AutoNiche: Your Family Friendly Automotive Shop

by Samantha Sim

Sometimes a simple curiosity can take someone down a path they had never imagined. That’s exactly what happened to Emily Chung, founder of the Markham automotive service shop Autoniche, after taking a service technician course while on maternity leave.

“I wanted to learn more about my car so I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable bringing it in for service,” says Chung. “At the time I worked in marketing for my parents’ automotive parts company, so I was familiar with selling product but not necessarily how to use it.”

On top of this Chung had bad experiences with automotive repair shops and technicians pressuring her into buying services even after refusing their offers.

“Since when did I have to justify my reasoning for not purchasing,” she says.

Chung enrolled in the Automotive Service Technician apprenticeship program at Centennial College and enjoyed it so much that she went back for the next two levels of certification. In Ontario, automotive service technicians must go through three levels of certification developed by the Ontario College of Trades.

In 2009 Chung opened Autoniche. Originally the shop was marketed towards women. Despite this, 80 to 90 percent of customers were men.

“Guys were saying they came to our shop because they didn’t have to pretend to know anything about their car,” says Chung.

Taking this into consideration Chung changed the business’s marketing to focus on “family friendly” messaging. The shop offers free child seat inspections for parents who are unsure whether they’ve installed theirs properly.

But with big car companies pushing maintenance services and many smaller mechanic shops located on the same street as Autoniche, how does Chung stay competitive? She classifies automotive repair businesses into two categories: break shops and maintenance shops. The first refers to mechanics that deal with problems as they arise. The latter is what Chung considers Autoniche to be, which is key to attracting customers.

“Our biggest difference is in the way we communicate with clients,” she says. “We ask the car owner what their goal is. Are they planning to keep the vehicle long term? Is it leased? This affects the types of services we recommend to them.”

Chung knows she won’t appeal to everyone and can’t always match the lowest price, but the shop’s tailored approach is winning over clients and grabbing the attention of big brands. Earlier this month Chung was invited to the launch of Chevrolet’s 2016 Volt in San Francisco, where she test drove the hybrid-electric vehicle. She’s also an automotive blogger and reviewer for popular parenting site and until recently was a Hankook Tire brand ambassador.

Much of the business’s marketing strategy focuses on digital and social media, something Chung says is an anomaly for smaller service shops. Autoniche’s Facebook and Twitter accounts are regularly updated with videos on everything from road trip safety to reviews on the latest models from automakers like Honda and Mazda.

Despite the attention she receives, Chung is still a woman in an industry that is significantly male-dominated. At first she received mixed reviews when she told people about her apprenticeship.

“Most have been supportive, but there were both men and women telling me I shouldn’t service a vehicle,” she says. “I wouldn’t want those people as customers anyways if they don’t trust my abilities. I’m not here to change the industry, just fix cars.”

“It takes a certain mentality to work in the trades,” says Chung, and she’s learned to adapt to this new work environment. The biggest change she’s seen is in the way she approaches communication. Chung says service technicians are largely solution focused. They like getting right to the point, diagnosing the problem, and creating a solution.

As Autoniche enters its seventh year Chung reflects on where she’d like the shop to go in the future. She’s not necessarily interested in expanding into more locations, but there is one thing she’s working towards.

“People still associate me specifically with the business. I’d like to see the brand stand on its own one day and separate from me personally,” she says.

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