Auto repair: Accelerating in a down economy

Cobalt Designworks owners Jennifer Corio and Dave Frei

Although business is finally starting to pick up, times have been tough for local, independently owned auto-repair shops. However, what they have in common is something dealerships and chain operations may be lacking.

“Being an independent, it’s a hard job to do,” said Ken Minor, manager of Wrench N Time on Grand Boulevard in Vancouver. “It’s a lot of work, but we’re car guys and we enjoy doing it.”

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Minor stresses the importance of clearly and honestly explaining repairs, costs and schedules to customers so they understand what’s being done with their cars before any work is started.

“Customer service is our main goal,” he said.

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Dustin Ruth, son of Mike Ruth at family-owned and operated Mike’s Auto Repair, also emphasizes honest customer service and notes the value of experience.

“What keeps us in business here is trust,” Ruth said. “Chains have more advertizing and money behind their marketing. We don’t have the marketing money to advertise, so we operate off word of mouth.”

Ruth’s observation is that often a chain shop will advertise what people want to hear, but once you go to the shop it’s a different story.

“It really slowed down for a while when the economy crashed,” Ruth added. “Without my dad’s 30 years of experience I think we would have failed as a business.”

David Brown, owner of David’s Auto Repair Service, said his shop has seen a 10-percent increase in sales this year after a slow period likely caused by the recession. He sees fewer people buying new cars, instead opting to have work done on their old ones. Car owners are cautioned against trying to make repairs on their own.

“We see a lot of people coming in, saying, ‘I tried to do this and it’s not working. Please fix my car,’” said Minor. Ruth points out that the auto-recycling industry (wreckers) is booming right now due to an increase in people buying what turn out to be bad used parts and trying to fix cars themselves.

The Internet is a factor

These days, having an online presence is almost a necessity, one with the potential to both benefit and harm a small company. Brown gets a good deal of business from the Internet, but he’s also seen it used as an avenue for angry customers.

“Unfortunately, people who are unhappy are far more likely to say something on the Internet than people who are more happy,” he said.

Still, the satisfied customers are out there. Minor meets a lot of people who say, “We found you online and your reviews are good.”

Despite the risks, Ruth said having a Web presence has been mainly a positive experience and thinks it’s a good way to keep his shop competitive.

Standing out can be difficult in a world with so many options. For the independently run auto-repair shop, it all comes back to customer service.

“Customer service gets you referrals, referrals get you new customers and customers are what keep our business’ doors open,” said Minor. “We’re just five guys trying to make an honest living.”

Ruth echoed that sentiment.

“For any kind of business, it’s really tough to rise above the noise,” he said. “The reason people come back is because they know we’re trying to watch out for them.”

Ruth noted that it’s not like back in the old days when you knew intimately every aspect of the living you made, down to how your tractors ran. Today we have specialized skills that we use in our individual jobs.

“To add knowing how a car works is kind of a lot to ask,” he said.

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