compete against large enterprises by offering what many chain-operated businesses cannot: personalized service.

“We have a great customer base and put service as No. 1. We place a high value on our customers,” said Powell.

Powell emphasized Bouquet Auto Parts will take the time to explain how to make a repair or replace a part, even if it means spending 30 minutes with one customer.

Employees have walked out to owners’ cars and helped them with easy installations, such as batteries.

“This is a service our customers tell us many chain auto-parts stores won’t do,” he said.

Keiser likes shopping at the local store because of the overall personal experience he has whenever he walks into the store.

“It’s a great place. They’re good guys. It’s great to walk into a store where the people know you and greet you by name. They just have really great personalized service,” said Keiser.

Expert in residence
While many large operations rely on hiring employees and training them for specific roles, such as cashier or inventory control, Bouquet Auto Parts hires people with a professional mechanic background so they know what the customer needs.

Powell said the company’s employees are also certified for parts customer service by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. The institute is an organization that encourages excellence in auto repair. Certification requires passing a test, and those certified must re-qualify every four years.

The spokesman for a large local auto-parts chain store said it did not necessarily hire employees with a mechanic background in the parts department, but the firm does do its own training.

Latushko said he always uses Bouquet Auto Parts for the knowledge, expertise and service it provides when he’s working on one of his cars.

“They don’t just hand me a product off the shelf and tell me it cost $20. They’ll tell me everything else I need to know about installing the part,” he said.

Bouquet Auto Parts also references more than just computerized lists when matching parts to a specific vehicle.

Hard-copy parts guides that were used prior to computer cataloging are also used.

“Computer listings don’t provide all the background information,” Powell said. “They’re abbreviated answers. For instance, you might look up a part a particular car needs, say a ‘grease seal,’ and only get one part number.” The reference books provide his team with additional information on that grease seal, such as outlining the inner and outer diameter, any notices issued regarding use of the part on a vehicle made after a specific year, recommend optional part numbers and more.

Klein, the special-effects technician, said he hasn’t shopped at a chain store since he found the local store. He feels most of the people behind the counter at the chains are “button pushers” unable to help him with special parts and service he needs.

During the price survey, when asking for distributor cap and rotor information, Bouquet Auto Parts caught the fact that the vehicle used in the comparison shopping did not have a distributor cap and rotor.

Yet chain stores Auto Zone and Kragen quoted products and prices on their websites for such a replacement part.

The Pep Boys website did not return any information for the part request. However, it also did not provide any information relative to the specific vehicle in question, potentially leaving a shopper to erroneously conclude it just did not carry the part.

Survival in the recession
The current recession has driven Bouquet Auto Parts — which for years was open Monday through Sunday until midnight — to curtail hours by closing at 9 p.m. daily and 6 p.m. Sundays.

Asked why the business has survived competition and the recession, Powell  pointed out that because money is tight, people who might have taken their cars in to a repair shop a few years ago are trying to make the repairs themselves today. This dynamic has helped to a degree.

Powell also stressed service and parts availability as key to survival.

“They are very flexible about getting the right parts for me,” Keiser said of Bouquet Auto. “They provide very personal and expert service.”

Crawford, Santa Clarita’s economic development manager, summed up the importance of small businesses.

“So many residents are small-business owners hiring neighbors and local Santa Claritans,” Crawford said. “They’re integrated into the community so that they’re really a part of who we are a city.”

“We’re very closely tied to the community,” Powell affirmed. “If it weren’t for the loyalty of our customers, we wouldn’t be here.”

jadkins@the-signal.com

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