During the pandemic, automotive aftermarket retailers and distributors accelerated their shift towards e-commerce – driven by the need to provide customers with a safe and convenient way to shop for auto parts. (E-commerce platforms, of course, allow customers to order online and either have parts shipped to them or opt for curbside pickup, reducing the need for in-store visits.)
The pandemic led many businesses to invest in digital infrastructure: improved websites, online catalogues, and streamlined ordering processes. These changes not only catered to immediate safety concerns but aligned with the broader consumer trend toward online shopping.
“Our e-commerce business has been ramping up in general,” explains Nick Bintas, co-owner of Spark Auto Electric in Scarborough, Ontario. “We did not experience a significant uptick in e-commerce use during Covid. As an essential service during the pandemic, we still had our guys coming into work, and our customers still called in and came by for parts or had them delivered.”
The company’s e-commerce market continues to grow, he adds. “We are about 70/30 for call-ins and e-commerce customers, and we continue to work towards growing those numbers on the e-commerce side.”
According to Rufus Sweet, owner of Chester Auto Supplies, a NAPA associate in Chester, Nova Scotia, “Even though our website is quite detailed to find what you need, not all orders are black and white. Some customers still need to talk with our staff to determine their needs. It’s also a confidence thing, for customers who are used to speaking with us, to make that transition to e-commerce.”
During the height of the pandemic, consumers who may not have previously shopped online for auto parts became more comfortable with e-commerce options. This shift in behaviour may have lasting effects, with some customers continuing to prefer online ordering for its convenience, vast selection, and often competitive pricing.
“When dealing with import models or fluids for various makes, it’s often necessary to speak with one of our guys to ensure you are getting the correct grade of oil or part for that specific vehicle,” explains Bintas. “Customers will continue to have reasons to call in, but at the same time, we do expect our e-commerce to continue to grow. The younger techs entering the market are more comfortable using e-commerce, and we expect this segment to drive e-commerce growth.
“Most of our customers still prefer to call in orders rather than online. They have built relationships with our guys and are comfortable talking to them. They often need the make, year, and model assistance to get the right part. For example, you must be careful with European vehicles when ordering parts.”
As restrictions eased and non-contact requirements were relaxed, automotive aftermarket businesses began to adopt a more hybrid approach. Many continue offering online ordering and curbside pickup options, while welcoming customers back into physical stores. This omni-channel approach caters to various customer preferences.
“During the pandemic, our business remained steady, which surprised us,” says Sweet. “People off work decided to do a lot of repairs themselves, so we had more consumer traffic in the store, and our wholesale side did not drop off as much as we expected. So we were able to weather that storm well. We decided to stock and sell PPE gloves, masks, and cleaners during the pandemic, which sold well and helped to bolster sales.”
The digital transformation of the automotive parts industry has also led to improved customer experiences. Online platforms provide detailed product information, reviews, and compatibility checks, making it easier for customers to find the right vehicle parts.
“On the consumer side, it is still about 95 per cent call-in and walk-in orders, and about five per cent that orders online. On the wholesale side, we are now at about 70 per cent e-commerce and 30 per cent call-ins,” adds Sweet.
The pandemic revealed vulnerabilities in global supply chains, affecting the availability of some auto parts. This experience has led some customers to return to traditional shopping methods, especially for urgent needs, where they can physically check availability.
The highly competitive automotive aftermarket has adapted to digital channels to gain a competitive edge. However, traditional brick-and-mortar retailers also have loyal customer bases, and will continue to serve a significant portion of the market.
“We compete with Amazon, as does every other store. You also have Walmart selling parts which they outsource, so there is a lot of competition,” notes Sweet. “Some people have bad experiences with places like Amazon, getting the wrong part and having to send it back. This can put people off e-commerce.”
The automotive aftermarket industry has experienced significant digital transformation during the pandemic, and e-commerce has played a crucial role in providing convenience and safety for customers.
While non-contact requirements are no longer mandatory, the shift towards e-commerce and digital ordering will likely continue, combining online and offline options to cater to a diverse customer base.