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Read this before buying any automotive accessory online

Updated on September 6, 2012

Buying auto accessories online -things to consider

We live in an age where it’s almost unheard of to not shop online for just about anything, but that doesn’t always mean it’s as easy as search, click and done, specifically when it comes to automotive accessories. Of course there are good deals to be had online, but before you buy something, you really should consider a few things. Yes, I use to work in a retail brick and mortar shop so I’m a little biased, but I will say that customers would come to me for help AFTER having a bad experience buying something online, so I wanted to offer some advice so that you can avoid these costly mistakes.

Having the right application -knowing the part number

I’ve sold and ordered enough truck and SUV accessories to know that the majority of mistakes I made were by ordering the wrong part, i.e., I got the vehicle application wrong. It’s not hard to do, for the right floor mats for example, is your truck an access cab or a double cab?, SLT, XLT? and is it a manual transmission with four wheel drive, or automatic, but two wheel drive?, if you get one of those things wrong, you will get the wrong part. There are so many accessories available for trucks and suvs, most e-tailer’s databases can’t even handle the different variations, or their system will give you so many choices, it will make your head spin. One example I use to come across from time to time were the late model Chevy Tahoe SS edition suvs. There are literally no aftermarket running boards available for it, or step bars, because of this special cladding or body molding that is specific to the SS model. GM does offer an OEM part, but it’s not cheap. The other very typical mistake truck owners make is getting the size of their bed wrong. Once upon a time, there were only two sizes, long or short, and with a difference of two feet between the two, it was fairly easy to know which one you had. Now there is what is called an extra-short bed, and it is typically 5’7”, which is maybe only a foot shorter(or less) than a standard short bed, so it’s not always easy to know which one you have without pulling out a measuring tape, but there are tricks to be able to tell. For example, if you have a newer F150, their extra short beds DO NOT have stake pocket holes, the standard short beds have two on each side, and the long beds have three on each side. Remember that the Tundra CrewMax only comes with the extra short bed-that’s it, just one to remember with that model. The best thing to do if you’re not sure about your specific application is to call the manufacturer-DON’T try to talk to the e-tailer, they may not know, remember that they need to know a little bit about everything as opposed to the manufacturer that only needs to focus on understanding a single product line. Even I don’t know everything, but I do know when I should call the source to be sure.

Screen shot from Westin Automotive

Just a partial shot of 2007 Chevy Silverado application listing. This went on for several pages, showing how difficult it can be to narrow down your vehicle application.
Just a partial shot of 2007 Chevy Silverado application listing. This went on for several pages, showing how difficult it can be to narrow down your vehicle application. | Source

Screen shot of Extang application chart

Extang Solid Fold tonneau cover application listing for Chevy. Notice the notes about working with or not working with a track system. Does your Chevy have a track system, do you even know what Extang is talking about?
Extang Solid Fold tonneau cover application listing for Chevy. Notice the notes about working with or not working with a track system. Does your Chevy have a track system, do you even know what Extang is talking about? | Source

Getting only half of what you need

So one of the things that happens a lot is people will order only half of what they need-not on purpose of course. There are some Westin running boards that come as two separate parts: the boards, and the mount kit. I had a customer once who got the boards as a birthday gift, but was a little ticked off that whoever got him the gift didn’t know he needed the mount kit as well. You can’t do anything with running boards and no way to mount them. Sometimes the mount kit is almost as expensive as the boards. There are also some applications that require special adapter kits, like ordering a Thule Xsporter bed rack for the new Tacoma; it requires a specific adapter, but the rack itself will not just come with that part. Always look for footnotes and asterisk signs that will alert you to info like this. Another example is on the Nisan trucks. Sometimes the application notes will ask if your truck has a ‘cargo management’ system or rails, sometimes it will just be abbreviated CMS. This may mean an adapter kit is required if you have a CMS, so don’t ignore the question because whatever you order will not work without that special part. Another example of something that actually happened was a customer that ordered a Pace Edwards roll top cover and only received the canister, not the rails. All of their covers come as two-piece sets; a canister and a set of rails. I’m not sure why the e-tailer did not know this or have their ordering system set up to overlook this, but the customer was able to cancel his order, get all his money back, and buy it from me as long as I matched the price, which I did.

Restock fees and costs to ship back

Obviously if the online retailer sends you the wrong part, and it was their fault, they should cover any shipping to send it back, however, if YOU made the mistake and ordered the wrong part, they will probably charge you shipping to send it back, even though it was free to ship when you received it. While that may seem fairly obvious, what about when you order something, and even though you receive the correct part, it’s not going to work, for example, I had a customer order something for his bed that wouldn’t fit with his hard tonneau cover. He had no idea it was not going to fit with the existing cover he already had. And even though the shipping was free, the online retailer wanted to charge him almost as much to ship the item back than what he paid to begin with, so the $100 item, shipped free, cost $80 to ship back. Of course he would get his $100 back, but essentially it was going to cost him $80 for nothing! Why so much? The thing he bought (cargo management divider) came in what UPS called an ‘oversized’ box, and the e-tailer charged him a restocking fee. So, not to toot the brick and mortar horn, but I told the customer if he had ordered it from me, I could have returned it at no charge and got all his money back-most local stores use distributors who ship the products with their own trucks, so returning merchandise is easy and typically doesn’t cost anything extra. Always ask about a return policy and restock fees.

Don't rule out the birck and mortar dealer

I realize that prices online are good, and you would be a fool not to check online pricing before you buy anything, but don’t quickly rule out going to your local accessory dealer. I have already pointed out how difficult it can be looking up the correct part for your vehicle, lets face it, there’s a reason I know a lot about vehicle applications, because I have screwed this process up enough that I learned the hard way about what will fit and what won’t fit, etc. If I can screw it up and looking up parts was all I did all day long, I can only imagine how intimidating it must be for the person that isn’t working behind the counter. If you’ve had a bad experience with your local retailer and do not wish to give them the business, that’s totally understandable, but if all you’re looking at is price, just consider this:

Most retailers can match online pricing, or they should at least be able to get fairly close. If you pay just a little more remember that you’re getting the peace of mind to know THEY are responsible if the part is ordered wrong, THEY have to deal with a warranty issue if something is defective, and trust me, that process can waste a lot of your time.

There was a time long ago when customer service meant a lot, but that seemed to fade away with the arrival of so-called big box retailers and online e-tailers who have made cheap pricing the only priority. As a result, small accessory dealers know the only way to compete with the likes of larger competitors that only offer a low price, is to offer the best customer service possible. If they don’t offer excellent customer service, there really is no point to buying something at a brick and mortar store. Always check Yelp for favorable reviews, much like you would for the products you buy.

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