It is commonly thought to be a terrible time for many brick and
mortar retailers, but one segment seems to be bucking the trend —
And one chain in particular seems to be doing especially well —
AutoZone. AutoZone's stock skyrocketed near $1200 a share at the end
Investors see the company as a leader in a segment of retail
relatively well-protected from the e-commerce incursions that have
brought down so many other once seemingly invincible stores.
Like its closest rivals, O'Reilly, Advanced Auto Parts and Napa Auto
Parts, AutoZone sells just about everything a person would need to
fix, maintain or improve a car or truck.
And recently, investors say AutoZone has been growing a new business
that could lead to several more years of solid growth.
So AutoZone is a best in breed retailer, specifically in the auto
part retail industry.
But I would say that their supply chain is probably best in breed or
one of the best in breed supply chains across the entire retail
industry. But threats and challenges do remain.
AutoZone has some pretty capable rivals and there are massive changes
taking place in transportation that threaten the entire automotive
industry. The store that would later become AutoZone
first opened in Forest City, Arkansas, on July 4th, 1979.
Then it was called Auto Shack and was a division of a larger company
called Malone and Hide.
Early growth came quickly.
The company opened its 100th store in Weslaco, Texas, in 1983, just
four years later. It was spun off from Malone and Hyde in 1986.
That same year it debuted the first products of its in-house Duralast
brand, under which it markets an array of items, including starters,
alternators, batteries and hand tools.
The following year, Auto Shack changed its name to AutoZone.
In 1999, the company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
And from there it continued to grow to 1,000 stores by 1995 and 6,000
Two key advantages that enable AutoZone and its peers to fend off
competition from e-commerce companies are service and parts
availability. Stores like AutoZone and O'Reilly invest money in
training their staff to help customers with often detailed and highly
specific questions about cars.
That is service that e-commerce giants such as Amazon are not yet in
the business of providing.
These advantages have also allowed auto parts retailers to face and
fend off threats from much bigger brick and mortar retailers who have
had the ability to undercut them on price.
You don't really know you need windshield wiper blades until it's
raining and then at that point you need them now so you don't have
time for next day delivery.
You just want to get them replaced immediately.
And if you pull into an AutoZone, they'll actually go, t he employee,
will go out there and do it for you. The emphasis on in-store service
has been especially important for AutoZone.
About 80 percent of its revenues come from Do It Yourselfers — home
mechanics. A lot of these customers can be gearheads and auto
enthusiasts, but many of them are simply customers who would rather
work a bit on their own cars to save the expense of a trip to the
mechanic. While a lot of these customers might be knowledgeable about
cars, they typically don't have the same level of expertise as a
These stores also enjoy somewhat stable demand.
Car parts are not luxury or recreational items.
Drivers need their cars for transportation.
So auto parts retailers can often rely on at least some kind of
customer base whether the economy is good or bad.
Some of the reasons auto parts retailers have been especially strong
in this retail environment is partly due to timing.
The economic recovery that followed the financial crisis of 2008 has
recently begun to boost the auto parts retailers in some interesting
ways, say analysts.
As the economy has improved and gas prices have come under pressure,
people have felt free to drive more.
More driving eventually leads to more parts failures.
The other factor is that a historically high number of the right kind
of car for auto parts retailers is on the road right now.
Within the industry, there is something known as the sweet spot for
auto maintenance. The exact number of years can vary, but it is
generally thought to include cars that are between eight years and 10
or 12 years old.
Once cars hit about seven to eight years of service, warranties often
start to run out. But owners tend to keep their cars on average for
another two to four years after that.
So auto parts retailers tend to see the most business when there is
the highest number of cars between eight and 12 years old on the
road. The financial crisis and the ensuing recession crippled new car
sales. What that meant was there were relatively fewer cars in that
maintenance sweet spot roughly eight years later, around 2016 or so.
But that sweet spot population began to improve in 2018 and is
expected to improve for another 12 to 18 months.
The highest correlation to industry growth has been eight to 12.
And why that's improving is after really, the recession of 2008, new
vehicle sales slowed through 2010.
Those began to re-accelerate in the early 2010s and really just in
2019 and 2020 the number of eight-year-old vehicles is beginning to
increase again after three years of declining.
And so that cohort of eight to 12 is beginning to grow again and
should support industry growth going forward. But a relatively
protected industry with a good, stable customer base doesn't really
answer the $1200 question.
If all auto parts retailers can offer service, why are AutoZone
shares priced so high, even far higher than its already good
competitors. What is setting it apart?
As of January 3rd, 2020 shares had risen just over 40 percent in the
last year. There are a few reasons for the climb.
Some analysts point to the fact that AutoZone management has been
buying back shares of the stock starting in the late 1990s.
Around that time, AutoZone had about 150 million shares outstanding.
In late 2019, the company had about 25 million shares outstanding.
Share buybacks alone have a tendency to inflate share prices, say
some analysts. The high share price does not deter bulls.
For one thing, AutoZone's forward price to earnings ratio is smaller
than those of rivals.
Forward P/E is a ratio commonly used by investors that compares the
price of a stock with a company's expected earnings.
It allows investors to compare the value of companies of different
sizes and different share prices.
The lower that ratio, the more earnings an investor may expect to get
for every dollar spent on a share.
The main things that often drive a higher or lower forward P/E ratio
are things like the rate at which a company is growing, its ability
to deliver earnings consistently and the quality of the assets it
owns. But what what we're seeing today is AutoZone has the lowest
ratio in the industry.
And its growth opportunities are actually accelerating.
And what we've seen in the last couple of years is AutoZone has made
a lot of investments. Their growth is now reaccelerating.
They're not mature. They're getting into commercial.
And so I'm willing to pay more for a dollar of earnings at AutoZone
than I would historically, because it's no longer considered a mature
company. It's actually a growth company.
And a big part of what has been fueling the enthusiasm over AutoZone
has been its recent push into commercial parts retailing often called
Do It for me or DIFM.
As opposed to its traditional business in Do It Yourself or DIY.
DIF M basically means professional mechanics and body shops.
These clients want to be able to order a part needed for a customer
and receive it within hours or even minutes in many cases in about as
little time as one would expect a pizza.
AutoZone has been investing heavily in building up the supply chain
needed to compete in commercial parts supply.
For example, the company has three types of store divided by size.
The smallest stores are often called satellite stores.
Then there are hubs and mega hubs which are larger stores that carry
a much larger variety and volume of parts.
A typical AutoZone store carries about 23,000 unique parts on its
shelves, often called SKUs, in reference to the unique barcodes on
each type of product. A hub carries about twice that number, while a
mega hub can carry twice as many as a hub — up to about 100,000
different products. In recent years, AutoZone has been ramping up the
number of hubs, especially mega hubs it has to improve its chances of
having a certain kind of part in an area at any given time.
That kind of selection is especially important when you're trying to
serve a mechanic who needs a part right away.
In 2016, AutoZone had 182 hub stores, including 11 mega hubs.
By the end of 2019, the company had 205 total hub stores, including
35 mega hubs.
In 2019, AutoZone said it plans to grow its number of mega hubs to
about 70 to 90 stores in the next few years.
It is also invested in training its staff to improve relationships
with mechanics. But for a long time, these investments bore no fruit.
Until that is relatively recently, there's really been an
acceleration in the commercial business as they've made a few
investments both in their supply chain and in their people to really
refocus on that part of their business, although it's the minority of
sales it's been a majority of the organic growth driver and really
it's address concerns that investors have had longer term as the
business and the industry shifts secularly towards to Do It For Me.
And they've proven that they're a viable competitor t hat can take
market share over there. Now, analysts expect the company has several
years of profitable growth in its commercial business left.
AutoZone only has to 15 percent of its business in the Do It For Me
category. Their peers have more of a mix of 50 percent of their
sales. And so we see tremendous growth opportunity at AutoZone over
the next honestly decade.
This is helped by the ever increasing mechanical and technological
complexity of vehicles.
There are some reasons to think the stock does not have much more
upside. Investors also do see a few other potential threats to auto
parts retailers. E-commerce businesses such as Amazon remain a
threat. The company that began mostly with bookselling over the years
became known as the Everything Store and has begun moving into
traditional retail businesses, both through its acquisition of
grocery retailer Whole Foods and other experiments in brick and
mortar selling. E-commerce also poses an oblique or indirect threat.
Even if Amazon decides it doesn't want to move into auto parts, auto
parts sellers could suffer competition from other retailers seeking
refuge from e-commerce rivals and other businesses.
Auto Zone's competitors are liable to not give up commercial auto
parts retail market share without a fight either.
AutoZone declined to be interviewed for this story.
Electric cars are known to be mechanically simpler than internal
The potential impact of this is unknown.
Despite the relative simplicity of an electric power train,
automakers may continue to add other safety, security and comfort
features that might continue making cars ever more complex
anyway. For now, investors are betting that consumers will still need
a wide array of auto parts rapidly and will still need help actually
fitting them in place.