Where Have All of The Good Shops Gone?

I think that we can all admit that the aftermarket car industry is in a perpetual state of change. It evolves as the industry and tastes change and that has been a lot over the past two decades. But what does this mean to those folks that are at the tip of the spear? The small shop owner.   

Where did it all begin?

     2001 saw one of the biggest game changers to the industry, the launch of the Fast & The Furious franchise. Import tuner culture had been around for years prior to the first movie’s release but it was a whole new world afterwards. The movie turned the scene into pop culture overnight and saw a huge influx of people. New performance shops opened up left and right to meet the demand of the power (and attention) hungry new customers. People were spending big money to set themselves apart from the rest.        

     As with anything, a booming industry breeds competition. Products begin to age and cheaper options begin to show up to undercut the established competitors and take a portion of the pile of money available. Mass retailers began to take notice as well and wanted in. These products may not have been up to the quality and performance of the industry leaders but they offered those with less money to work with an introduction into the scene. They could get more stuff for less money.

     About this same time, companies began to release copies of other’s work. What started as boutique shops offering US customers a way to get a copy of a product that may never make its way to US shores became big business. The perception of the value of parts began to change. Why pay $1,500 for an original front bumper from Japan when you can get one almost just like it for $400 stateside?

Then the great recession happened….          

     Everyone was hit one way or another by the financial meltdown of the late 2000’s. Disposable income for the majority of Americans began to dry up and people had to put aside hobbies to focus on their daily lives. With this, many shops began to go out of business as fewer and fewer people could afford to indulge their cars anymore.        

     Time passed and the economy began to recover. While nowhere near as popular as it was during the early 2000’s, tuner culture began to come back as well. While interest in cars was back, things were much different than they had been. Online purchases provided instant price shopping on goods and social media was a driver of style and influence. While things looked brighter and brighter for car enthusiasts, not so much so for those shop owners who had managed to weather the storm. Image had eclipsed substance.          

     I recently was chatting with a shop owner who is a friend of mine and our conversation is what led me to write this article. We were talking about how much of a struggle it is for shops to keep going these days. We live in a world where online dominates our opinions. Review sites can boost or tank a business. People get advice on where to shop and what is a good product. Its no longer just about the work that you do but your reputation as well. While some can use this for good in terms of warning others about immoral business practices, others can use it as a weapon against the owners. Social media is a big part of where people get their information from whether it be groups on Facebook or accounts on Instagram.        

     In talking with my friend, he said that he has seriously considering changing the focus of his business to get away from custom work. When I asked why, he stated “I have such a strong hate lately towards doing any cars that are ‘in the scene.’ Anything custom at all. The car world we all love so much has gone to shit. It’s all about what’s the cool thing I can do for the least amount of money possible. Nobody wants to do quality mods anymore. Nobody cares about quality paint anymore. Nobody wants quality wheels anymore. The DIY guys have fully taken over the industry.”         

     In a sense, I could see where he was coming from. Many times I had gone on an owners forum or asked others how to do a certain task or project. I had tried to do as much of the work myself to not only build up my own knowledge of cars but also to save money. In a way, I had been guilty of the same thing due to the power of the internet.      

     Where things can go off the rails though is when social media becomes the de facto expert of all things. I asked my friend whether he thought social media has benefited or hurt local shops more.       

“Hurt, drastically.”       

“People value what they heard online by someone random over our professional opinions. Oh Tom online told me this is only a two hour job.”       

     While the idea of having a large base to determine the value of something is a good thing, it can also skew logic and facts towards the extreme. What might be the going rate for something might get skewed by a one-off experience used as an example. What might once be opinions is now heavy influence to conform to new norms.       

My friend has seen this time and time again. “When someone posts up about wanting to paint their car and to get opinions, 90% of the response is, f-that wrap it. Or dip it. Majority of people are followers. They just go with the trends.”  

As funny as it may sound here, influencers are even a thing in the car world. Just like everywhere else, the car world has its own ‘celebrities’ that drive trends. While some of these influencers may be professionals in some automotive area, many are not. That does not change their influence though. This can be very stressful for any shop owner that has to deal with one of these people.       

“They cause more damage than good. You have to walk (sic) on eggshells around them or they wreck your reputation you worked on for years with one simple post. They don’t think about how much damage they are doing with those 5 minutes it takes to make the post.”          

Social media can be great in so many ways. It can bring people together and share knowledge and ideas. Consequently, it can also be a weapon. It can be used to hurt honest shops which might lead to them abandoning a customer base that they feel treats them poorly. Hence the reason my friend is considering this now.       

So, the next time you are talking with other automotive enthusiasts and someone asks why there are no good shops around anymore, think for a second about what we might have done to drive them away.