You might hear people talk about all the great deals they got by shopping on Amazon or other online sites, but do these same “great deals” hold true for auto parts? How much will you really save buying car parts online, and how quickly will your order arrive?
And what about assurance? Will you get the same level of service online as you do from your neighborhood auto parts store?
We were curious to these and other questions, so we did some research.
Why Choose Parts Stores Over Online Stores?
One of the major advantages is time, especially if you are dealing with an unexpected breakdown. Assuming the local parts store has the item in stock, it’s only a matter of swinging by and grabbing it. You don’t have to wait for an online order to be processed. You have the part that day and can get started on your repair.
“Back in 2003, when I came out from class late one January afternoon, my old F-150 refused to start,” recalled Carl Anthony, Automoblog’s Managing Editor. “My stepdad and I went to O’Reilly’s, gave the employees the VIN number to my truck, and they had a starter in stock for a 5.0-liter V8. We put the new starter in, right there in the empty parking lot that night.”
In a traditional auto parts store, you can inspect the part, read what’s on the box, and physically compare the old part with the new one. Another advantage to buying in person is how you’re able to talk face-to-face with an experienced handler who knows the parts.
“My stepdad and I did this very thing,” Anthony continued. “We took the old starter out beforehand and compared it side-by-side with the employees at the counter. My stepdad is a GM man, so he doesn’t know Ford parts all that well, and it was before I was working in the auto business. So being able to compare parts like this with the employees was the peace of mind we both needed.”
If you have questions, the store will have manuals (and a computer) they can look through to get you the right part. If they don’t have the part you need, they can order it for you. You don’t have to worry about endlessly searching for the part online, hoping it’s the right one when it arrives.
Trust & Transparency
This is something an old school auto parts store can provide. In some cases, you might even know the workers or the manager behind the counter on a first name basis. This kind of trust, if you’re a frequent and long-standing customer of a particular store, is tough to get online.
“This is how it was where I grew up in western Iowa, long before the internet was a thing,” Anthony explained. “The guys who worked at the parts store had been there for years. Many of them were farmers too, working part-time in the evening to make ends meet. As farmers, they knew how to fix anything from tractors to trucks.”
Traditional Retailers Expand
This element of trust is the driving force behind conventional auto parts stores like AutoZone. With rising share prices amidst the dominance of Amazon and other onlineretailers, AutoZone is braving the storm by ; offering massive inventories with competitive prices; developing close ties with local supply chains; and investing heavily in personnel and staff training.
“I know it sounds strange, but I have never purchased a tangible product online. Like never, not once,” Anthony said. “I would be hesitant to purchase car parts online, even though e-commence is the norm today. I still like to talk to somebody in person, especially when it comes to auto parts.”
Buying Parts In Person
Familiarity & Trust
Can Get the Parts Faster
No Customer Reviews
Inspecting the Part Physically
Fewer Options & Choices
Supporting Your Local Economy
More Likely to be a Genuine Part
Why Buy Car Parts Online?
In terms of price, online retailers are frequently less expensive than traditional stores (like almost all other industries), mostly due to lower overhead costs and streamlined distribution channels. And with a bevy of online auto parts shops to choose from, the sheer variety of both OEM and aftermarket parts means more options and lower prices.
While your local parts shop might only carry one or two different brands or options of a certain part due to storage space or exclusive agreements with parts makers, you’ll find literally every option online.
There are also situations in which buying car parts online might be the only option. Automoblog’s Founder Chris Burdick owns an older 1990 Nissan 300ZX TT. For him and other enthusiasts with rare cars, shopping online might be the only option. Burdick recalls:
“Me and a mechanic buddy were doing some work on the Z one afternoon and needed clips specific to Nissan. We really thought it’d be a simple task, but when we went to the local O’Reilly they didn’t have any; so we went to AutoZone down the street. Still no luck. We contacted the local Nissan dealer, and even they said it was going to take at least a week to order. I ended up going online and had them in two days for half the price.”
If you live far away from an auto parts store, online parts retailers might be a more convenient and cheaper option. While you will have to wait to get the part in the mail, at least you won’t need to leave the house! And in the case of the Nissan Z example above, you might have the parts quicker than you expect.
How Do I Spot Fake Parts?
If you’re buying online, there’s no real answer on how to spot a fake part from a genuine one, and counterfeit parts are a lingering issue. With only photos and a description of the part, you’ll need to rely on customer reviews to make sure the seller you’re dealing with is trustworthy.
“Customer reviews are very important to me, and I encourage everybody to take the time to read through them,” Burdick said. “You deserve to know you are spending your hard-earned money on a good part from a reputable seller.”
If you buy from a traditional auto parts store, or their online counterpart, the chances of getting a fake part are slim. Like the example of the F-150 starter above, make sure you find the serial number of the part even though you are shopping online. Genuine OEM parts have a serial number on the packaging and/or the part itself. If it matches the old part, you’re dealing with a genuine replacement.
You may find car parts online that are not OEM ones, but that doesn’t mean they are counterfeit or unsafe. There are parts made by third party companies that are perfectly fine to purchase. Replica wheels are a good example of this, but do your research just as you normally would shopping for anything else.
One final note of caution: extremely low prices for car parts online should trigger a red flag. There’s a difference between inexpensive and cheap. Just be aware of this before adding things to your cart and clicking the ‘Buy Now’ button.
Can I Return a Bad Part to an Online Store?
If you need to return a part to a conventional store, you walk in, talk to the person at the counter, request an exchange or refund, and that’s basically it. You either walk out of the store with the right part or leave with a full refund. In most cases, you’ll need to present the receipt or proof of purchase to speed up the transaction.
Returning a faulty/damaged/wrong part to an online store is a bit more complicated You’ll need to either contact the seller using the online platform, or print a return shipping label and schedule a pick up or drop it off at the post office. It all depends on the return policy of the website.
Reputable online stores will offer a return guarantee on any new purchases, typically 30 to 90 days. Make sure to read the return policy of the online shop before hitting the ‘Buy Now’ button. Of course, you can always chat directly with the seller beforehand if you have any questions about the part: where it was made; what specific models it fits; and how to initiate a return if the part doesn’t fit.
Most online stores have a feature that automatically lets you know if a part fits your car or not, or you can shop for parts by model so you only see parts that fit your car.
Take Advantage of Price Matching
Some online auto parts stores offer a price match guarantee. This means the website or seller will match the price of an identical or comparable product from a competing online store. Price matching is an age-old marketing technique; but at the end of the day, a price match guarantee will boost your confidence in getting the best deals.
There are certain conditions to be met before the store honors your price match guarantee. For example, Advance Auto Parts requires you to either show the print advertisement of a competing store, or prove other online stores are selling the same parts at a lower price. As long as the requirements are met, price matching can help you get the best deal.
And in the case of Advance Auto Parts (which manages both physical and online stores), prices may vary depending on your zip code. Additionally, online prices may differ from store pricing. But if you place an online order for pick up at any local Advance Auto Parts store, the company will honor the lesser of the two prices automatically.
Keep in mind not all stores offer a price match guarantee. Advance Auto does price matching for all stores online and offline, but AutoZone and O’Reilly do not match prices with online stores.
Shopping Online: Price Comparison #1
This K&N cold air intake kit, complete with a conical washable air filter and heat shield, is retailing for $276.99 on Amazon (part #57-3514) – with a current promotion of 10% off that price on top of it.
But this was in December 2019. We went back a month later and found the price jumped to $322.65. A perfect example of the fluctuating prices of online retailers, especially Amazon. Like anything else, when you shop for car parts online, the prices can always change.
Next, we went to Advance Auto Parts and
here’s what we found.
The very same K&N cold air intake kit (part #57-3514) goes for $328.99 on Advance Auto Parts. In terms of price, Amazon wins slightly, but if you consider the promotion Amazon was running around the holidays, it definitely would have been better to buy this K&N kit on Amazon versus Advance Auto Parts.
Also, check out the ratings and reviews, which you should always do when shopping for car parts online:
In this case, the product has 56 ratings and an average of four stars. Anything over four stars is considered good. The Advance Auto Parts listing had no reviews. This is one major reason, in our opinion, why Amazon is such a powerhouse. Real customer reviews make a huge difference when buying car parts online, along with a lower price.
We then went to O’Reilly Auto Parts and here’s what we saw.
O’Reilly Auto Parts is offering the same cold air intake for $326.99. Amazon is still offering a better deal, but O’Reilly’s is a slightly better bang for the buck than Advance Auto Parts.
Shopping Online: Price Comparison #2
We searched for an oil filter for our 2016 Ford Mustang GT. We went to Amazon and found an OEM Motorcraft FL-500S oil filter listed at $4.08, down from the $5.65 it listed for during a previous search on Amazon. Another good example of how prices fluctuate even for inexpensive parts.
The item is sold by Amazon and listed as Amazon’s Choice with 599 ratings and tons of five-star reviews. This typically tells us we can buy the product with confidence due to the sheer number of good ratings and reviews for both the product and the seller.
But before we clicked the ‘Buy Now’ button, we went to Advance Auto Parts to see if we could find a better deal.
The very same Motorcraft FL-500S oil filter is retailing for $7.99 on Advance Auto Parts – almost double the price. This time the product does have a bunch of positive reviews, and they verify customers are happy.
Of course, we also went to O’Reilly and found the same oil filter retailing at different prices:
The $7.99 oil filter is available for pick up at our selected store while the $7.49 variant is not. Given the price difference, we opted to get our oil filter on Amazon.
Shopping Online: Price Comparison #3
We searched for new front brake pads for our trusted 2015 Chevrolet Colorado. We couldn’t find a matching part to perform a direct price-to-price comparison, so we decided to settle for different brands this time.
The brake pads are sold by ACDelco on Amazon, but there are no product reviews to consider. This only means the product is new or hasn’t been purchased frequently enough for buyers to have left a review on this particular item.
We know we’re comparing different brands this time, but that’s how it is when shopping for car parts online. Some of the time, you won’t be able to obtain an apples-to-apples comparison when searching for particular parts across multiple retail platforms.
We also went to O’Reilly for our Colorado’s brake pads and found a set of Wagner OEX Ceramic brake pads. They retail at $72.99, which is more than what we’re willing to pay.
In this case, our order belongs to Advance Auto Parts for giving us a nice set of ceramic brake pads at a lower price, even though we didn’t get the benefit of any customer reviews on any of these pads.
“I prefer to shop online for most car parts,” Burdick admits. “Things like engine oil, standard filters, simple parts, and things I need quickly I’m happy to go to the store for. However, if I’m buying an important part, I like having the choice of multiple brands and various options. And for my older performance car, other companies have made more modern, superior parts than the OEM replacements, which aren’t available at regular stores.”
Buying Car Parts Online
Returns Can be a Hassle
Can’t Inspect Parts Physically
Potential for Counterfeit Parts
More Options & Choices
The Hybrid Approach: Best of Both Worlds
If you like the benefits of online shops but aren’t ready to give up on your brick and mortar store quite yet, we have a suggestion.
If you shop online at a store that also has a physical location (we have links below), you can get the benefits of comparison shopping. You can do your research and get customer reviews on the part as time allows. Then when you order online, just go pick it up at the store closest to you. You’ll also have the benefit of being able to return the part in-store if needed, and you can physically touch the part before buying it.
Where to Shop for Car Parts Online?
Here’s a short list of online retailers we can vouch for, in alphabetical order. We separated them by online-only stores and stores that also have a physical location in case you prefer to go in person: