How To Organize An Auto Parts Ecommerce Site

There are two ways that most auto parts and accessories ecommerce websites are organized:

  • Category-Based Organization, where the consumer finds parts by navigating categories, sub-categories, and sub-sub-categories
  • Year-Make-Model Search + Categories, where the consumer filters all parts by year, make, and model before they see any categories

Both options have merit, and deciding between these two organizational options typically comes down to SKU count (but not always). Here’s how you figure out what’s best.

Selling Mustang parts and accessories? How should you organize the website search?

Category-Based Organization – Pros And Cons

No matter what you do, you need to organize the products you sell by category. However, those categories can merely be descriptive, or they can be navigational. For example:

You sell Mustang parts. You decide to organize your parts first by generation – you have a “1964-1973” category, a “1979-1993” category, etc – and then by product type (filters, shocks, etc.).

The customer has to find their vehicle generation first, and then they can see the parts available for their vehicle.

In our example, the top level category is a vehicle generation. However, the top level category can be anything:

  • Vehicle make or model
  • Customer interest or activity (e.g., kayaking, skiing, biking, etc.)
  • Customer goal (e.g., increase horsepower, improve fuel economy, increased towing ability, etc.)

There are a lot of advantages to category based navigation:

  • Easy to use. Done well, your categories will be intuitive and easy for all consumers to understand. And if your navigation has pictures, even better.
  • Helps consumers focus. By making the consumer select a vehicle generation – or interest or goal – you can eliminate a lot of distractions. This often translates to a higher conversion rate and/or lower return rate.
  • Any ecommerce platform can do it. Every single ecommerce platform supports category-based navigation. You can go with something open source like WooCommerce or something premium like Shopify or BigCommerce, and very likely you can do the whole setup yourself.

Of course, there are some critical disadvantages to this type of navigation:

  • Category nomenclature is hard. Does a performance oil filter belong under “Engine Maintenance”, “Engine Performance”, or “Lubrication and Maintenance”? Does a rooftop bike rack belong under “Rooftop Storage” or “Bike Racks”? It isn’t easy to organize products by category.
  • Your SKU count must be relatively small. It’s very difficult to list more than a few thousand products on a website with category-based navigation. First, assume your customer won’t sift through more than 1 or 2 pages of products in any category. Then, assume you have 12 top-level categories with 2 or 3 sub-categories. That’s 24-36 categories to work with, each of which can have 20-60 products…which means you can have as few as 500 SKUs or as many as 2,000. Adding another layer of sub-categories helps, but you can see there’s a SKU count limit.
  • Managing/organizing products is harder. When you’ve got products organized by vehicle generation or make/model (or whatever), you’re going to have products that straddle more than one category. In no time at all, it can get hard to manage.

For all of these reasons, it’s hard to scale up a category-based website. Unless you’re always going to keep your SKU count low, you will eventually outgrow a category-based structure.

NOTE: It’s OK to build a site you know you’ll replace later. Most websites are updated/revamped every 2-3 years, so building something you know you’re going to replace in a couple of years isn’t a bad move.

Filtering By Year, Make, And Model Along With Categories

If your company is going to offer more than a few thousand SKUs, you want your site to have a year-make-model lookup tool. This way, your customer can filter out all the parts that aren’t applicable to them before shopping by category.

There are a couple of advantages to having a year-make-model lookup tool on your site:

  • SKU count is basically unlimited. In a perfect world, your customer never has to look at more than a page of product results (typically 20-30 products per page). With a year-make-model filter, most categories will only have a handful of parts that fit. So, your customer will be able to see everything you have without getting overwhelmed.
  • Product data may be easier to manage. Category trees are hard to work with – the simpler your category tree is, the easier your data is to organize.
  • You can segment consumers by their search behavior. While we’d advise caution with segmenting and marketing personalization, there is some value in knowing if your customer is a Ford owner, or a truck owner, or if their vehicle is less than 3 years old, and so on.

Of course, there are disadvantages to having a year-make-model search tool on your site:

  • Speed/website performance. Part lookups can take several seconds, and many consumers don’t have the patience.
  • Confusion. Amazingly, many consumers don’t know what vehicle model they have, can’t always remember the year of their vehicle, and frequently have no idea about the type of engine they have. While this is rarely a problem for auto enthusiasts, it’s not a great system for “regular” consumers.
  • Complex data updates. If your site is big enough, loading and updating fitment data can be a full-time job. Some systems manage these fitment updates for you (like our WooCommerce plugins), but many of them don’t.
  • Website development and management costs. Year-make-model search is resource-intensive, and most ecommerce systems don’t support it natively. As a result, it can cost several thousand dollars more to build a site with this capability, and monthly hosting/management costs are typically several hundred dollars plus.

All the major online retailers – RockAuto, Amazon, eBay, CarID, AutoZone, and so on – utilize a year-make-model search filter along with robust categorization to organize their parts and accessories. It’s clearly the solution of choice for larger retailers.

Which Organization Method Is Best?

Choosing the right organization method for your site comes down to SKU count and resources:

  • Does your company currently offer less than 3,000 SKUs? If so, category-based navigation is probably viable. Just make sure you can come up with a category tree that will make sense to your target consumer.
  • Is your company established or just getting started? If you’re just getting started, a category-based navigation system is cheaper to set up, easier to manage, and more flexible.

If the answer to both of those questions is “no,” you’ll probably want to invest in an ecommerce platform that supports year-make-model lookup. Just make sure you have a plan for managing fitment data updates.

Summing Up

We’re often asked which auto parts ecommerce platform is best, and our response is always the same: Do you need a year-make-model lookup, or not?

  • If the answer is yes, you’ll want to go with a system specifically developed for auto parts. We have a detailed list of auto parts ecommerce platforms here.
  • If the answer is no, you can go with any ecommerce platform you like (WooCommerce, Shopify, and BigCommerce being the most popular options).

And if your site doesn’t need to list more than 3,000 SKUs? You can probably get by with category based navigation.

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Auto parts in the cardbox. Automotive basket shop. Auto parts store.