Motoring ahead

Once, you would be hard-pressed to find a truly useful site for weekend car hobbyists. The NAPA provides an enlightening case study of a successful online venture in the automotive parts industry.
Written by Rory J. Thompson, Contributor

For those of us who do nothing more strenuous all week than wheel a mouse or lift a phone, working on our cars on the weekend offers a welcome relief. But sometimes, finding the parts needed to make repairs or customize a car can take as long as the work itself.

One way to avoid the hassle of driving from store to store would be to go to a website, search for your parts, and have that site direct you to a single brick-and-mortar location where you could pick up everything you need. A year ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find such a site. Then along came NAPAonline.

Founded in 1925, the National Automotive Parts Association (NAPA) has grown to more than 6,000 auto-parts stores, with 69 distribution centers, nearly 10,000 affiliated NAPA AutoCare Centers and more than 200,000 parts in inventory - every day. Still, they weren't achieving their full potential.

The majority of NAPA's business was in B2B services, dealing mostly with fleets and municipalities. They had little "walk-in" business, due in part to out-of-the-way stores and no Internet presence.

Revving Up

John Hanighen, VP of market development at NAPA, had the idea in early 1999 to leverage NAPA's thousands of stores to serve the online consumer in the e-marketplace, and he set the bar pretty high in the process.

"This relationship of the Internet and the present infrastructure should exceed an e-commerce customer's expectations," he said. And thus NAPAonline was born.

NAPA already had one leg up on the competition; it had an ongoing relationship with IBM. Jim Neiser, VP of distribution channel marketing for the IBM Software Group, explains: "[NAPA's] back-end systems already ran on IBM AS/400 and S/390s [now part of IBM's eServers, iSeries and zSeries] and used MQSeries. A key component to building an e-commerce site was to be able to build upon their existing IBM back-end systems."

Still, taking on a project of the size Hanighen envisioned was daunting. After going through an RFP process, NAPA decided to work with two IBM Business Partners, including Answerthink for Web integration and Kana for customer-relationship management. IBM's Net.Commerce (now WebSphere Commerce Suite) served as the transaction engine.

Luis Perez, the NAPA project manager from Answerthink, highlights the various roles his consulting firm faced. "We helped NAPA define what their Net strategy should be. From the beginning, we helped build their solution end-to-end, including interface, design, brand management and implementation. We also provided marketing and branding services."

At the peak of the project, there were more than 30 people from Answerthink working on the effort, divided into two teams. "It was a very challenging project," Perez says, "but our biggest problem was time, trying to meet a very aggressive time line." Indeed, once Hanighen gave the go-ahead, the clock was set toward a promised completion date in Q1 2000.

Second Gear

In the fall of '99, Keith Schamis signed on as general manager for NAPA Online, and he had his work cut out for him. "The original scope of the project to the end scope changed rather significantly," he explains. Schamis had envisioned several goals for the effort. "We hoped to open up another channel on the Web, to put a 'placeholder' there for NAPA itself. In the long term, we wanted to be able to link store owners to an Internet consumer," he says.

With the Web site, NAPA hoped to expand its market share overall, extend the NAPA brand online, and grow to dominate the online market in the auto-parts industry. A major challenge for the company was the ability to leverage all of its existing assets - history, distribution capabilities and volume of stores - quickly, in order to ensure that the rapid influx of dot-com competitors did not have an opportunity to entrench themselves.

One of the major concerns voiced by NAPA retailers was that a comprehensive Web site eventually would put them out of business, allowing customers to go directly to the Web instead of into their stores.

There were many challenges, according to Answerthink's Perez. "We were trying to understand from a technology standpoint what NAPA wanted to achieve," he says. "In many cases, we discovered business needs that had never been part of the traditional brick-and-mortar model. We worked very closely with the NAPA team to integrate online needs with the off-line world, such as buying an item online and returning it at a physical store."

Rounding The Curve

IBM, with Neiser spearheading the effort, was responsible for keeping things moving forward. "IBM hosted four or five architectural meetings with all of the players during the course of the project," Neiser says. "NAPA looked to IBM for leadership on the project, to make sure that all of the technology came together smoothly, and to make sure that deadlines were completed on time. Weekly status meetings were hosted by Answerthink to coordinate with various players, including IBM."

As with any project these days, the team also had problems getting the necessary technical help to pull it all together. Perez explains: "On occasion, we had difficulty finding skilled resources to meet certain specialized technology needs - [experienced] AIX, Net.Commerce and DB2 resources are in high demand and can be challenging to find. Although we had many of these skills internally, we did work with partners for support throughout the project."

One of those partners was Kana, a provider of enterprise-relationship-management solutions. According to Dave Fowler, senior VP of marketing for Kana, his company was brought into the project via its partnership with IBM. "We got involved in helping NAPAonline build e-service, which is everything you need to do to service a customer's request," he says.

Kana set up personal portals at the site, giving the customer the ability to see tracking information, such as queries or order status. Two key products from Kana were used: Kana Service, an application that integrates the interactions between the contact center and the Web site, and E-Business Platform, Web-based technology that easily integrates with existing apps and scales to meet demands, ranging from hundreds to millions of customer transactions.

"The platform is designed to be dynamic," Fowler says. "If we can't respond immediately to a customer inquiry, the customer is given a number of options so they feel like they have a choice."

Down the road, NAPA online may offer its visitors the choice of speaking online to a customer service rep in real time. If and when that option becomes available, Kana is ready to step in and make it happen.

According to Schamis, NAPAonline is working very well, and the retailers have been mollified. Schamis says that rather than the website leaching business from stores, it's allowing shoppers to choose their parts online, print their list and bring it to a NAPA retail outlet to get the order filled.

"A lot of the goals we anticipated have been met," Schamis emphasizes. "We shook up a number of our dot-com competitors; they're still in business, but NAPA has been able to solidify a presence online, which is a point for retailers to rally around."

And that's not just a proud parent bragging, either. In its October issue, industry bible Automotive Marketing named NAPA online one of the best transactional sites in the aftermarket (where folks go to buy self-repair or customized parts for their cars). It was also the highest-rated site by the magazine's "mystery shoppers" for customer service, ease of marketing and more.

Clearly, as NAPAonline prepares to expand its site and offerings in the new year, it's in the passing lane and gaining speed.

At A Glance

Customer: National Automotive Parts Assn.

Size: 6,000+ stores nationwide

Specialty: Automotive replacement parts

Business Needs: Capitalize on the strength and brand of the brick-and-mortar name and carry it over to the Web

Lead Integrator: IBM

Key Hardware: IBM AS400 and S/390s, and MQSeries

Key Software: Kana Service, Kana E-Business Platform

Partners: Answerthink, Kana

Competitors: Expressautoparts.com, carparts.com

Deal Maker: NAPA's previous ongoing relationship with IBM

Development Time: Nine months

Result: In October, Automotive Marketing magazine named NAPAonline one of the best transactional sites for auto parts.

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