In Stock, But Not In Stores

No matter how long I plan out a repair, how many forum DIY threads I read, or whom I consult beforehand, I always end up needing to run out to the store for something. Whether it’s a part, a tool, a chemical, or a fluid, it seems that there is always something I didn’t account for—or something that changing circumstances suddenly necessitate.

When my garage consisted of a single BMW, this corollary to Murphy’s Law added a serious amount of stress to every repair or project, and this ultimately translated to a low level of enjoyment when it came to wrenching. Of course, with a few distinctly different BMWs under my ownership, along with another daily driver, the need to get it done aspect of things on the laundry list has been largely eliminated.

But this hasn’t completely eliminated those trips to the local auto-parts store for a single linchpin item.

The Internet, and the advent of e-commerce, were supposed to solve all of this, and although they have, in many ways, the amount of choice in the marketplace—or the lack thereof, when it comes to specific items, like automotive batteries—has made the amount of research required before executing a purchase decision a job in itself.

Rob Siegel, The Hack Mechanic, has written about the Rhythm of Repairand how he, like many others (including me), often spends time optimizing orders across different vendors to avoid shipping charges. More recently, however, I have found that I sometimes need to integrate another criterion into my searches: Can I get this part or tool today?

With more items for sale on the Internet than ever before, and more and more companies opting to drop-ship things that they don’t actually stock, finding a specific tool or part in your local area has become increasingly difficult. This isn’t just for oddities like the 32-mm fan-clutch wrench that I, like many other BMW DIYers, now personally own; the trials and tribulations you go through for relatively simple, benign items have increased as well, even for something like shaving cream.

Most recently, it was a 13-mm hex-bit socket. A few months before that, during the previous project, it was a particular version of Bondo fiberglass mesh; I have since noticed that it’s sold everywhere, after initially running all over town for it. I am lucky enough to have access to a lifetime’s accumulation worth of tools, but there are still times when the exact piece, apparatus, or device that I need remains out of reach.

This isn’t just with auto parts, either. When browsing the websites of massive retailers like Home Depot or Target for something that I’d like to pick up rather than have shipped to me, I have to be careful to check the “In Stores” button, and also to select the location closest to me, or another nearby option if it’s not in stock in my neighborhood. Both Target and Home Depot can provide the amount of inventory remaining in stock at a given location—along with the specific aisle and bay where you can find it—but the vast majority of search results are “ship to store” or “ship to home” items that necessitate assembling an entire order to make worthwhile.

If you’ve been doing this long enough, it might start to wear on you, especially if you are a detail-oriented, obsessive character like me. I am just old enough to remember what the world was like before everything was a Google search away, and when a phone was used exclusively for calling people, and I stand in awe of the progress we’ve made when it comes to the democratization of information.

But what good is a world’s worth of products at your fingertips if you can’t actually find something relatively basic at your local retailer?

Back to the 13-mm hex-bit socket: I thought that since I already have a full range of similarly sized Torx bits, and quite a few other comparable tools, I should opt for a full set of hex-bit sockets, which would of course include the 13-mm or 1/2″ size that I needed in order to complete the task at hand. This proposition, of course, greatly increased the amount of effort involved with finding a decent set, forcing me to dive into the product description of everything I found, hoping that I would see my size listed in the contents section. After coming up short with the sets available at my local retailers, I moved onto searching for the specific item that I needed, even though it would cost more on a per unit basis.

I was lucky enough to find the hex-bit socket at the auto-parts retailer that happens to be closest to my neighborhood, and purchased that single item and nothing else—good discipline. The socket worked perfectly, and I eventually went on to successfully complete the repair.

However, the entire online shopping process for that socket took one hour at a minimum, and the specific task of searching for availability in my local area only added to the amount of clicks and taps necessary for completion. So yes, I was able to find, purchase, and use what I needed in a timely fashion—but it’s 2019, and I really think we can do better.—Alex Tock

[Photos via Flickr user lyzadanger, DeWalt.]

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