Half a World Away - Tire Review Magazine

Half a World Away

Like his American counterparts, Tire Town Komaoka store manager Yuji Asuke puts in long hours – 12 to 14 Monday through Saturday. But unlike many one-store American dealers, Asuke pulls in $1.3 million in annual sales with just himself and two other full-time employees.

on weekdays and 7 p.m. on Saturdays. Most Japanese have their vehicles serviced on weekends – Asuke has a part-timer who just works Saturdays ®“ leaving the weekdays open for fleets, retirees and the odd emergency job.

Tire Town Komaoka isn’t very large, and has just 11 parking spaces. One of Asuke’s daily chores is erecting the numerous outdoor tire and wheel displays that line the front of the store, and taking them down each night. "Japan is safe," he says, "but not that safe."

Three impeccably clean service bays handle all the tire, undercar and underhood work done at this location. One bay features a scissors lift and another has an alignment rack. Two Euro-style tire machines and one computer balancer hold spots near the back wall. One bay wall is covered floor to ceiling with part of Tire Town’s tire inventory/display, extending along the upper portion of the back wall over the workbenches.

The showroom/customer area, while jammed with POP and rack displays of tires, wheels, oil, audio/video systems and more, is equally clean. A long wall-length counter features neatly arranged car magazines and catalogs for wheels, tires and tuner parts. Some displays are covered with hundreds of snapshots of customer cars, showing off their latest tire/wheel upgrades, engine enhancements or body modifications.

Besides the usual services, Tire Town also installs car electronics – stereos, video systems, electronic toll readers and navigation systems. Video navigation systems are quite popular as the Japanese government provides an elaborate satellite navigation service, including traffic congestion updates, free of charge.

Tire sales makes up about 50% of the store’s revenue, says Asuke, and vehicle service brings in another 30%. Surprisingly, if only because the store caters to the booming tuner market, wheel sales make up only 20%.

It is very expensive to own and maintain vehicles in Japan, where the average salary is around $40,000. Tolls alone will break you. But you don’t see any rust buckets or junkers. Even in a crowded country well covered by public transit, Japanese drivers depend on their cars, and take very good care of them.

In Japan, garages charge different rates for alignments based on the size and type of vehicle. An alignment on an AWD sedan, for instance, costs about $225 at Tire Town. A mini-van will run about $300, while aligning a standard 2WD sedan will run about $150.

Tire Town carries Yokohama, Bridgestone, and some Continental, Michelin, Dunlop and BFGoodrich tires. Obviously, Yokohama-brand tires dominate. By American standards, tire prices are high: at Tire Town a 195/65R15 sells for about $72 each, while a 215/60R15 retails for about $95. For Yokohama-brand winter tires, the low was $44 for a 135/80R12 and the high was $255 for a 225/45R17.

All workers at Tire Town wear neat, clean coverall uniforms. Grease and oil do not blacken their hands, and extra care is taken with each customer’s vehicle. Asuke personally greets each customer, assesses what they want/need, closes the sale and drives the car to the service area. Each of the two tire sales we saw while visiting there took maybe 10 minutes tops, and all four tires were changed and balanced within 20 minutes.

If the staff isn’t busy with customers, there is plenty to do around the store. There is always a floor to wash, displays to clean, incoming shipments to unload and stack, and magazines to straighten.

When the store opened five years ago, says Asuke, who has been there the last three years, it relied heavily on newspaper advertising. Once the business was established with customers, Tire Town shifted to direct mail. That, and word of mouth, especially among tuner customers, has been more than enough to keep the store busy.

His job, says Asuke, is "very satisfying" and he takes a great deal of pride in his store. "When customers come back because they were satisfied, that is the best part of the job."

All Things Cars

Mega-retailer/installer Autobacs Seven Ltd. is the Godzilla of the Japanese automotive aftermarket, if only because it is truly the biggest, baddest and most dominating force in the market. It has successfully engulfed nearly every aspect of auto product retailing – from gas stations to e-commerce to marketing its own custom sports car, and everything in between ®“ in its home country. And now it is now straddling the seas, taking its dynamic brand of retailing into battle elsewhere in Asia, in Europe and in North America.

Founded in 1948 as a parts and tires wholesaler, Autobacs Seven is now Japan’s largest auto products chain with 533 retail stores and sales of over $1.7 billion. With the home market saturated, Autobacs is expanding internationally with nine overseas stores in France, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand, and it has plans to open stores in South Korea and the United States.

Autobacs Seven is comprised of three types of aftermarket part/tire stores and repair shops, as well as a thriving e-commerce part/tire/wheel business, a used car business and even its own custom-made sport car line.

Its five Type I Super Autobacs stores average about 805,000 square feet in size, and have 30 or so service bays and 300 parking spaces. Its smaller Type II Super Autobacs stores, 24 total, come in at 400,000 square feet, 10-plus bays and 80 parking spaces. Its tiny Autobacs Auto Service Centers (459 locations) average 190,000 square feet, 6 bays and only 50 or so parking spaces.

But it is the mega-stores, which generate just 4% of the chain’s total revenue, that attract all the attention.

A giant Super Autobacs store is a car enthusiast’s greatest dream come true. Three full floors of every replacement or enhancement part possible; racing steering wheels, seats and harnesses; books, magazines and videos; a comprehensive vehicle audio and video department with all the latest gadgets; model and toy cars and collectibles; personal driving products like gloves, sunglasses and watches; CDs and DVDs; even a small sit down restaurant. And hundreds upon hundreds of tire and wheel brands and lines to choose from.

The mega-stores even have cosmetics displays, as well as baby and household items. Since many guys bring their girlfriends, wives or families when they visit a store, Autobacs figures it might as well offer something for women and capture additional sales.

The store’s 30-plus service bays are so clean you could eat off the floor. While they do handle most common undercar/underhood repairs, the stores are not set up for "heavy duty" services.

All locations perform statutory vehicle safety inspections, install whatever they sell, and handle routine oil/lube work. Groups of bays are designated for particular services, minimizing internal congestion.

Courtesy short-range cell phones keep customers connected to the service department while they shop upstairs or at a nearby store. Once service work on their car is completed, the customer is called.

An escalator takes customers from the ground floor garage area to the upper two floors, which are dedicated to everything car. Autobacs Seven’s focus is evolving into "a total car life support business" that encompasses products and services consumers need throughout the lifecycle of their car, says CEO Koichi Sumino. It wants to build repeat business, and hold that customer, not just as he/she grows older, but through every vehicle that customer owns – true cradle-to-grave retailing.

"The automobile is not merely something produced by car manufacturers, but is something users create," says Sumino. "We believe a car should be like a custom-made suit that is tailored to each user’s specific needs." Autobacs certainly gives shoppers multiple options to find the right "fit.".

The stores are dynamic, bright and active, and while they do cater more to younger male audience – 16 to 45 ®“ seniors and women aren’t left out. Prompt attention, courtesy and precise answers to questions are delivered. Customer service is so vital to the operation, says Sumino, that Autobacs opened its own sales and technician training school.

As with other retailers in Japan, Autobacs locations are open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, and 10 to 10 Saturdays.

Sales of tires and wheels made up 21.3% of Autobacs’ store system revenues in 2002. Car electronics was the leading category with 29.8%, while motorsport products/other goods made up 19.3%. Sales of interior and exterior parts and products made up 20.7%, and oil and battery sales another 8.9%.

The tire and wheel area on second floor covers virtually every contingency, featuring displays of Dunlop, Yokohama, Pirelli, Toyo, Falken, Goodyear, BFGoodrich, Cooper, Bridgestone, Michelin and numerous private brands like Maxrun and Cleveride.

Some 240 different wheels are also on display, ranging from 16 to 23 inches. Tire/wheel package prices ranged from $2,030 to $3,150, with one 23-inch set weighing in at $4,180.

Car electronics included video game systems, in-car navigation systems, DVD players, sound systems, speakers and stereo units.

Each section in the store has its own staff and operate like mini-stores. This can be a bit inconvenient as one has to pay for items in that particular department. The requisite pocketful of sales receipts doesn’t seem to deter shoppers, who eagerly browse the meters of aisles.

Sumino says Autobacs’ strategy for the U.S. market is to "cater to enthusiasts of Japanese cars, particularly those interested in customizing their cars" – aka the tuner market.

In the U.S., he says, there are relatively few "automotive goods stores that specifically cater to car enthusiasts.

"Overseas, we would like to broaden our potential customer base to include those consumers who do not usually give much particular thought to their cars," Sumino says.

Autobacs set no timetable for its planned move across the Pacific, but overall it does plan to expand its Type II stores to 300 units and its massive Type I outlets to 100 locations.

But if you see something gigantic rise from the sea along the Southern California coastline, it probably won’t be some mythical movie monster.

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