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DIY is still alive

Although projected to decline, DIY auto repair should remain strong
Thursday, March 3, 2016 - 09:00
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Back in the ’60s, do-it-yourselfers (DIYers) were about as welcome in auto parts stores as a funeral director would be at an elderly person’s birthday party.

This was quite a paradox because cars were easy to work on but a disciplined three-step distribution system catered to professional mechanics. And the store operators, that the distributors owned or sold to, reflected an apathetic attitude toward DIYers. The clear evidence of this was that the stores were dingy and dark and the countermen were unfriendly, obstinate and patronizing to DIYers.

Then, as if there was a collective epiphany by the entire auto parts industry, the concept that selling automotive parts and products to people off the street just might be profitable. In fact, when they realized the concept had merit, they called the DIY customers, the “Cash Trade.”

The industry rode this horse for about 25 years but then decided that vehicles were starting to get too complicated with an increasing amount of systems being regulated by electronics. Slowly, the industry started loosing faith in the DIYers' ability to keep up with more sophisticated vehicles and started concentrating more on the do-it-for-me (DIFM) market. Even auto parts retailers, that were conceived from and built on the DIY trade, started shifting to a DIFM focus.

In addition to vehicle complexity, the Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association (AASA), a U.S. trade association, also cited an aging population and changing consumer preferences as reasons for the DIY decline. As a result of these forces, AASA, in its “DIFM Outlook 2025: A Dynamic Battleground” report, predicts a steady market percentage decline for DIY through 2025; however, DIY dollar volume will remain constant due to economic necessity and a large number of older vehicles that need regular maintenance.

Although AASA says that many people are forced to work on their own vehicles because of limited income, most do not have the skill or the sophisticated equipment needed to work on today’s complex vehicles. Furthermore, the association says repairs are becoming increasingly difficult and predicts fewer DIYers will be tackling them. The exception, AASA says, is working professionals using their pickup trucks in their businesses. They are more likely to work on their vehicles to keep them on the road so that there aren’t any interruptions in their businesses and, as a result, the DIY light truck market will remain strong. I also believe pickup truck owners, in general, are more prone to keep their vehicles longer and enjoy working on them.

More evidence of the DIY market remaining viable comes from an industry report that cited an AutoParts Warehouse study which found 90 percent of DIY respondents would continue to work on their vehicles even if their financial situations improved significantly. Moreover, the easy access to parts online and YouTube demonstrations were cited by 80 percent of the study’s respondents as determinants for continuing with their DIY work.

Shop owners across the U.S. seem to be counting on the DIY market to remain vibrant and have found ways to address AASA’s concern about DIYers lacking the skill and equipment to fix today’s vehicles. One such owner is John Pannella of Wichita, Kansas. According to an industry journal, he turned a low-performing lube business, which was a companion business to his car wash and full-service repair shop on the same property, into a DIY shop in which he supplies whatever DIYers need, including the space, tools, equipment and, if needed, assistance from a technician.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone in the aftermarket. Every time DIYers have been faced with technology obstacles, they have found a way to deal with them. For instance, a DIY death notice was written when ABS brakes were introduced to the market. But by the time ABS-equipped vehicles came into the aftermarket, all the help that was needed to repair them was waiting from a variety of sources. At the time, the ABS obstacle seemed as insurmountable as lane departure technology or park assist systems seem today. Mark my words, technology by itself will not kill the DIY market.

Finally, there’s no doubt that we should watch the macro DIY trends. But entrepreneurs should not be dissuaded from jumping in with both feet to address DIY needs as long as they do their homework. A large part of that homework is to know the demographics of the area being served. If the area has residents who are older and affluent, they are much less likely to do DIY work. On the other hand, if the area consists of lower income workers or DIYers who are hardcore vehicle customizers, success is likely for those auto businesses that want to serve them.

Clearly, what you don’t want to do is ignore the DIY opportunities that exist. Sometimes you have to look a little harder to find them and to be a little more creative to address them. 

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