Most auto parts and supplies counter workers are employed by wholesale and retail automobile parts stores (usually referred to as jobbers in the trade) and automobile dealerships. The people who work in retail and wholesale parts stores sell parts for a wide variety of makes and models of cars and trucks. Their customers are usually independent repair shops, service stations, self-employed technicians, and "do it yourselfers." The counter workers in dealerships handle only the parts and supplies for the particular line of vehicles sold by the dealership. They spend most of their time dealing with the technicians and providing the part or parts requested by those technicians.
Parts stores and dealerships stock literally thousands of parts, and the counter worker must become familiar with most of them on sight to identify and locate the parts quickly for customers. Sometimes the customer may give only a vague description of the part needed, and the counter person must be able to determine what part is being requested. Especially at the retail level, the customer may ask for a "gizmo that connects to the intake manifold" and try to describe what it looks like. Since most of the time the customer telephones the store, the counter person might have to determine what the caller wants, look up the part in a catalog or a computer, and then check inventory to verify that the part is in stock. All this requires the counter person to have a thorough knowledge of the parts catalogs and the stockroom.
Once the counter person obtains the necessary item, he or she must check the price lists, collect the money from the customer, or fill out the billing forms.
Sometimes the necessary part is not in stock. In these cases, the counter person will have to check for an interchangeable part or place a special order. It may even be necessary to suggest another dealer.
Often the customer especially the “do it yourselfer” has no idea what is wrong with the vehicle. The above average counter person needs a good working knowledge of automobile mechanics and must be able to assist the customer in determining the problem and to suggest the part or parts needed to make the repair. Sometimes the counter person asks the customer to bring in the suspected malfunctioning part for examination. In some instances he or she may use special equipment to test the part, such as coil and condenser testers, spark plug testers, or other measuring instruments.
The parts counter person is often responsible for keeping catalogs and price lists up to date. He or she may stock shelves, unpack boxes, take inventories, place orders with suppliers, and set up displays for walk-in clientele.
Many of the larger supply stores may maintain a machine shop. Here they will resurface brake drums and disc brake rotors. Other shops have drill presses, hydraulic presses, and cylinder head re-facing equipment, valve-grinding machines, and more. Although some stores employ full time machinists, in many businesses the counter person has a chance to learn those skills too.
Automotive parts and supplies counter workers usually work in clean, well lit stockrooms where they enjoy air-conditioning as well as comfortable heating. Although most of the work is not physically strenuous, counter workers will spend a lot of the day on their feet. There is also a great deal of walking. Some of the parts may be quite heavy. There is some lifting involved. Unpacking incoming shipments can be a little strenuous at times.
If the counter person also performs machine shop work, he or she will use basic hand tools as well as special equipment. Although counter work is basically clean, machine shop work requires handling greasy and soiled components.
Since many people need their vehicles during the week for work, it is usually necessary for those in the automotive industry to work on Saturdays, Sundays, or both. When it is busy, there may be some strain from dealing with the public especially some of the more difficult customers or those who may need a good deal of advice. More and more parts and supply stores stay open in the evening for the convenience of their customers.
Often parts stores develop special arrangements with several local repair shops or service stations. These preferred customers often stock many of the fast moving parts at their place of business, since they cannot waste time running to the store or waiting for delivery of each and every part they need. If the store has such an arrangement, a counter person also may work as an outside sales person, visiting the repair shop on a regular basis, usually once a week, and inventorying the repair shop's stock. The salesperson then makes a list of the required items, reviews the list with the owner or manager of the shop, and returns to the store to fill the order. This gives the counter person some degree of mobility and freedom from the routine found in the store. This same person may be responsible for visiting other repair shops and developing new accounts. Preferred customers usually get special discount percentages from the regular prices, and the counter person computes the discount.
PLACES OF EMPLOYMENT
According to the United States Department of Labor, about one hundred thousand persons are employed as automotive counter workers. Most of them are employed by automobile dealers and retail automotive parts stores. The rest of the employers include wholesalers and distributors of automotive parts.
Although trucking companies, bus lines, and fleets that have their own technicians and shops also employ counter persons, these businesses usually do not sell to the public. There are opportunities for employment with these businesses, particularly in the retail and wholesale markets.
Almost anywhere in the country where automotive service is performed, there are parts stores. Since automobile dealerships, repair shops, and service stations are found throughout the nation, employment for automotive counter persons is also nationwide. People who work for trucking companies, bus lines, and fleets, however, are employed mainly in larger cities. The government reported that there were 164,360 auto repair shops and 98,846 gasoline service stations in the United States, based on the latest economic census. In addition there were 22,250 motor vehicle dealers, according to the national Automobile Dealers Association. That means there are almost 300,000 places in business that need parts and supplies. According to the AAIA, "today's U.S. motor vehicle aftermarket is a $250 billion industry employing millions of Americans at more than 500,000 business locations."
TRAINING AND QUALIFICATIONS
Most automotive parts counter persons learn the trade through on the job training. Beginners usually start as parts delivery persons or trainees. Sometimes they get started as stock or receiving clerks and work their way up.
Since most entry level workers begin as stock persons, they eventually become acquainted with their inventory and gradually familiarize themselves with the layout of the stockroom, the catalogs, and price lists. In as little as two or three months they may begin waiting on customers, but it usually takes at least two years to become proficient enough to handle all the various aspects of the job well.
For the most part, employers prefer high school graduates. Occasionally, a student is able to get a part-time job after school or on weekends as a stock clerk. In any event it is best to have some knowledge of automobiles and an interest in how they operate and are repaired.
The high school student should be sure to take mathematics courses, as well as courses in auto mechanics, merchandising, selling, bookkeeping, and even typing. It is important to be able to spell and to have good grammar. It is also helpful to get some practical experience by working on cars and light trucks.
Working at a service station, repair shop, or even as a hobby is invaluable in helping you to gain knowledge.
If you have any supervisory skills or management training or experience, you will probably become a parts department manager or store manager. If you are exceptionally good at dealing with the public, you may be interested in outside sales. The ever popular dream of owning your own business often comes true for the person with good business sense and ambition.
The United States Department of Labor expects the outlook for automotive counter workers to remain constant through 2008. It is an almost recession proof industry. Whenever the economy is down, fewer new cars are purchased. As a result, many older cars are being driven longer, and that means more parts are going to wear out and fail. In 1996, the average car age was 8.6 years. The Department of Labor indicates that the automobile replacement parts industry is somewhat immune from changing economic conditions and demand is steady. Openings are expected to be created when workers retire or transfer to some other occupation.
On the other hand, this same technology is already creating a need for exclusively new parts, since many of the old ones are incompatible with the cars being built today. As an example, the automotive air-conditioning systems that were used for many years are no longer compatible with the new ones.