By Seth Daniel
In recent years, the old image of the shade tree mechanic, or driveway mechanic, had been supplanted by a car industry in which people exchanged cars every few years rather than maintaining them at a commercial garage or with their own hands.
The access to easy and quick financing from most new and used car dealerships promoted an atmosphere where cars left the lot frequently and people would rather trade them than fix them.
Those times are long gone, despite being the standard only a year ago.
Indeed, things have changed fast, and with the collapse of the finance industry – and with it a near total collapse of the new and used car business – people have been holding on tightly to the cars they’re driving, which has meant auto mechanics and auto parts businesses in Revere and Chelsea – and all around the country – have seen an uptick in business at a time when most industries have seen a tremendous downturn.
The Parts Shop
At Gem Auto Parts’ brand new building on Griffin Way in Chelsea (they moved last year from their longtime East Boston home), is seeing a jump in business, mostly because local mechanics are also seeing a jump. Gem does nearly 90 percent of its parts business with commercial auto mechanic shops in the area.
“Shops are seeing an increase in business because drivers are looking to hold onto vehicles a little longer than they did a few years ago,” said Jessie Kaplan of Gem. “That’s translated into a nice blip in business for them and for us, too. The theory has always been that our industry can do well in a down economy because people do just that – they repair what the have rather than buy something new.”
Shelly Whitaker, a spokesperson for the Advanced Auto Parts store chain, said that phenomenon has been going on at their Revere store and nationwide.
In the fourth quarter last year, when the entire economy declined by more than 6 percent, Advanced reported a 3 percent increase in same store sales over the same time last year.
“The economic environment did seem to treat us differently than most other businesses,” she said. “We have said that we think having fewer new cars on the road will also mean people keeping their cars longer and fixing existing vehicles so they stay on the road longer.”
Whitaker said they are seeing customers come in to buy simple things like tire gauges and fuel injector cleaners, and supplies for more complicated things like brake jobs and oil changes.
“We see a lot of sales on air filters,” she said. “A dirty air filter can decrease fuel economy by 15 percent. That’s an inexpensive fix that people can do themselves very easily and get significant savings.”
On the Lift
At local garages in Revere, there has been no shortage of business since the new and used car industry went south.
With many residents not knowing when they will be able to buy another vehicle – yet still very much needing their current vehicle – the push is on to get the most out of what they have.
At Revere Auto Service (Global) and Broadway Motor Service, both family-owned businesses on Broadway, business has been steady as they accommodate customers looking to put more money into older vehicles.
Customers no longer seem to be thinking about getting a new car every two years. “To be honest, a lot of people are fixing their cars because they can’t afford to buy a newer car,” said Jerry Nappa of Global. “They’re fixing older models that when things were booming they wouldn’t have put money into. A few years ago, people would have looked at a newer car rather than having fixed the old one. We’ve seen a little more of the older models lately.”
Tom DiGregorio, owner of Broadway Motor Service, is currently working on a 1995 Dodge Neon, getting it ready for everyday driving once again. The owner of the car, he said, had kept the vehicle in his driveway for four years without driving it. Now, he sees a use for it.
“He brought it in and said that with the economy the way it is, he wanted to get it back on the road and use it rather than going out to buy a new or used car,” said DiGregorio. “That’s a 14-year-old vehicle.”
Naturally, those older models run a higher price tag on their fixes. For now, customers have been willing to shell out that money, though, as long as it prolongs the life of the vehicle.
“Just today, we did a job with all new tires, brakes and all the way around to try and keep the car running as long as possible so it doesn’t break down,” he said. “We see jobs that are $600 to $700 and up to $1,000 that we wouldn’t have seen before the economy went sour.”
Customer Service Is Key
With that increased business has come a fair amount of competition. Not only have the existing mechanic shops and parts providers been fighting for business, but also car dealerships have been trying to break into the market as their new car sales figures continuously decline.
At Gem, that increased competition has meant they have upped the ante on their parts delivery service, hiring more delivery drivers, building a new building with a much larger warehouse and even adding a beautiful showroom at their Chelsea location for walk-in customers.
“This is a very competitive market,” said Kaplan. “We made a push for drivers, employing a larger delivery workforce so when we get an order, we can get the part to the installer faster than anyone else. Our goal is to have it out the door 15 minutes after we get a call. That service decision has also given us a boost in business.”
Likewise, at Advanced Auto, the chain is offering free installation of car batteries and windshield wipers on location – as well as free diagnostic checks for cars with the “Check Engine” light illuminated.
At the shops, the mantra is the same – do whatever you can to keep the customer in house.
“There is so much competition as far as who wants to work for nothing and who wants to rip off the customer,” said Nappa. “We try to make everyone happy so they’ll come back. Now, that might mean finding alternate ways of helping them out. We might call a junkyard as an alternative and do the job to save money. We try to do everything possible so we don’t lose a customer.”