By Dave Leder
If you really look around, you can find a handful of family-owned and operated auto parts stores in Eastern Washington.
But every year — with every new chain store and every new e-commerce website — the options are becoming more scarce.
As AutoZone and O’Reilly stores continue to flood the auto parts market, the mom-and-pop stores have found it exceedingly difficult to hang on.
Those stores that haven’t closed down, like Chambers Auto Supply in Wapato and Zillah Auto Parts, typically operate under a larger umbrella like Federated Auto Parts, a national brand that has many local ownership groups.
A very small number of family-owned and operated shops exist today. (Word has it you can find them in Pendleton, Oregon, and Moscow, Idaho.)
However, that doesn’t mean the concept of quality customer service delivered by local technicians is a thing of the past.
“Service has become our niche, but you don’t want to lean too heavily on that because people have so many options nowadays. You also need to offer competitive prices,” said John Ibach, who owns the local Federated Auto Parts group with brothers Kevin and Jon Pitzer.
“We feel like our dedication to service and our staff’s knowledge base differentiate us from the competition. But we want to sell the oil and wiper blades, too.”
One way Federated has been able to set itself apart in the local markets has been its focus on agricultural parts and service.
The typical part-time chain store employee may not know the ins and outs of farming equipment like the Federated employee who has worked in the fields himself.
“We still understand what those towns are all about because we live here and we’ve spent time at every one of our stores,” Kevin Pitzer said, adding that all of his company’s decisions are made locally, not in a big-city board room.
“We have some guys who customers come to see specifically because they are familiar with old rigs or tractors. We see a lot of loyalty because of that expertise.”
Aside from taking care of their customers, one way the Yakima Federated group has managed to thrive in an increasingly challenging auto parts market is through corporate buying power and product diversification.
Federated belongs to a national buying group that allows them to keep prices competitive. But they’ve also expanded their business in recent years to focus on auto paint, a growing market segment.
“We’ve been doing very well the past three or four years by selling some of the top brands,” Ibach said. “We’ve been pretty aggressive with it in the Tri-Cities, and our Wenatchee store is just auto paint. Now we’re hoping it will take off here in Yakima.”
The Yakima Federated group owns 10 locations in Eastern Washington, including a parts warehouse on South Front Street.
Aside from Chambers and Zillah Auto Parts, their other local stores are K&U Auto Parts in Sunnyside, Gap Auto Parts in Union Gap and Yakima Grinding, the original machine shop opened by the Pitzers’ grandfather, Vic, in 1945.
They also have the Wenatchee paint shop, QMS in Quincy, House of Automotive Parts and Paint in Pasco, and Goldendale Auto Supply, which they acquired earlier this year.
E-Commerce Cutting Into Pie
Another local business in the Yakima Valley experiencing similar challenges is Triangle Auto Supply.
Like other locally based auto parts companies, Triangle has been feeling the squeeze from the national competitors, as well as the growing number of websites that offer similar product lines at steadily shrinking profit margins.
Even Amazon.com is getting in on the action. Industry estimates have projected the Internet giant will soon be selling $10 billion in auto parts alone.
“The e-commerce pressure is becoming really tough,” said James DeGrasse, who owns Triangle Auto Parts with his brother, Todd. “It’s a lot like clothing sales at department stores. People are going for convenience, and they can get their purchase delivered to them right away. That’s probably the biggest challenge we have going forward.”
Triangle, located on Arlington Avenue, off South First Street, faces the same challenges as other small auto parts companies. But like Federated, they belong to a national buying group that helps them keep prices competitive.
Triangle sells only imported car parts, and DeGrasse says owning that niche locally has allowed them to remain a force in the Yakima market.
His father, John DeGrasse, changed the focus of the business to become an import specialist in 1971, and that helped Triangle separate itself over the past 40-plus years.
The company also acquired a Napa Auto Parts store in Yakima six years ago, which allowed it to be more competitive in the agricultural, industrial and commercial transportation arenas.
But today, with national chain stores on every corner, not to mention big box stores that sell auto parts, companies have to figure out new ways to stand out.
It’s becoming harder every year, DeGrasse said.
“Surviving in this environment is hard because we’re being squeezed from all different angles,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re selling here in Yakima. As a small business owner, you’re battling every day.”
Like Federated, Triangle also prides itself on service. But DeGrasse says that while customer service and staff knowledge are crucial in a small market, price and availability usually win the day.
“When your car breaks down on a Sunday, you want it fixed now — not when your favorite shop opens on Monday,” he said. “What happens is they go to one of the chain stores and get what they want.
“We’re not open on Sundays, so we can’t compete with that. In a perfect world, we would hope people would come to us for our knowledge and quality parts. But everyone today is driven by convenience, and the choices are literally endless.”
The Triangle owners also recognize that they are fortunate to be in a market like Yakima.
Similar businesses on the west side of the state were swallowed up years ago by national conglomerates and consolidations. The chances of finding a family-owned auto parts shop in the Puget Sound region these days are slim to none.
DeGrasse says he is thankful that the local auto parts market didn’t get displaced like the locally owned pet shops when PetCo and PetSmart came in over the past 20 years.
“Yakima is unique because it’s just far enough away from the big city that we haven’t been the focus of a big takeover,” he said.
“Some of our survival can be attributed to the fact that we’re over here in a relatively isolated geographic area. But what happened to the pet stores is happening to other businesses, too. We just hope it takes a little while.”
So if there’s no stopping the inevitable onslaught of big box stores and e-commerce sites, what does the future of local auto parts stores look like? Different, sure. But the locally owned businesses remain optimistic.
“We’re part of the communities we serve, one of those places you can have some coffee and talk for a while,” said Kevin Pitzer of Federated Auto Parts. “We have that extra experience, that extra helpfulness that people here appreciate. In small farming communities, that’s a big deal.”
If anything, Federated is looking forward to expanding its role in Eastern Washington, perhaps by stepping in and buying more stores like the one in Goldendale.
Whenever Federated acquires a store, they make an effort to maintain its local appeal. The owners believe their customers have come to expect that level of service.
“We have always been about serving small towns, and whenever we go somewhere new, we do our best to connect with them,” Ibach said. “We’re not a cookie-cutter kind of place. We’re not going to change things around.
“You tell us what’s important in your community and we’ll embrace it. That’s what sets us apart.”