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No more: dinosaurs, the dodo…and Western Auto stores?

William B. Russell opened his Western Auto Store in Bruce more than 40 years ago after working as manager for a Western Auto in Memphis for seven years.

“It’s all I know!” Russell said of his 51-year relationship with the company.

But Russell and other long-time Western Auto store owners across the country got the news in October that Advance Auto Parts, owner of Western Auto Supply Company, would no longer supply merchandise and services to the stores in its distribution network as of January 2004 — bringing Western Auto’s brand to an end after almost a century in business.

Shelia Stuewe, spokesperson for Advance Auto Parts in Roanoke, Va., said that the logistics of distributing appliances, home and garden supplies, auto parts and hardware to over 300 independent dealers scattered across 33 states became too much for the company to continue.

Twenty-four stores in Mississippi were affected by the decision, she said.

According to Stuewe, the independent Western Auto dealers had become less and less dependent on the Western Auto brands since Advance Auto Parts acquired Western Auto Supply Company in 1998.

“Other retailers really carry only one or two of our products,” she said.

That 1998 merger included not only the Western Auto wholesale distribution network but also 535 Parts America stores that were converted to Advance Auto Parts stores, Stuewe said. Advance Auto Parts simply decided to concentrate on supplying their own branded stores, according to Stuewe.

Most Western Auto dealers in and around Mississippi saw the change coming and made plans to adjust.

Shirley Utley, owner of a store in Thibodaux, La., said she abandoned the Western Auto network and name back in January, finding new suppliers and rebranding their store as Western Garden Supply. “We started our transition about three years ago,” said Utley, who had done business as a Western Auto for 34 years.

Advance Auto Parts is offering assistance to dealers, helping them find new suppliers, facilitating access to ongoing credit card programs and allowing dealers to license the Western Auto name free of charge until 2006. The company is anticipating a net after tax loss from discontinued operations for 2003 of approximately $2.3 million, the majority of which will be incurred in the fourth quarter. This loss will include both the results of operations for the wholesale segment and certain expenses associated with discontinuing the wholesale supply program, such as employee severance packages, according to Stuewe.

Western Auto owner Robert Chambers in Ackerman said that Advance has already helped him work out a deal to buy Whirlpool appliances directly from the company, and he is considering his options to replace the tire business. Chambers, who has owned the store on the corner of Main Street in Ackerman for 32 years, said he will miss the technical support Western Auto personnel had always given him in his business.

Donny Graham, vice president of Graham Incorporated, said that his Western Auto in Senatobia immediately sped up ongoing negotiations to become a NAPA dealer. In anticipation of such a move, Graham had already added new lawn and garden suppliers and was the authorized Kawasaki dealer for his area as well.

“I was a little surprised it came as quickly as it did, but if the dealers hadn’t seen it coming, they weren’t very observant or in denial,” said Graham, citing a trend of discontinued brands, lack of computer point-of-sale system updates, and shipments of fewer and fewer types of merchandise. “We’re actually pretty excited about the NAPA deal.”

Steve Roberts had been warned about Western Auto’s difficulties when he bought the Louisville Western Auto from a friend in October 2002, but the reality of the situation hit home at a Nashville market event that November that had “no vendors and no work done,” Roberts remembers. He spent the next year looking up new suppliers and expanding into hunting supplies, lawn and garden equipment and sporting goods.

“It’s really a good thing in the end; it’s forcing us to develop new relationships,” said Roberts.

Of course, not all the changes are welcomed. “It won’t be something we can’t crawl over,” said Roberts. “We’ve been making changes that would kind of cushion it for us — except for tires and appliances.” Roberts admitted that replacing Craftsman’s Tools won’t be easy for his hardware customers. And Gerry Sample, second-in-command at the Western Auto in Picayune, doesn’t look forward to changing over their computer systems to new suppliers.

But Sample said that most dealers are moving on and coping well, citing comments at a recent product meeting she attended. “They’re all very successful and planning to do business as usual,” said Sample.

Seeing the name pass from the landscape does bring up some nostalgia, as well as some concerns on establishing a new business identity once 2006 rolls around. Chambers is so well-known in Ackerman that he’s thinking of just calling his place “Bob’s Store” when the time comes.

“Although there’s some doubt in my mind if they can make me take the sign down, since I paid for it,” said Chambers.

Graham thinks Advance did well in facing the reality of the situation, regardless of the history of the Western Auto brand. “It’s kind of a sad thing to see it go, but if it wasn’t going to be served by the parent company — why go on?” Graham said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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