Now Beans wants to move the business online. "I've got more parts than Pep Boys," he told me, redirecting a floor fan in a muggy corner as trucks backed up to his loading docks.
"We have this idea we can develop into a national name, like JCWhitney, RockAuto.com, AutoZone," which sell parts from aftermarket manufacturers, he said.
Fred Beans Parts is lined to the ceiling with racks and bins of right-front door handles and body panels and O-rings. It has more than 110,000 parts, enough to fit 70 percent of the car models on North American roads. They're bound for dealers and body shops and other small-business buyers, trucked daily in and out (and, in 15 percent of cases, returned back in) to Beans' complex of former electrical-components factories behind the Bucks County courthouse.
But retailing that many different articles to customers on the Internet has been a challenge for the auto industry. The Philadelphia-based Pep Boys store chain was slow to sell parts on the Web, fearing that it would cannibalize its parts counters; chief executive Michael Odell told investors last month that he hopes to ramp up direct-from-warehouse sales next year. Ford sells some parts direct to small shops and do-it-yourselfers, but prefers not to get in the way of its dealers' wholesale efforts, Principato says.
And it's a challenge to build the kind of visually rich parts storefront that online shoppers are used to: "There's 276,000 parts in the [Ford] system, but they only have 5,000 pictures," Web-ready images, says Denny Loux, Beans' warehouse manager.
Beans said he's been looking at schemes for photographing tens of thousands of parts — a big job. Ford's Principato says sites such as FordParts.com provide measurements and other details that help tell manufacturers' parts from aftermarket knockoffs.
Beans this year started to take parts orders online, in an air-conditioned office at the front of the warehouse, but it's still less than 5 percent of his total parts sales of around $170 million a year.
It's a puzzle, says Beans: "Our value is in the inventory. It's like sitting on natural gas or oil, and not knowing how to get it out of the ground. We need a business partner that can help us define our vision."
He's working with Malvern-based Stream Companies, an advertising agency that specializes in "direct to consumer" sales. Beans is "doing a very complicated dance," says Stream cofounder Jason Brennan. "It's a matter of putting a lot of pieces together."
The effort has included FredBeans.com and an Amazon.com storefront, as well as the online service desk. "Fred Beans is a valuable asset to Amazon, and they're excited about [Beans'] participation in their marketplace," Stream cofounder David Regn told me.
Given the relatively low cost of entry by rivals including data aggregators who match third-party warehouse inventory with buyers, Beans says some of the dealers he works with aren't convinced of the wisdom of selling direct. They figure "maybe we'll go to dealers and say, ‘We'll license you. You can buy all this [parts and sales] info from us for a monthly fee. This is your territory.'?"
But Beans likes the idea of growing online: "Our model is, get as much as we can on the Internet, and make it available at a reasonable price, and deliver on it, and become a household name."
That's the way to do it, nodded Loux, the manager. "Go," he said. "We've got inventory. Let's sell."
Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.