AAA Looks to Open Car Repair Shops

Thursday, January 8th 2004, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ For years, the country's largest auto club has certified auto repair shops _ and then had to mediate seemingly inevitable consumer complaints about cost and quality.

Now, some local AAA chapters have decided to try their own hand at the $130 billion-a-year repair business.

``This is someplace where consumers definitely need help,'' said Jean Ann Fox, consumer protection director for the Consumer Federation of America.

Since the first AAA-branded shop opened in Santa Clara, Calif., in 1999, local American Automobile Association chapters have opened some 20 repair shops under the AAA name.

AAA's local chapters own and operate the shops independently of the national organization, which is based outside Orlando, Fla.

In North Carolina and South Carolina, AAA Carolinas has opened five AAA AutoMark repair shops in Raleigh and the Charlotte area over the last three years _ more than any other affiliate in the country.

And that's only the beginning. The club eventually hopes to have 50 locations across both states, building on services that include emergency road aid, car-buying assistance and an insurance agency.

``We think there's this big chasm between what the consumers want from auto repair and what's being delivered,'' AAA Carolinas president David Parsons said.

AAA is not the only brand name moving into an industry long dominated by mom-and-pop corner repair stations. Muffler chains Midas and Meineke have both expanded their services to include general repairs.

``A lot of what is being done, in my opinion, is being driven by how we want to have our cars serviced in this country,'' said Tony Molla, spokesman for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, which certifies automotive technicians and parts specialists. ``Most consumers tend to stick with one location that they have a relationship with and trust.''

``As far as brand recognition, AAA is right up there with the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,'' Molla said.

Seonwha Kim came to the Raleigh AutoMark shop this week after a series of bad repair experiences.

One day after going to court to sue a mechanic over a faulty $3,100 transmission replacement in her Infiniti J30, Kim asked the AAA repairmen to check her rattling brakes. She was worried that a mechanic who recently fixed the brakes had cheated her.

The AAA technicians confirmed her fears, telling Kim that the high-priced brake components she had purchased were actually of low quality.

``I didn't believe any mechanic so I just wanted to bring it to AAA,'' said Kim, a college student in Raleigh.

AutoMark stores employ certified technicians and repairs are guaranteed for two years or 24,000 miles. AAA members get an additional 10 percent discount on labor. Still, 40 percent of customers are not AAA members, Parson said.

Parson said AAA Carolinas asks only that the AutoMark shops break even, because they are seen as adding value to club members. The shops make less than 5 percent profit, he said.

Without profit as the measuring stick, store managers are judged primarily on customer satisfaction, as measured in mail-in surveys, he said.

``We want to make sure we do it one time, the first time, the right way,'' Parson said. ``If we're referring you to somebody else, we don't have that same level of control.''

The AAA shops seem to have fewer consumer complaints, but haven't satisfied everybody.

The Better Business Bureau lists nine complaints from two Charlotte AutoMark shops in the past three years. Seven were resolved and the BBB said the company made every reasonable effort to resolve the remaining two. The state attorney general's office lists two complaints against the AutoMark shops listed by its consumer protection section.

AAA does not believe that allowing local chapters to run repair shops undermines its long-standing practice of certifying stores for technical competence and customer service, and arbitrating disputes between members and 4,600 AAA-approved repair shops nationwide, spokesman Geoff Sundstrom said.

``Our sense is that many of the auto repair shops we certify have got about all the business they can handle,'' he said.

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