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Eye on Possibility: Out-of-the-Box Thinking Can Transform Your Image, Sell the Experience

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Buying new tires has been called one of the most negative purchases a consumer can make. Did you ever invite the neighbors over to see your new washer-dryer combo? Unlikely. Same holds true for tires.

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While independent tire dealers can do little to polish the image of tires, they can do an awful lot to build their own brand image. After all, people do business with people, not products.

If you can’t make the product shine, what can you do to improve the buying experience?

The answer is not likely to be found in some of the old-saw promotion ideas tire companies push – like “Buy 3, Get 1 Free!” Those strategies do little to boost consumer enthusiasm, let alone position the product as anything more than a commodity.

So, the days of one-off stunts like free hotdogs, balloons for the kids, enormous inflatable gorillas and the like just won’t cut it anymore. To build long-term – and profitable – relationships with today’s customers, tire dealers need to start thinking outside of the box, away from traditional, so-called ‘tried and true’ formulas that served them for so many years.

Truly thinking – and being – ‘out of the box’ may mean undergoing a bit of a transformation. It can be subtle or extreme, physical or philosophical.

Thinking outside of the box often requires stepping outside of your own ‘box,’ so to speak. Venturing outside of the four walls of your dealership, even for just a minute, may reveal some interesting new ways of thinking that you may be able to apply to your own situation.

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Transforming an Image

Just ask Harley Davidson, which has transformed itself from the days of grease, dirt and grime into a world of glamour, spit-n-polish clean and more fun than the law allows. Best of all, HD did it without abandoning its core customer base, while building on what it calls the “new rider.”

And Harley did all of this in the face of stiff overseas competition. How? By changing along with its customers.

But, first, HD pinpointed the customer traits that never seem to change. Camaraderie has always been at the center of what HD is all about. Out on the open road, total strangers talk with total strangers, and if you pull up to a Harley dealer on a Harley, you are welcomed like an old friend. It’s because of this sense of community that long-loyal Harley riders continue to flock to their nearest HD store.

Still, HD’s core Harley rider was gradually changing through the years, and the retailer took notice. The blue-collar workers who had been riding Harleys for decades were joined by school teachers, CPAs, surgeons, lawyers and other white-collar types.

These customers will pay anywhere from $14,000 to $30,000 for a new bike and as many accessories as they can find. They will talk about their bike for hours to anyone willing to listen. And listen they do.

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“The new rider is the buyer who has already been through boats and motor homes and is looking for a new adventure,” says Ernie Passeos, owner of Liberty Harley Davidson in Akron, Ohio. “He or she is often a professional who makes $75,000 to $100,000 annually, is 45 to 55 years old and is looking for something different.”

Of course, actually taming a Hog is not quite that simple. For that reason, Passeos offers customers the “Riders Edge” training program for new motorcyclists at a cost of $325.

“We feed them, we teach them, and we lose money on every customer for this service,” he says. “But, I don’t care because I don’t lose the customer. We conduct our school because we want our store to be their base. We want them to have a safe riding experience, and we invite them to come back to see us for service, HD merchandise and apparel or just to shoot the breeze.”

Passeos also sponsors the 250-member-strong Cuyahoga Valley Hog Chapter and has hired a professional to run the club for him. A huge fan of the American Red Cross, this former Marine recently brought 3,000 Harley riders to his store for a fundraiser. “We collected a lot of money for the Red Cross that day and took a ride through Seiberling National Park. We also work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association and ride to gather money for that charity.”

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Long story short, Passeos recognizes his changing consumer base and adapts his business to fit. It’s a strategy that works; he does $8 million a year out of his newest store, including $1 million in HD apparel and logo merchandise. He stocks everything with the HD logo, from wearables, cutlery, jewelry, shoes, toys, glassware and games.

His newest Liberty Harley store north of Akron, like many other HD dealer shops today, is hardly what you would expect. It is far less a motorcycle dealership and far more a boutique. There are more clothing racks than bikes – 22 cycles are on display – in the 3,000-square foot showroom. From the high black ceilings dangle halogen lights focused on each bike. Changing rooms – yes, changing rooms – are well lit and have tall mirrors for customer convenience. The etched concrete floor is polished each night, as are all of the store’s windows.

The store’s colors are earth tones, which Passeos prefers because it reminds him of his house. “If I’m going to work here all day, I want to be comfortable,” he says, “and I want my customers to be comfortable, too.” All of his sales offices are carpeted and come with great-looking wood desks.

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There is another sort of uniformity on the floor of this store. Every employee seems as friendly, informative and outgoing as Passeos. “Mom tells me all my employees are like me,” he says. “I guess that’s right; they treat every customer the way I would treat them. You can’t get more than three feet inside the door before someone is offering you a cup of coffee, along with the question: ‘Can I help you in any way?’”

Passeos also rents Harleys for weekend trips and has a service area that is more like a surgical suite. Every tech has a floor lift and a table lift. Techs work on bikes at a height that’s comfortable for them. That’s because the boss knows that his service business racks up 10% of the store’s profits in a year.

So, what does all of this have to do with you and your tire dealership? Everything. HD and its dealers made a conscious decision to change their image and placed the emphasis on the lifestyle, not the motorcycle. That move not only accommodated the “old rider,” it also opened the door to an all-new batch of customers who wanted the freedom and fun of owning a Harley without the negative image.

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The fresh-looking HD stores reflect that shift. They are intentionally more appealing to the new HD customer, while not turning off the old guard. As a result, HD dealers enjoy booming motorcycle sales, plus highly profitable merchandise and accessory sales.

The message here is clear: HD and dealers like Passeos could have survived if they simply continued as they were with the same products, image and customer base. But, they went out of the box and right after high-income clients by changing their image and making it OK for the white-collar crowd to become part of the family. It took a lot more than simple store changes, but that was a key step.

Creating an Experience

What can tire dealers learn from pharmaceutical sales? Actually, plenty! Small retail drug stores, just like independent tire dealers, are fighting with big boxers every day for marketshare.

One small pharmacy, Ritzman in Wadsworth, Ohio, has the battle down to a science. The prescription counter doubles as a health-food bar. For less than $5, the customer service rep will mix up a greenish concoction packed full of goodies that will knock down your bad cholesterol faster than you can say, “Is my prescription ready?”

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Besides prescriptions, Ritzman offers salt-free potpie, sugarless candy and meatless hamburgers. The freezers are full of the kind of food the doctor ordered, all presented in a cheerful, colorful section of the store.

Still, it doesn’t say “Ritzman Pharmacy” on the door for nothing. That’s where this traditional, family-owned drug store continues to ring up the bulk of its business. Employees deliver prescriptions four days a week and do the little-neighborhood-store things like deliver poinsettias to shut-ins every Christmas. But, every visit to the store is an ‘experience.’

The owners knew that without the profit-adding, healthy-body tie-in, they might have been knocked out of the ball game by heavyweights like Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS, not to mention Wal-Mart. So, Ritzman changed the game. By adding good health to its business mix, Ritzman says sales have improved every year and refers to it as a major contributor to its overall profits.

In essence, it’s really the healthy lifestyle experience Ritzman is selling, not the granola bars or smoothies. People don’t simply want just to shop anymore; they want an experience. The retail landscape is changing, and we need to change with it.

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A Tire Pro

Now, back to tires. Nothing mentioned so far has been lost on Mike Upton, the owner of three Upton Tire Pros stores in the greater Jackson, Miss., area. “I’m proud of the way all three of my stores look,” he says, “but none more than our flagship store in Madison.”

Upton has learned a thing or two by thinking outside of his own four walls. Like HD and Ritzman, Upton, too, is selling a lifestyle experience.

In fact, driving up to Upton’s Madison store is like driving up to the branch office of a bank or a city library. It’s that striking from the outside. Brick and copper are what you see first, along with handsome window treatments. The location looks nothing like a tire store, an image that has worked well for its owner.

To address the needs of professionals on the run, he has not only installed computer ports and work stations, but he has also created a WiFi world for those who want to work from their wireless laptop while waiting for their vehicles. To remain current with his customer base, Upton has repainted his showroom twice in the last five years and recarpeted the children’s area.

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To create a feeling of professionalism and warmth, Upton covered up steel support poles with Greek columns and painted them bright white. Taking that a step further, all of the colors in his business are warm neutral colors, just like the ones he has at home. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

If you are an Upton customer, you’ll also enjoy free coffee or a soft drink and a TV housed in a beautiful armoire. Original artwork by notable Mississippi artists hangs on the walls of the showroom. “We also have a book lending program for those who want to check out a book,” he says.

“You will also find the Wall Street Journal in our showroom, along with Golf magazine, O (the Oprah Winfrey magazine), Gourmet, and other up-brand magazines people read today,” Upton says. He also keeps plenty of live, green plants in the showroom for peace of mind.

“I visit tire stores that are dark and dingy with no tires in the displays,” says Upton. “The tire dealerships are dusty, dirty and out of touch with the reality of customer expectations today.” The seating in Upton’s flagship store is comfortable. He doesn’t want his customers to be any less contented than they would be in his house.

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“Although my suppliers want me to hang tires on all of my walls, you won’t find any,” he says. “Neither will you find tires stacked on the floor. Instead, you will find just 16 tires on display and a well-educated staff. Each tire is spotlessly clean and presented along with colorful literature that is inviting to customers.

“Everything is meticulous because that’s the way I believe tire products must be sold,” says Upton. “I have branded myself, and I believe in reinvesting in my business.”

A sharp cross marketer, Upton has teamed up with a locally owned, fine-dining restaurant. “Anyone who buys a set of tires from one of our stores receives a $50 gift certificate to a local restaurant. Our tagline on this promotion reads: ‘Drive up to a better deal and enjoy a great meal.’”

The restaurant is only one of Upton’s referral partners. A new car wash has recently popped up next to his flagship store. So, Upton established an agreement with the car wash owner. “Anyone who spends $30 at Upton Tire Pros gets a free car wash. So far, this promotion has helped the car wash owner, and it has helped us.”

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“I built this store to satisfy me,” he says. “It’s a place where I’m proud to bring mom.” Not one to stand still, Upton constantly works on his curb appeal and is thinking about putting in a putting green and maybe even an exercise room for his customers.

He never stops thinking about creating ‘the experience.’

“Although I hand pick all of our employees, mom says they all seem like me,” says Upton. “I don’t want my people to react like a Wal-Mart dealer. I want them to be more like waiters and waitresses,” says Upton. “People ask us for tire recommendations, and that’s precisely what we do.”

Upton knows he is in competition with new-car dealers and other tire dealers, but he does not consider the big boxers to be any sort of competition whatsoever.

“We are busy, professional tire people, and our customers are busy, professional people,” he says. “If they fail to have a positive experience at any one of our three stores, we have failed them, and I’m not going to let that happen. We know that 70% of our customers are women. We know that one-time Wal-Mart customers turn to us for their second tire-buying experience, and we are keenly aware of our customers’ time constraints.”

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Small surprise that Upton is adding four service bays to his Madison store along with a drive-through, oil-change service.

But, has all of this paid off? “When we built this store, we met our expectations in year one. We exceeded those expectations in year two and have repeated that kind of performance for each succeeding year,” he claims. “Let me put it this way, without giving away any secrets: Five years later, we are doing 75% more business than I ever dreamed would happen, and I’ve been in this business for 27 years.”

Maybe Roseanne Barr was right: “Nobody gives you power; you just take it.” Whether it’s motorcycles, prescription drugs or tires, retailers are taking control of their own destinies. They are looking outside of the box and reshaping their image, sharpening their individual brands and creating retailing experiences that capture the hearts and souls of customers.

This does not diminish the technology, value or importance of tires. In fact, it elevates the product and puts a “premium” label on what is otherwise seen as run of the mill. Tire companies are placing greater emphasis on their premium products because that’s where the profits are. You, as a dealer, will find greater sales and profits, too, if you create a premium product – your entire business.

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All it takes is some out-of-the-box thinking.

Showroom Shine

Out-of-the-box marketing doesn’t have to be out of orbit. Sometimes, all it takes to spruce up your image is a little cleaning up.

Have you ever thought about changing your lighting system from fluorescent bulbs to low-voltage halogen track lighting? It will light up the tires you’re selling like nothing you’ve ever seen.

Have you thought about hiring a cleaning crew to freshen up your dealership once a month? Or painting your service area walls with washable enamel instead of flat paint? Have you ever thought about a new showroom floor with a racing inspired checkerboard pattern that can easily be cleaned?

Did you know that experts consider yellow and red to be good ‘buying colors?’ Retailing experts insist that successful stores are ones that pay attention to such details, and many studies have concluded that color has an impact on a person’s mood. Weightlifting rooms are bluish-gray for a reason, after all.

Nasty tire store smells in your showroom? Get rid of them using ionizers. It works, and your customers will appreciate the effort. Think about buying a coffee machine that brews one cup of coffee at a time, and keep a ready supply of clean cups. Crusty, burnt carafes are out; freshly brewed coffee is in.

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Notice that most of this boils down to one common thread: cleanliness. Even if you don’t have the capital to spring for new floor or lighting, you can put in a little extra elbow grease and come up with a cleaner, brighter and more inviting location.

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