Spectacular Showrooms - Tire Review Magazine

Spectacular Showrooms

These days, when it comes to showrooms and customer lounges, there’s a lot of potty talk going on. But, it’s not what you might think. Tire dealers are literally cleaning up their act, and it has nothing to do with verbal communication. It has everything to do with attracting and keeping customers.

“I’m very serious when I say that we, as an industry, are cleaning up the restrooms to keep our customers,” says Jeff Burke, marketing director of the distribution division for Alliance, Ohio-based Terry’s Tire Town. “It’s a logical place to focus on because we believe customers put a lot of importance on cleanliness.”

Restrooms, however, are only a part of the showroom clean-up trend. The full focus today is on cleanliness, warmth, comfort and plenty of amenities, all designed to keep the customers of the 21st century happy, satisfied and wanting to come back. Yes, that includes the restrooms, but it’s much more than ‘el baÑo.’

“Clean bathrooms are part of the trend,” Burke says matter of factly. “And, while you have to modernize and clean up your facilities, you also have to continue to keep mom and pop comfortable.”

“Mom and pop” might be a euphemism for the traditional customer of the 20th century, but Burke and the rest of the industry recognize the profile of today’s clientele is changing as fast as tires in the pits at a NASCAR race.

‘Female-Friendly’ Shops

More than half of today’s tire showroom customers are women, and dealers are adapting to that growing audience with a diverse selection of marketing entrees. “This segment of the market has been increasing for about 10 years,” says Burke. “And, women put a great deal of emphasis on cleanliness and comfort.”

That trend not only permeates the tire industry but also reveals a significant and continuous shift in the national buying habits of American shoppers in general.

In a recent survey of chief purchasing officers of major corporations, it was revealed that women make more than 80% of the buying decisions in U.S. households today. They’ve become nearly every family’s chief buyer and shopper. Women are buying the majority of consumer-electronics and home-improvement goods today, as well as the weekly groceries. Don’t look now, but they also make more of the vehicle and car-maintenance decisions.In the process, women are dramatically changing how products and services are designed, presented and marketed in America.

For example, Harley-Davidson, long a symbol of American male machismo, this past November added a section on its Web site dedicated to women motorcyclists, with tips on how to ride a bike safely and with the right gear.

Harley was responding to the growing popularity of motorcycles among women. In 2003, women bought 10%, or 23,000, of all Harleys sold, vs. just 2% in 1985.

While not as dramatic as the data revealed by the chief purchasers’ survey, the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association’s (AAIA) recent Vehicle Maintenance and the Female Motorist Study discovered that 44% of women take their vehicles most often to an auto dealership for maintenance and repairs. Thirty-eight percent take their vehicles most often to independent repair shops, while the remaining 18% take their vehicles to other sources.

But Jody DeVere, president of AskPatty.com Inc., a Web site devoted to “Automotive Advice for Women,” confidently states, “Women control or influence 85% of all purchasing decisions. By 2010, women will own 50% of U.S. private wealth ($12.5 trillion).”

DeVere delivered a poignant discussion about the automotive aftermarket and growth opportunities at last year’s SEMA Show in Las Vegas. She said to SEMA attendees: “Properly armed with the right tools and training, your business can increase its share of the largest and fastest-growing segment of new-vehicle buyers and buyers of automotive accessories in the U.S.”

It’s no wonder, then, that savvy tire dealers are changing showrooms, among other things, to deal with this ever-growing population of buyers.

High-Tech Showrooms

“Today’s showrooms are all about comfort,” says Burke. “Of course, you are seeing more space on the walls being dedicated to ‘up sells’ for other automotive components – bug deflectors, running boards, etc. – but the smart dealer is the one that is diversifying its product offering in addition to providing exceptional service.”

Burke says that today’s showrooms are taking on more of a high-tech look, and he cites one particular vendor that has helped make showrooms more comfortable, attractive and informative. It’s called AutoNetTV.

“Flat-panel TVs are dramatically changing the look of showrooms. We installed them with this new video programming because we wanted to offer the customers in our waiting rooms something that was informative as well as entertaining,” Burke says. “This service does all of that.”

AutoNetTV provides automotive television programming specifically targeting customers in the waiting areas of automotive service centers. AutoNetTV entertains and educates customers who wait for their service to be completed.

“We receive 12 DVDs a year – one per month – on a timely basis, and run the programs in our showrooms continuously,” says Burke. “It’s basically used to give our customers information on service – tips, etc. A host or hostess provides the dialogue, and the mission is to inform in an entertaining way.”

AutoNetTV, based in American Fork, Utah, was the brainchild of Sean Whiffen, who first considered the concept in 2003. His dream became reality in 2005, and today it serves more than 3,800 locations in the U.S.

“As an independent reporting organization, not owned or operated by an automotive service company, we bring objectivity to understanding any discomfort and uncertainty associated with having a vehicle serviced,” says Whiffen. “Our goal is to help educate our clients’ customers, provide them with a better understanding of basic automotive issues and help them enjoy the ride along the way.”

AutoNetTV assembled a team with broad experience in the startup and management of television production. Team and advisory panel members have ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certifications and decades of experience in automotive services.

Whiffen says that coming up with the concept was essentially a no-brainer.

“We knew that the retail market – the Targets, Wal-Marts, etc. – already was ahead of the automotive aftermarket in terms of marketing products and services with the 21st century customer in mind,” Whiffen says. “We recognized that many vehicle owners really didn’t know what needed to be done to service their vehicles, or they lacked confidence in the information available to them.”

So, AutoNetTV took advantage of that void and partnered with CBS to develop hour-long featurettes to educate waiting customers about vehicle systems and service – a virtual who, what and when that reinforces the store’s efforts and can lead to future sales opportunities.

“We have segments on replacing and repairing tires, tire pressure monitoring systems, exhaust service, radiator service, replacing wiper blades, alignments, shocks, struts, etc.,” Whiffen says. “All a dealer needs is a big-screen TV!”

Putting on a Display

Automotive-service-specific TV programming, however, isn’t the only trend on the walls in dealer showrooms these days. Displays – especially toward the ceiling – enable dealers to maximize existing space in the showroom or lounge.

“We’re paying more attention to the upper portions of the showrooms – from eye level and up,” says Burke. “The upper portion of the walls is ideal for specially designed valance systems, basically borders three times larger than the borders you have in your home, that are a great means of displaying products, services, etc.”

A Massillon, Ohio, company, MCA Industries, specializes in designing such types of displays.

“A stack of magazines and outdated chairs just aren’t enough any more,” says Gary Hoyt, COO of the 100-plus-year-old company. “We believe that, if you don’t do something to improve the looks of your showroom to market your products better, you’ll be left behind.”

MCA created a modular system with feedback from tire companies “complaining of re-imaging systems,” Hoyt says. “We’re not renovating an entire showroom but enhancing it.”

One of MCA’s core products is a modular valance system, a middle-of-the-road-cost system that can fit in a 10×10-foot or 100×100-foot room.

“Customers need a ‘landing strip’ when they come into the store,” Hoyt says. “They need to slow down when they get inside. They need to feel comfortable, and when that happens, they are more likely to return.”

Another relatively new participant in the tire-showroom extreme-makeover saga is Naythons Display Fixture Co., a 60-plus-year-old Philadelphia enterprise that provides quality store fixtures, service and counsel to the retail display and point-of-purchase industries. The company has been working with tire companies since the 2003 SEMA Show.

“We do more than offer the latest display fixtures,” says Mike Staples, president. “We also design innovative fixture solutions for those customers faced with an unusual display dilemma.”

Naythons’ standard product line includes more than 3,500 store fixtures, and it stocks the bulk of its offerings in a 65,000-square foot distribution center in Philadelphia.

Staples says, bluntly, “Tire displays have been pedestrian. The average customer wouldn’t pay attention to it. There has to be a connection between the product and the consumer…space between the eye and the product. We apply solid retail marketing and selling principles to the business of selling a tire. We design separates (tire/wheel racks) that cut right to the bottom line and offer better visual merchandising.”

Naythons uses 3-D animation software to develop a virtual store that helps customers plan designs.

Staples also believes that the mass-market stores have greatly influenced the tire industry’s approach to marketing.

“Consumers have increased expectations of what they want in a showroom,” Staples says. “There are indeed more women going into auto service stores. They are used to shopping at retail stores with the most advanced marketing in the world.

“If there is one thing I would recommend for a dealer, it would be to get rid of the fluorescent lights and replace them with sodium lights,” says Staples. “The lighting alone will make a world of difference.”

Decorating is Marketing

All of this comes as no surprise to a Tennessee tire dealer who also espouses cleanliness and comfort inside her store.

Stacy Beaty operates Hermitage Tire Center in Hermitage, Tenn. She owns three stores but has been immersed in the tire business for only a few years.

“I purchased the business two years ago,” she says. “I used to be a manufacturer’s rep for GM and was in and out of a lot of showrooms and service facilities. I believe the way the store looks is a direct reflection on how you run your business.”

Beaty started renovations of her stores about a year ago, using examples for furniture from a designer magazine. She even has a restroom with a trashcan that opens with a motion detector, so customers don’t have to touch the can. “We put in custom cabinetry, flat-screen TVs, new seating – including a love seat – and new window panels. We have a new chocolate-brown showroom floor (because, she says, it matches the fabric, which is a shade of blue), and two leather ottomans. We spent more than $20,000 in just one store.”

She, too, knows the female market. “About 40% to 60% of my customers today are women,” she says. “And, believe me, they care about how our establishment looks.”

Showcasing Business

Culture

Pat Abold and his wife, Kris, own A&P Automotive in Oswego, N.Y. They have been in business since 1984 and have seen significant changes in the look of their showroom and the industry in general.

“Regardless of the demographics, customers all want cleanliness,” says Pat. “You invite a whole different group of customers these days – teachers, principals, nurses, doctors, etc. They all have a certain expectation of cleanliness.”

Pat and Kris have spent an estimated $25,000 in renovations, and they did it all themselves.

“Kris designed the new waiting room,” says husband Pat. “We referred to a plan for store renovations that Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire (BFNAT) launched in 2004. We added a new modular counter, tire displays and a new restroom right off the lounge. It’s every bit as nice as the customer waiting area.”

Paul Chizeck, director of retail marketing and education for BFNAT, says the program Abold is referring to includes “far more than just tire displays. We try to create a whole selling environment that is far more elegant and contemporary.”

Similar approaches are underway at other major tire companies, as well, but what about jazzy, unique and different?

Mike Leverington, director of marketing at Kumho Tire USA Inc., says: “I don’t know if the trend is to jazzier showrooms. However, I think the trend is more toward delivering a positive consumer experience with professional- and futuristic-looking showrooms. Consumers will draw conclusions quickly. If a retail showroom looks clean, professional and informative, the work that will be done on their cars will be the same.

“The showroom represents the culture of the dealer and the products he or she sells,” Leverington continues. “A showroom that is informative and shows well would probably meet the needs of the broader market. Today’s showrooms must also be sensitive to the female buyer and considerate of children who must wait.”

Waiting, even for setting appointments, is another area dealers have been tackling. Barry Steinberg of Watertown, Mass.-based Direct Tire, says his stores have been successful at setting appointments online and that his customers use the Internet frequently.

“We are at a point where time is everyone’s commodity,” Steinberg says. “We have to do things faster and more efficiently. Cheaper is going to the back burner.”

For those who need to wait, Direct Tire also has phone rooms for private conversations, wireless Internet access (WiFi) at all four of its locations and the usual coffee, tea, cappuccino, pastry and donuts.

“If soccer moms come in here with children, they get priority treatment,” Steinberg notes. “And, our bathrooms here are spotless. We’ve had more compliments on our bathrooms than on our store.”

Getting Creative

David Ross of Lafayette, La.-based Ross Tire takes a unique approach to his store. He admits: “I’ve collected junk for about three years, and now I’ve got a museum.”

His showroom features a Model A, gas pump and many other antiques and graphics. “Our slogan is good, old-fashioned service.”

But don’t let Ross’ ‘antique shop’ fool you. “We believe that, if the customers feel comfortable and warm, they’ll come back. Our restrooms are spotless, and we try to keep the shop just as clean.”

Jeff Buettner from Tire Distributors of Virginia takes an ironically dissimilar approach to his showrooms. “We like to think our store showrooms look more like boardrooms than tire stores,” he says of his three locations. “We have an entire business center with fax, wireless Internet access, phone, etc.”

But, his specific recommendations for success include keeping the women’s restroom clean and children’s toys (including popular DVDs) in good condition as well as paying strict attention to detail.

Dominic Umek, general manager for Cleveland, Ohio’s 30 Conrad’s stores, reinforces the sentiments of other dealers.

“We want our stores to reflect a more comfortable environment,” he says. “We don’t want the plain service-station look. We want a high-quality appearance with ceramic tiles, colors that add warmth and comfort – especially soft tones near merchandising – comfortable seating and different lighting.”

While the focus in the U.S. appears to be comfort-bound, there still exists plenty of razz-mah-tazz and glitz.

In South Africa, for example, a company called Malas opened up what it calls the world’s first “drive-style centre.” It claims to have the most “state-of-the-art workshop.” Services include the “mCafe” – a stylish new on-premises restaurant and coffee shop – a kids’ play area, VIP room, smoking lounge, Internet cafÉ and ATM.

Closer to home, but still with a Far East flavor, Super AUTOBACS (an acronym for “appeal, unique, tires, oil, batteries, accessories, car audio, and services”) looks like it’s the automotive version of Bass Pro Shops. The stores carry an assortment of make-up and hair products, DVDs and CDs – again, appealing to women customers.

The Tokyo-based company, a wholesaler and retailer of automotive aftermarket parts and tires, has more than 500 stores worldwide but only one in the U.S. The Stanton, Calif., store is huge – 35,000 square feet – and the company claims the facility is the largest retail store dedicated to automotive parts in California.

One of the sprawling store’s claims: “You can even watch us work while enjoying a soft drink and reading from a large selection of magazines!”

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