Continuing our article series from Schwartz Advisors, Managing Partner Derek Kaufman compares and contrasts an old-school hardware store from his childhood against the robotic and efficient modern stocking methods we are seeing today and in the future of auto parts retailing.
One of the fondest memories of my childhood is going to Wertman’s Hardware store with my Dad in the small town of Weatherly, Pennsylvania. I can remember the look and smell of the three-story store that served the do-it-yourselfers in our town of 2,600.
As a 10-year-old boy, most adults looked big to me, but Bill Wertman was especially large. He had a standard uniform of faded overalls worn over a plaid shirt, and no matter the time of day, there was a two-inch stub of a wet unlit cigar in the left corner of his mouth and half-inch-wide flat pencil tucked behind his right ear. Bill greeted everyone entering the store by their first name and he probably knew the project they were working on.
“Morning Bob. I see you have your helper with you this morning. How’s that addition coming along?”
“Morning Bill – things are going fine, but I broke off an old carriage bolt and I’m hoping you have a replacement.”
Then commenced “the search.” Bill would slowly shuffle to a huge wooden cabinet full of 6×6 drawers with brass pull handles. He would take the corroded and broken bolt head from my father and walk down the cabinet until he reached the right bolt size drawer. You could tell what level of inventory Bill had of that bolt by how hard it was to pull out the drawer. Too easy of a pull? Bill might be low on stock.
But stock outages were not the end of the trip to Wertman’s. They simply signaled “Phase 2” of the search, in which Bill would say “Wait a minute, Bob, I might have something upstairs.” Now began a 15-minute period in which you heard Bill slowly clomping up one or two flights of steps while my Dad and I would do some impulse wishing. It was “wishing” because my Dad never bought what he didn’t absolutely need, but he loved walking around Wertman’s store looking at the new tools that had recently arrived.
At the end of Phase 2, Bill would appear from the upstairs with what looked like an ancient bag dug up in some archeological discovery. In the bag were two carriage bolts that were obviously manufactured around the same time as the original one my Dad had broken as he remodeled our home. Bill’s cigar was still the same length, he hadn’t looked at any form of inventory documentation, and you were left wondering what other safety stock Bill had on the second and third floors.
Taking your helper with you to search for hardware items or auto parts might be a little different in the future.
Maybe you will enter the store and simply place your broken carriage bolt on a RadarCat pad on the counter. That’s the device the University of St. Andrews in Scotland is developing based on the original work of Google in their Project Soli hand gesture recognition program. St. Andrews is building a “Library of Things” and a machine learning algorithm that will allow RadarCat to understand that the object you placed on the pad is a broken carriage bolt of a certain size and thread pattern. It will then search the store’s inventory and send a signal to Navii, the store’s retrieval robot. Navii will bring you the bolt and automatically charge your bank or bit coin account once you approve the purchase.
Is there a “Phase 2” search in your future store visit? Possibly, but it won’t include Navii clomping up the back steps. Instead, the store will search the entire inventory of other sister stores within a convenient distance. If you don’t want to drive around, a Navii retrieval robot in a nearby store will retrieve your part and call an Uber car for delivery of the part to your home.
Chances are, the part will beat you there.
In some instances, you can imagine that no store would stock a 100-year-old carriage bolt but that won’t slow you down too much. You will just get online and search for the right long-tail inventory supply house to get the bolt shipped overnight from Latvia … or maybe Weatherly, Pennsylvania.
Does this new vision scare you? Do you see your job going away? Have no fear.
- Building the “Library of Things” will be a whole new industry with exciting possibilities available to people who want to work as categorization experts.
- Development of component recognition equipment will open whole new job classifications.
- Stores will still be viable, but they’ll need to be redesigned to accommodate new retrieval systems and their equipment will need to be maintained.
- The auto parts retail winners of the future will understand that the new ways of shopping will blur the distinction between DIFM and DIY customers and that identification accuracy and delivery speed will be the metrics that define success.
Sadly, we will lose the indelible images left by Bill Wertman’s ear-tucked pencil and unlit cigar, but we bet the smell of the store and the greeter robot recognizing your face will generate a good memory for some 10-year old kid in 2060. Come to think of it, a Bill Wertman hologram might round out the whole experience.
About Schwartz Advisors
Derek Kaufman is a Managing Partner at Schwartz Advisors. Schwartz Advisors (SA) is a team of highly experienced auto aftermarket experts working with clients in corporate growth projects and both buy-side and sell-side merger and acquisition activities. As part of its growth consulting work, SA keeps current with the emerging technologies and business models that will drive the future supply of automotive parts and service.