Wrenching Tips: How to Get the Most Out of Your Local Chain Auto Parts Store

how to get the best from chain auto parts storesThis week is thematically similar to our jaunt through used and cheap tools: something we’d avoid if we could afford the luxury, but an unfortunate reality that must be dealt with. While we wish there were a good old fashioned auto parts store (complete with grumpy old guy(s) behind the counter), such outfits are outnumbered 12:1 by Pep Boys, Autozone Kragen O’Reilly and the like. Even if there’s one near you, they tend to be open like 9 to 4, and 8 to 12 on Saturday. Hardly prime hours for scramble fixes.

Today we’ll get into a few tips to avoid pulling your hair out when all you need are a couple of $2.99 gaskets.

Don’t Go There

How’s that for a pre-jump bait-and-switch? The first recommendation is to look around for a good parts store with the requisite old grumpy dude behind the counter. If you’re greeted by “what the fnck do you want?”, you’re probably in the right place (protip: don’t flinch, they can sense weakness). Second, we live in modern times. Find the specialty vendors that’ll have the model-specific stuff you need and just order it online. After 2 wrong brake calipers and guibos from Autozone, I gave up on them for Uberbird parts and just defaulted to Pelican Parts. More expensive, but the assurance of having the selections checked by someone who knows the car in question would’ve been worth the difference in lost time.

Know what They’re Good For (and what They’re Not)

For the most part, The Speed Shop is dead. Don’t walk into your local chain expecting someone to give you advice on how big a carb to slap on your motor. They might sell a remanufactured OEM carb, but that Edelbrock 1403 in the corner is there as a garnish, not because they really care. If you’re reading this site, you probably already know, but 99% of the “performance” aisle is garbage. “Performance” wiper blades, indeed.

That said, you’re going to have a hard time beating This Week’s Deal on oil and filters. If you’re willing to be a little flexible on brands, there’s no deal better for 5 quarts and a filter. Also, a lot of times they can substitute one filter for another; useful for avoiding the dreaded Fram. Similarly, run-of-the-mill parts like gaskets, seals or brake pads can all be had in “good enough” grade without waiting a week for shipping.

Of the major chains, NAPA are usually head and shoulders above the rest. In their absence, I’ve had better luck with Autozone than Pep Boys, Advanced Auto, O’Reilly or the rest. Results vary highly from store to store or shift to shift.

Know their system

Year, make, model, sub-model, part. Always in that order. Don’t try “I need a water pump for a 302” “an outer seal for a Ford 9 inch”, as your moon language means nothing to them. 1991 Jeep Wrangler 4wd Sport 4.0L…need a valve cover gasket = success. If there’s any question, make them turn that monitor around and show you the diagram.

All the major stores have online parts lookup tools. You can use them yourself to see if the store even carries the part you need, and in some cases the local stock situation. Compare what’s on the screen with what’s in your hands…does it look right? Particularly around specialty models or changeover years, suppliers regularly specify the wrong parts. You need to know the quirks of your car better than the counter-jockeys.

If you’ve got a less popular model that shares parts with something well known, just use a different model or year to get what you need from The Computer. You’d be amazed what’s unavailable for a ’64 Falcon 260, but pops right up for a ’66 Mustang 289. Obviously this introduces some risk, as even the most long-running motors had rounds of engineering changes. Sometimes you can work this to your advantage (a later version being better), sometimes it screws you because they changed the bolt pattern. This is why you should…

Always Bring the Part with You

Worst case scenario: you bring a new part home, spend two hours wrestling to install it only to realize the reason you spent 2 hours flailing was because it’s the wrong part. Because of the abuse you heaped upon the part trying to install it, they won’t let you return it. Bummer.

Opening the box and lining everything up on the counter takes extra time, but it’s definitely worth it. Additionally if/when the wrong part comes out, you have a chance to check something else from inventory for fit. Hard to do from memory.

A second reason to bring your old part: Core Charges. On many parts, there’s an extra $5-50 tacked onto the end of the price, refundable upon return of your original part. On one hand this is cool, because it reduces waste and ensures a steady flow of remanufactured bits for the old hoopties we love. On the other, it sucks because you usually forget about it or just don’t feel like making an extra trip in. Old part in hand? Take care of that core charge before you walk out the door.

Don’t be a dick

Good advice in any situation, but doubly so if you want your shopping experiences to be a productive one. Particularly on the weekends, these poor dudes (or token one girl in the store) deal with moronic, irate, clueless customers. If you show up all “Ugh, you’re so dumb, why does it matter if it’s 4wd?”, they’ll reply with the bare minimum courtesy required by corporate and get you out the door as quickly as possible, part or no part.

In contrast, the staff at the Autozone near our former LA headquarters would let me rummage around in the back for the part I needed. They’d let me know when the next stock dropoff was and had no problem letting me return parts that were in dubiously resellable condition. Why? Because I spent the equivalent of a public college education there Because I wasn’t a dick.

Of course, it didn’t take long to figure out neither the local NAPA, nor Pep Boys were worth a damn. It varies from store to store (typically heavily influenced by a local manager), and some locations have given up on selling anything but oil and plastichrome gewgaws. Rather than give them the whatfor, (which wouldn’t have made a difference to the $9/hr counter jockeys) I just stopped giving them my business. You vote with your dollars.

 That’s it for this week. As always, weigh in in the comments with your own tips.

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