The Canadian retailer adapted to the lockdowns by quickly shifting to curbside pickup and in-store pickup of online orders. The experience changed its culture.

When COVID-19 hit Canada, Princess Auto Ltd. surprised itself by becoming an omnichannel retailer faster than its executives thought possible. 

Over three weeks, the retailer set up the buy online pickup in store (BOPIS) operation it had been contemplating but felt unready to implement before the pandemic.  It launched the BOPIS service on March 24. The retailer also quickly shifted to an unusual curbside pickup process suited to its customers and the tools and equipment they buy. “It showed us that we could do things more quickly than we had in the past,” says Dave Matthes​​, imagination leader for the retailer.  

Princess Auto had BOPIS “in the works,” but company leaders thought they were a year away from launching it, Matthes​ says. Then, the COVID-19 crisis made introducing omnichannel services a top priority.  

Princess Auto (No. 1124 in the 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Next 1000) sells tools, farm equipment and an eclectic assortment of other things, including trailers compressors, welders, metal fabrication equipment, paint guns, garage supplies, safety equipment and a constantly changing variety of surplus goods. Despite the name, it no longer sells auto parts.

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Princess Auto’s name is a legacy from earlier versions of the company, which has evolved significantly since its founding in 1933 as Princess Auto Wrecking, located on Princess Auto St. in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The original owner sold the company to Harvey Tallman in 1942 for the money he received when he sold his truck. Tallman started selling auto parts, then war-surplus goods. The company evolved into a catalog and call center retailer and continues to sell goods via those channels.

Princess Auto opened its first store in 1977 and started selling online in 1998. It now operates 48 stores across Canada. Sales for 2020 are forecasted to be around 600.0 million Canadian dollars ($457.5 million). That includes about CA$50 million ($38.1 million) in online sales—up about 40% from 2019, Matthes says. That surge in ecommerce sales includes a period of Black Friday-like sales spikes in April, he says.

While consumers continue to spend more money online, those sales have not come at the expense of in-store sales, which normalized since the end of April, Matthes says. Spending from existing customers continues to be up, with buying patterns changed since the beginning of the pandemic, Matthes​ says. For example, he says sales in the yard and outdoors categories have been “way up,” probably because consumers are at home more than usual during the pandemic. 

How Princess Auto interacts with customers

Diesel Weasel

The one-of-a-kind Diesel Weasel is one of many projects featured online in the Princess Auto Project Showcase.

Curbside pickup at Princess Auto stores involves a personal touch. Customers who drive up are met by sales associates who go into the store to retrieve items they ask for and collect payment. But sometimes it’s not that simple. 

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Princess Auto describes its customers as a mix of mechanics, trade professionals, inventors and tinkerers. Given that, customers often know what they want to achieve, but don’t know what components will best achieve their goals.

So, curbside pickup at a Princess Auto store works a lot like shopping inside the store—with the customer remaining outside. Customers consult with sales personnel from their cars and then the sales staff walks through the store to find options, Matthes says.

The Princess Auto website exhibits its customers’ unique talents in a Project Showcase section, where customers can upload photos and tell others about the things they made. The Princess Auto website also includes instructional videosbuying guides and tips showing shoppers how to use its products. The projects they produce are ingenious, beautiful, fun, creative or weird.

Matthes calls the Project Showcase “the best user-generated content section I have ever seen.” Projects on the site include a garden tractor repurposed as a fun, go-cart-like vehicle and a fire-breathing dragon lawn ornament. Since the pandemic, he says, customers have contributed to the Project Showcase significantly higher rate than in the past.

Matthes says the coronavirus crisis changed Princess Auto for good—mainly by giving the corporate culture a new sense of urgency and confidence that it can pivot, when necessary, to meet challenges as they emerge.

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“It’s inspired a new kind of thinking in our executives and a new kind of thinking in our owners,” he says. Rapid change is now a part of the company’s culture.  

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