Even the most seasoned racers and gearheads would be forgiven if the first name that came to mind when thinking of local speed shops wasn’t Pep Boys. But that might be changing soon, if the longtime Philadelphia-based company-celebrating its 90th anniversary this year-has anything to say about it.
Over the past few years, leadership at Pep Boys (full company name The Pep Boys-Manny, Moe & Jack) recognized the growing and influential market of hardcore performance parts by creating aptly named Pep Boys Speed Shops inside some of its existing parts stores in an effort to attract local racers and enthusiasts.
The company, founded in 1921 by four friends-Emanuel (Manny) Rosenfeld, Maurice L. (Moe) Strauss, W. Graham (Jack) Jackson and Moe Radavitz-has had a long and storied history. Company legend notes that the four friends, after serving the country in World War I, pooled together $800 to open a modest automotive parts store named Pep Auto Supplies.
From that simple beginning, the company grew mightily through the Great Depression and went public in the mid-1940s. In the years since, Pep Boys has established itself among the country’s leading automotive service, tire and parts chains, with approximately 700 stores and 7,000 service bays in 35 states and Puerto Rico.
Today, the company works hard to stay top-of-mind with vehicle owners when it comes to oil changes and brake checks, as well as over-the-counter repair and maintenance parts. Never in the company’s history, however, had it made a serious effort at entering the speed shop market.
Until the spring of 2009, that is.
In May of that year, the company celebrated the grand opening of its first branded Pep Boys Speed Shop within a larger Pep Boys store on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles to considerable media attention. The two-day launch featured events ranging from product displays and demonstrations to show cars and live DJs.
A variety of performance industry stars such as Gale Banks, president and CEO of Banks Power, Adrienne “AJ” Janic, co-host of Overhaulin’ and host of Hot Import Nights, and Barry Meguiar, Meguiar’s CEO and host of Car Crazy TV, were on hand for the kick-off event.
For Scott Webb, Pep Boys’ executive vice president for merchandising and marketing, who spearheaded the move into the speed shop space, the new venture was a logical evolution for the brand.
Webb estimates the bread-and-butter markets of aftermarket service and retail to be in the range of $230 billion annually, with specialty equipment and aftermarket products coming in at roughly another $30 billion in size.
Even though the new performance market is small in comparison, Webb says it’s a valuable one.
“While this market is smaller, it’s a really great place to be,” he says of the performance aftermarket. “America is still in love with its cars. Generally, people consider their cars an extension of their personality, so it’s important for Pep Boys to be in the performance and accessory business to differentiate itself from our competitors. At Pep Boys, our goal is really to serve all of these needs under one roof.”
And the synergy it creates boosts business for both performance and replacement parts.
“It’s a wonderful brand extension for Pep Boys, and it drives loyalty to our other products and services for performance customers,” notes Webb, who came to Pep Boys in 2007 after a 25-plus-year career with AutoZone.
Since opening the Los Angeles pilot store, Pep Boys has added Speed Shops in several of its “Supercenter” stores-locations with approximately 25,000-square-feet of showroom and service space and an average of 12 install and service bays-in numerous other markets across the country.
According to the company’s website, it now operates Speed Shops in one other California city, two in both Florida and Texas, three in its home state of Pennsylvania, and one each in Maryland, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina. The company also has plans for new additions in Las Vegas, Phoenix and another California location in coming years.
According to Webb, the Speed Shops generally occupy between 3,000 and 4,000 square feet of dedicated space within the larger Pep Boys stores and have two to three additional staff members unique to the performance side of the operation who are speed enthusiasts themselves.
“We know that customers in the performance market like the Speed Shops and the enthusiasts that work there to install their products,” he says. “Each Speed Shop has its own staff of dedicated performance enthusiasts who are racers, builders and just generally car people who are dedicated specifically to the Speed Shop. Pep Boys is publically traded, and the stores are company owned, but each of the Speed Shops has its own manager, basically creating a store-within-a-store model.”
By staffing the spaces with enthusiasts, Pep Boys aims to provide a shopping experience similar to that of an independent, mom-and-pop-style speed shop, but with the addition of what the company considers the significant upside of having a broader range of products.
“Many independent speed shops are organized around a specific specialty or genre of performance within the broader aftermarket, whether that is the 4×4 market, tuners, hot rods, muscle cars or any other specialty,” says Webb. “With our shops, the customers can really find all genres, from low-riders to muscle cars to off-road buggies, all under one roof. There may be a heavier presence of a certain segment that is more popular in that region or area, but they’ll be able to see a more diverse selection of performance products than they would see in an independent shop.”
Customers should expect to see some variation in product offerings from region to region, says Webb, but most of the product mix will remain the same across the country. Common products range from carburetors and intake manifolds to lift and lowering kits, window tint and graphics, superchargers and turbos, programmers, exhaust systems, wheels and tires and even nitrous oxide filling stations.
Brands include AEM, Injen, AIRAID, K&N, Banks, DiabloSport, Edge Products, JET Performance, Flowmaster, Magnaflow and Cherry Bomb, to name just a few.
In addition to seeing local performance enthusiasts on both sides of the parts counter, Pep Boys strives to further recreate the independent speed shop experience in another significant way: by becoming a local hub for the performance community.
Much like a local speed shop over time becomes equal parts equipment supplier and local hangout, Webb says Pep Boys Speed Shops will aim to create an inviting place for individuals and groups.
“At each of the Speed Shops, we do car shows and provide space for local car clubs to meet and have events,” says Webb. “That is an important part of what we’re all about. We’re here to serve the customers. They’re the ones that pay our paychecks and, frankly, we’re all customers of our stores as well, so we want it to be the type of place that you’d want to hang out in.
“We want to be a part of our local communities and become like family to our customers.”
Part of that effort is achieved by maintaining longer store hours than may be available at most independent performance shops.
Dave Sorrentino, Pep Boys category manager who helped design and build the Speed Shops in Pennsylvania, notes that this is one way the company can establish a relationship with cruisers and racers.
“Our big priority is to engage the community of local enthusiasts and provide them with a place to hang out,” he says. “We are open seven days a week, so if you’re out racing on the weekend and break something running testing runs on the track on Saturday night, we can provide a solution. You can’t always find that with an independent shop.”
Webb makes a point of noting that Pep Boys maintains a great deal of respect for small performance shops.
“Independent, mom-and-pop-style speed shops will always have an important place in the performance market and the aftermarket in general, but we feel strongly that there are many customers who prefer to have that under one roof,” he says.
With its long history serving a range of automotive customers and a new dedication to the hardcore performance market, it looks like The Pep Boys are already hard at working marking the company’s next 90 years.