Customers Getting Tagged
There are problems, and there are opportunities. And for most people, the two are totally separate.
But for Griffin Brothers Tire Sales in Charlotte, N.C., persistent computer problems opened the door to vast new opportunities to attract and keep retail customers.
The five-store independent leveraged computer problems, a borrowed idea and an innovative vendor to create a new way to attract and keep retail customers. And it saved money at the same time.
According to Brad Summers, general manager, the family-owned dealership’s new preferred customer card system works hand-in-hand with tire retailing basics to help Griffin Brothers Tire meet its goal of "providing the best retail experience we can."
Preferred customer cards have become all the rage in grocery stores, explained Summers, "so why not use them in a tire store?"
Nearly every chain grocer offers bar-coded key tag cards, which customers scan at checkout to receive bonus discounts. The cards are truly interactive, because each time a customer scans the card to receive a discount, the store tracks exactly what that customer purchased.
At the time Griffin Brothers Tire was contemplating how they could use that idea, it was also working to upgrade its often-cantankerous computer systems. The dealership was using a popular networking program and a Windows-based point-of-sale program to handle its then three-store needs. But, Summers said, with plans for two new stores, Griffin Brothers wanted a more stable, reliable and efficient means to connect all its stores and enjoy real-time sales and inventory updates.
So Griffin Brothers Tire turned to Andreoli & Associates Inc. in nearby Cornelius, N.C., marketers of the Hits Plus tire store point-of-sale software system. Not only did Andreoli help solve the dealer’s networking and in-store computer problems, they helped create Griffin Brothers’ bar code system. "They worked with us all the way. It took us more than a year, from the initial idea through production to when we started handing them out this year," Summers said.
Now, each Griffin Brothers customer automatically gets one of the bar-coded key tags. "And they’re nicer looking than the ones you get from grocery stores," Summers said proudly. "On the front it has the company’s name and the locations of the five stores with the phone numbers. That way we can tell the customer that if they have trouble, they can call any one of our stores."
And the tags have allowed the dealer to be more precise in handling its customers. "Prior to using the cards, we had to search for customer histories by field names or license plate numbers," said Summers.
"And that worked okay, but it was often clumsy and difficult when data input was incorrect or inconsistent, with name misspellings or when we didn’t follow other input rules. Those kinds of things can screw up a database.
"The beauty of the key tag is that it’s bar coded, and the code is specific not just to that customer but also to the vehicle the key belongs to," he explained. "So when they come back, all they have to do is hand us the keys, we scan the tag and it automatically pulls up that vehicle’s history and customer’s information."
The scanners, said Summers, cost around $90 each, and they are tied directly into the dealership’s computer system, so even if a customer goes to a different Griffin Brothers store, their information follows them.
Summers said he thinks Griffin Brothers is the first tire dealership to utilize such cards. "These key tags are a natural marketing tool. I expect that most point-of-sale tire software is going to incorporate it quickly."
Summers is quick to give a lot of credit to Andreoli & Associates. "They also helped us come up with a networking environment that’s much cheaper and more reliable than the wide area networks we used before." Griffin Brothers and its vendor found a networking program called M-Term that was at least 90% less expensive than one popular option, "and from a stability standpoint, it’s been like night and day."
Working the Basics
Technology hasn’t been the only answer for Griffin Brothers Tire. A little good old-fashioned hard work and creativity – and setting a direction and sticking to it – has also served them well. Other aggressive forms of marketing haven’t hurt either.
First, the company invested heavily in building retail stores that are virtual palaces. "Our newer stores are, in my experience, the fanciest tire stores I have ever been in," said Summers. Griffin Brothers opened its second location in 1991 in suburban Cornelius, and its third in 1996 near UNC-Charlotte. The fourth and fifth stores – in neighboring Mooresville and Concord, respectively – opened this year.
All of the company’s stores are, "a commercial for Windex," said Summers. "The stores border on hospital-clean, and our customers really appreciate the atmosphere."
The newer facilities, in particular, are extremely customer-friendly, with a carpeted, glass-enclosed customer waiting area, cable television and new magazines. And a children’s play area, also separated by glass, has enough Playskool toys and other activities to keep even the most difficult child happy. And every restroom has a diaper changing station to help out busy moms and dads.
Each store operates a courtesy van with a full-time driver to take customers to work or wherever they need to go, and pick them up as needed when their vehicles are ready. Each identical van has the company’s name, logo and the individual store location on the side.
Focused on Every Customer
And women customers get special consideration. "I make sure that our people know how to talk to women. I see women as our greatest market potential," said Summers. "They are traditionally uncommitted customers, whether through graduation or divorce or widowhood. They are looking for a place they can trust. And all the things that we do in terms of making our facilities nice and comfortable, even to the point of how we talk and relate to them, is designed to reassure them that this is a comfortable place and we aren’t going to take advantage of them.
"By doing those kinds of things, we try to focus on what you would consider the more upscale customer," he said. "We do not and will not portray ourselves as a discount store. And that’s part of our philosophy. We don’t try to be the least expensive place on the block, but we do promise to provide more than the difference in price in the service we give the customer."
The company’s first store – on Trade St. in Charlotte, and opened by founder Larry Griffin Sr. in 1961 – is still operating today. And while it’s not as "fancy" as the newer stores, Summers said it remains a popular destination for customers. Larry Griffin Jr. now handles day-to-day operations, and plans to upgrade the original store’s look later this year.
While the company’s primary focus is retail sales, 60% of the Trade St. store’s sales are commercial, according to Summers, primarily to auto and light truck fleets in the area. The store runs six service trucks and has a dedicated commercial sales department to support its fleet customers.
A Little is A Lot
Summers said the $10 million dealership does very little advertising, save the occasional newspaper and TV ads tied primarily to new store openings. "We have grown by word of mouth and our reputation in the community as a fair, honest place to get work one.
"We do a lot of direct mail, using a company called Moving Targets, which has worked real well for us. And we aggressively do reminder cards using our point-of-sale data to send our customers reminders for inspections, oil changes and those kind of things."
Each store also does a lot of what Summers calls "hand-to-hand" selling. Store managers are required to personally solicit business from other businesses in their area. And Griffin Brothers has given them a new tool to use – a corporate discount card.
"When our managers are out calling on neighboring businesses, we offer them a discount program for their employees. The employee gets a real nice looking card, with their name, the name of their company, and our store locations on it," Summers explained. "We had been asked in the past if we had some kind of a program. But we felt that by putting these cards in people’s hands that it would be a reminder that they can get a discount on their services."
For Griffin Brothers, technology has indeed meant a lot. But Summers will be the first to tell you that sticking to the basics and being a little creative is what really allows the dealership to successfully live by its slogan – "Family-Owned and Customer Driven."