By Caleb Talley
While most Arkansans are aware that AutoZone calls Memphis, Tenn., home, not many are familiar with the automotive retail giant’s humble beginnings in east Arkansas.
The nearly 40-year history of AutoZone began in 1979 when the first store opened its doors in Forrest City under the name Auto Shack. Auto Shack was the brainchild of J.R. “Pitt” Hyde, III, whose grandfather had helped found Malone & Hyde, a Memphis-based grocer.
Hyde knew nothing about cars, but he had already initiated and developed Malone & Hyde’s specialty retail division, which began with drug stores and expanded to sporting goods stores. It was during that process that Hyde realized there was money to be made under the hood, that there was a need for an automotive parts store to allow customers to maintain their vehicles.
Hyde saw that the automotive industry was growing, and auto parts weren’t nearly as price-sensitive as food. The idea led to the birth of Auto Shack, which began as a division of Hyde & Malone.
Touting everyday low prices – a strategy he learned while serving on the board of Walmart – Hyde started the first Auto Shack from scratch in Forrest City on July 4, 1979, and the sales that day totaled approximately $300.
By 1981, the company had opened its first Express Parts Service warehouse in Memphis, allowing customers to order “hard to find” parts not found in most stores. By 1983, just four years after opening the Forrest City store, Auto Shack cut the ribbon on its 100th store. A year later, the company would have 194 stores in 13 states.
In 1986, the company changed its name to AutoZone after being sued by Radio Shack for trademark infringement. Auto Shack initially won, but Radio Shack’s appeal was successful.
In 1988, nearly a decade after the company’s launch, Malone & Hyde was sold to the Fleming Companies of Oklahoma City. Hyde was able to keep AutoZone and set up its own corporate structure outside of the now-defunct grocery wholesaler.
“I’d never been a do-it-yourselfer and didn’t know the auto parts business, but I knew there was an opportunity,” Hyde, who retired from the AutoZone board in October, told Fortune in 2013. “We worked on small margins and were very tight operators, so that discipline helped us through as we learned the business.
“Our objective was to build a culture around superior customer service, and to have every day low prices in good-looking stores… In 1991, we went public, and the competition saw how well we were doing. They started copying our store layout and pricing. But none of them could copy our culture. Today we have 5,000 stores.”
AutoZone has come a long way since Auto Shack in Forrest City, opening its 6,000th store in 2017 with locations in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Brazil. Today, the company is the largest aftermarket automotive parts retailer in North America.
Since 1995, AutoZone has called downtown Memphis home, with a 270,000-square headquarters that employs more than 1,200.