If you’re in the market for some OEM or aftermarket car parts, there are a few big players that you might consider. Two of the biggest options on the market are AutoZone and NAPA. In my experience, shoppers are very opinionated about which store is better, and why.
Neither store is dramatically better than the other. They both stock a wide variety of OEM and aftermarket parts, and the quality is good in both stores. In fact, a lot of products are identical between the two since they shop from the same manufacturers. Still, NAPA tends to be a little higher-quality and more expensive in the parts that aren’t identical, but it’s easier to find an AutoZone store.
In this comparison, I’m going to break it down. I’ll give you facts and opinions to answer a simple question: which is better for auto parts?
AutoZone is an auto parts shop that first opened its doors in 1979 in Arkansas. It’s actually one of the youngest auto parts stores in America.
AutoZone doesn’t make any parts, they buy them from manufacturers and sell them through their store. In other words, they’re a distributor of car parts.
They offer OEM parts, but most of their items are aftermarket options. You won’t find engines on their shelves, but you’ll find everything you need for a brake job or to change your oil.
All About NAPA
NAPA started doing business in 1925, under the name National Automotive Parts Association (NAPA) in Detroit. It was initially started by a group of independent auto parts sellers who joined forces to optimize their reach and sales. It currently uses the same distribution model that AutoZone uses.
It currently has over 6,000 stores in operation in America, and they focus on OEM and aftermarket car parts. Their inventory typically mirrors the other auto parts giants like AutoZone — you’ll find similar parts with different brand names, sold at different prices.
Why The Choice Matters
Your choice of auto parts distributors is the same as your choice in grocery stores. At the end of the day, it all has to do with personal preference. We weigh the pros and cons of all the options, then choose the store that we like the most.
There’s nothing tying you to one store or another. You can swap from being a lifelong NAPA customer to AutoZone, and no one will bat an eyelash.
Here, the choice is more about the parts that they have in stock. There are certainly differences between the inventory at AutoZone and NAPA, and I’ll cover most of those differences later.
What to Look for in an Auto Parts Store
If you’re on the fence, there are some key criteria to look into. More specifically, consider the following:
The Quality of Parts
Quality is one of the most important factors to keep in mind. With OEM parts, the quality won’t differ from store to store.
Different brands come with different levels of quality. In general, you’ll have to pay more for higher-quality parts.
A high-quality part will work better, last longer, and result in the best-case scenario when it comes to performance.
In manufacturing, the quality is a result of what materials were used, what machines were run, the professionalism of the designer and machinist, and how the inspection was performed after the part was made.
It’s more involved to make high-quality parts.
In some cases, the quality doesn’t have a big impact. If you’re buying a plastic cover for your glove box, the quality doesn’t matter as long as it fits — with very inexpensive and exceptionally low-quality aftermarket options, it might not fit, but that’s a different story.
Another important consideration is the pricing. It’s the reason why some people shop at Walmart and some people shop at Whole Foods — stores are built with a certain price point in mind.
It wouldn’t make sense to open a store that sells parts at random prices with no connection between them. Instead, a shop owner will focus solely on low-price items and fill their shop with them. People who are looking to buy inexpensive parts will exclusively shop with them.
You notice this in a lot of stores, and auto parts shops do the same. Certain options will have similar parts at a lower quality for much lower prices. If you’re buying a non-essential part like an AC vent for your car, then why not go for the less expensive option?
Who They Employ
Auto parts stores also have different philosophies when it comes to who they hire. Some places will just hire the least expensive workers, and that might mean that high schoolers are helping you find a replacement gasket.
Other stores take a lot of pride in their workforce. They’ll hire trained employees, and put the staff through regular training to help them learn more about the products they sell.
To me, a highly trained staff is invaluable. Even though I know a lot about car parts and maintenance, it’s always better to buy a part from someone who knows what they’re talking about.
I’ve had too many horror stories of buying a part from someone who knew nothing about cars. I would get home, open the box, and realize they gave me a completely wrong part. Either I can spend more energy fact-checking the worker in the store, or I can shop with a place that trains their staff.
How Close the Store Is
How about proximity? Not all of us live in a massive city that has dozens of auto parts shops within walking distance.
Sometimes you want to skip out on the driving and just choose your closest auto parts shop. With brands that have more stores across America, there’s a higher chance that you have one closer to your house.
Is it worth driving an hour to get a part that’s a little less expensive or a little higher quality? That’s not for me to decide.
What Parts are Offered
Another consideration is how wide their inventory is. I’ve been hunting for some very specific and hard-to-find parts for old-project cars, so I know how limited some stores’ inventory is.
Some places will focus on the most popular cars, like the Civics and Camrys on the road. Others will broaden their inventory to include a ton of niche products, so auto enthusiasts can find what they’re looking for.
OEM vs Aftermarket
In this comparison, I’ll be talking about OEM and aftermarket parts a lot. To clear things up, I want to give a quick definition.
Original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts are designed and built in accordance with the manufacturer who made your car. An OEM Honda Civic steering wheel will be identical to the one that came with your stock Civic when you bought it.
There are stringent rules, specs, and dimensional tolerances that need to be upheld for a part to be considered OEM.
OEM parts are more expensive, but they’re also identical to the part that you’re replacing on your stock vehicle. The idea is that you pay a little extra to maximize the fit, function, and look of the part.
Aftermarket parts are the complete opposite. It’s an unregulated market that simply makes parts for different vehicles.
An aftermarket steering wheel could be completely different than your stock one. For instance, you can get an aftermarket quick-release steering wheel that’s nothing like your current one, and it’s actually illegal to use.
Aftermarket manufacturers either aim to make parts that are comparable to OEM parts, or completely different. Ones who make completely different parts are part of the mod community — if you don’t like how a part looks or performs on a stock vehicle, you can swap it for an aftermarket alternative to improve it (think of an air intake or exhaust manifold).
A Small Caveat to Consider
Where you buy your parts definitely matters, but there’s a small caveat here: the manufacturing market for aftermarket car parts is pretty small.
There are only so many companies that can reliably make parts for the market.
As a result, there is a lot of overlap between all of the major auto parts stores. Common items are typically made by the same manufacturing company overseas, and sold with different packaging in different stores.
In other words, you can buy two brake calipers that have completely different boxes, but they’re made by the exact same manufacturer.
Unless you do a ton of digging, it’s hard to figure this out. It’s also hard to determine when you’re walking down the aisles or checking online — they’ll be sold as different brands with different part numbers and different SKUs at the store.
That’s to say that there’s a lot of overlap between AutoZone and NAPA. You might be buying the exact same part from both places without even realizing it.
AutoZone Vs NAPA
Without further ado, let’s start looking into AutoZone and NAPA. More specifically, I want to figure out which one is better for auto parts. I’ll break this up into a few key comparisons between the two companies before making my final decision.
Speaking of quality, which shop’s quality is really the best? At the beginning of the guide, I mentioned that a lot of stores get the same parts from the exact same manufacturer.
Between AutoZone and NAPA, this happens a lot. There is a lot of overlap where they sell the exact same product in different boxes for different prices.
Of course, this doesn’t happen all the time with these stores. When the parts are truly different, NAPA tends to have better quality.
This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that NAPA charges more for their parts — it makes sense that the quality is higher since the price is higher.
From what I’ve heard, AutoZone regularly gets new manufacturing contracts while searching for the lowest bidder. They have the specs that they need for a part, and they’ll sign up whichever manufacturer can do it for the least amount of money.
This is another parallel to the Walmart versus Whole Foods comparison I made earlier. In this case, NAPA offers parts that are less expensive but lower quality, like Walmart.
But, I’ll put a big asterisk here. I’ve never personally run into a scenario where a part from AutoZone was so low quality that it didn’t work or broke prematurely. It seems like they do a good job of vetting their suppliers and they only sell parts that are good enough to meet my standards.
With that said, NAPA still consistently has higher-quality options.
Another obvious difference between the two options is the pricing. Across the board, NAPA seems to be more expensive for its parts.
AutoZone has more competitive prices. In most cases, it doesn’t hurt to go for a less expensive part. As long as the part is high-quality enough to do a great job, it’s fine to go for the less expensive option.
Splurging for more expensive oil and oil filters doesn’t make sense, since you replace them just as often as the least expensive option (unless you’re going for full-synthetic versus conventional).
AutoZone even mentions on its site that they want to be the less-expensive option on the market while retaining the same quality as its competitors.
How Many Stores are Open
First, how hard is it to find a store near you? Between AutoZone and NAPA, it’s a pretty close contest. NAPA has a little under 4,500 stores and AutoZone has closer to 6,800 stores as of 2021. AutoZone has 50% more stores open than NAPA.
Even though they’re spread out across America, that means a higher chance of having an AutoZone near you. That also means less driving to get a replacement part for your vehicle.
Next, how niche is the inventory? As I mentioned, some stores will only stock very popular parts, and others will stock a wide assortment of parts.
In this comparison, it’s a gray area. In my opinion, I’ve found equally rare parts in both stores. NAPA tends to have the unique part I’m asking for more often, but it could just be anecdotal for me.
What I can say for sure is that both stores offer everything you need for your standard daily driver. The inventory covers almost everything from your bumper to your taillights, and neither store has a clearly wider inventory. It’s too close to call, so it’s a tie.
Customer Experience – Staff Knowledge
For me, NAPA’s staff is always more knowledgeable. Whichever town I stop in for parts, I always have a great experience with NAPA. Earlier I complained about shopping places that gave me the wrong product and had high schoolers working there, and that was AutoZone every time.
Again, I know this is anecdotal, but it just seems too frequent to be a coincidence for me. All of my buddies share similar stories of the staff at NAPA being very knowledgeable.
Market Share Of Auto Retail Parts
A company’s percentage of market share refers to how much of the total market they contribute to. If a company sells $1 million worth of product in a market valuated at $10 million, they have a market share of 10%.
Even though market share is an arbitrary business idea, it translates to a pretty important topic: how popular is the company?
Companies that own a majority of the market are typically the best in the sector. There’s a reason why Apple and Google are household names and own a majority of their markets.
This comparison between AutoZone and NAPA, it’s closer than you might think. In 2020, NAPA held a 5.5% market share, and AutoZone finished with 4.2%.
In a $300 billion automotive aftermarket, those percentages add up to massive sales. In this case, NAPA is the bigger seller and more popular option.
Which Is Better for Auto Parts?
If you want to pick a single store to pledge your allegiance to for the rest of your life, I would urge you to think it over. Both stores are great and they have their own pros and cons, but neither option is so much better that it’s a no-brainer.
Personally, I bounce between all of the major auto parts shops. The biggest ones have very good sites, and you can shop online to see which store has the part you’re looking for.
If you want to buy an inexpensive part that might not be the best quality, go for AutoZone. If you want to pay a little extra for a part that’s built better, choose NAPA. However, you shouldn’t exclusively shop at just one of these two stores, they’re both great.
NAPA and AutoZone are both very impressive places to buy auto parts. I would argue that neither is “better” for auto parts, since they both have vast inventories, and their quality is good. Just be sure to check both sites before showing up, so you can see the inventory ahead of time.