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‘We Get to Fight’: Tire Dealers Positive Amid COVID-19

During this unprecedented time when the entire world is battling the coronavirus on several fronts, tire dealers across the U.S. are working to serve their communities as essential parts of the economy.

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“We’re busy. We’ve just been trying to communicate with our customers and let them know we’re here for them,” said Joseph Mullaney, shop manager at Mullaney’s Tire & Car Care Center in Matawan, New Jersey. “It’s just as important to stay in business for them [our customers] as it is for us.”

Mullaney’s Tire, like many tire dealerships around the world, is taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and provide its customers clean and touchless vehicle service. All customer communication, from setting appointments to payment, is digital, Mullaney said. His team is vigilant about wearing gloves. They’ve been utilizing steering wheel and seat covers and cleaning vehicles after service. These precautions are just a few shops have taken in the past couple weeks.

As tire dealers across the country deal with the effects of COVID-19 in their communities, we checked in with them to see how they’re innovating during this time to spread best practices that can help safeguard your business as our industry unites to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus.

Auto Repair ‘Heroes’

With California’s Bay Area one of the first to go into lockdown, streets have emptied; yet one tire dealer in Redwood City is taking it in stride.

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Alpio Barbara, owner of Redwood General Tire and Tire Review’s 2019 Top Shop Winner, says that while he’s not seeing customer cancellations, business has been up and down. His tire department is slow (which he finds interesting because the Discount Tire business next door is closed), but the mechanical department is helping offset any losses.

To help combat the temporary slowdown, Barbara said he’s closed the shop on Saturdays for now—something that’s never been done in the company’s 35-year history. “I have a full staff and, so far, we’re still doing pretty good. We’re holding our own. But it’s not all roses,” he said. He’s had to reduce each employee’s workweek to four days.

Policies and procedures at the shop have also changed. For starters, a stockpile of pens lays on the counter, and each customer is asked to use their own pen during transactions. Of course, counters are regularly sanitized, and done so in front of customers. And, every time a customer leaves the waiting room, the chair they sat on is also cleaned. “We also keep the doors open, so you don’t have to touch the handle to get in,” Barbara said. Technicians also place a steering wheel cover on each vehicle they work on, which they remove when they walk the customer to their car—at which time they also wipe the door handles.

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Scott Welsh, Barbara’s neighbor to the north and owner of Courtesy Auto & Tire of Tacoma in Washington state, said since the state’s “shelter in place” order last week, “it’s taken a lot of people off the road. It’s a lot different than a week ago. Business is declining a bit, but not drastically.”

“I’m being optimistic,” Welsh added. “I have a financial plan as far as paying my people. I’m not sweating it right now—there’s money that federal and state governments are putting into the market for businesses to borrow, so there are options.”

In the southwest, Community Tire Pros & Auto Repair’s co-owner Howard Fleischmann said they’ve seen the car count at their six locations cut in half. But, “we’ve got heat right around the corner, so we expect this to change,” Howard said, referring to Phoenix’s soon-to-come 90-degree heat and the vehicle maintenance that comes with it.

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For tire dealers who have government contacts, expect to see business from first responders and the like. Fleischmann, for example, said the shop’s government contacts have given it a much-needed boost. Welsh said his shop has a stream of income from servicing some of the state’s law enforcement vehicles.

Even at that, Fleischmann said the shop has taken customer service touchless, promoting vehicle drop-off and pickup and keeping customers’ keys in Ziploc bags throughout the repair process. He’s also invested in a piece of equipment called “The Purifier,” a fresh air ozone machine that sterilizes air within 20 minutes.

“Perception is reality,” he said. “With some of the things we’re doing, I’m not sure how effective they are [at stopping the spread of the virus,] but it lets the customer know we’re trying.”

Barbara added that with tire dealers’ businesses considered “essential,” they’re responsible for keeping the nation’s cars and trucks running.

“Give us a little bit of credit—that’s the thing I’ve been fighting for my whole career—for the independent tire dealer. So, the next time you see a tire tech, just thank them. We’re all heroes!”

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Getting the Word Out

Social media and e-newsletters are just a few ways tire dealers have let customers know they’re open. But last Monday, Chris Monroe, owner of Monroe Tire & Service in Shelby, North Carolina, chose video as his medium of choice to spread the message that his shop is, in fact, open and taking care of customers while taking COVID-19 precautions.

“We’ve had activity, and I don’t know what to attribute it to,” Monroe said, adding that he also closed the shop’s state-of-the-art waiting area, which is a gathering place for community members. “But I think it’s getting in front of this in some way that’s helped and letting people know how you’re protecting them and doing the best you can to be there for them. That’s my strategy.”

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Welsh agreed, saying that he released a video via his newsletter and social media “to let people know that we’re open, we’re essential, we’re taking the proper measures and we want to take care of them.”

In addition to reaching out to customers, Monroe has also been reaching out to other tire dealers—his friends in the industry—to lend support as they grapple with a changing business environment.

“I just try to offer up some supporting words and say ‘Hey, what’s going on? You guys good?’ You put that love out there, and it comes back 10-fold,” Monroe said.

Social Distancing Vehicle Service

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Focusing on Employees

In the southeast, Chabill’s Tire & Auto Service has seen car counts trend down by 35% or more, but luckily, the first two months of the year were successful so the company is in a good position to weather the economic effects of the coronavirus, said Beth Barron, the 17-location dealership’s CEO. Last week, she said she made the decision to reduce shop operating hours and advised managers to cut back hourly employees as necessary to cover each location’s open hours.

“My decision to cut our employee hours was to keep our payroll in line with our car count,” said Barron, who emphasized that keeping her team employed is a priority, in addition to serving customers while taking necessary precautions.

“Communication is the key,” she said when asked what advice she would give to other dealers during this time. “Lead with confidence. Try to be open and honest with employees and let them know what the situation is—don’t let them guess what’s going to happen. Do your best to hang on to people—we’re going to need every one of them.”

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Ed Keikover, co-owner of OK Tire in western Michigan, said his business is already looking at the Small Business Administration (SBA) loan process, part of an economic stimulus bill signed into law last week, that provides money to businesses for payroll and other expenses if they retain employees. Currently, his shop is in good financial position despite a slight drop in car count, he said.

“Compared to two weeks ago, it’s a different world, but we’re taking it a day at a time,” Keikover said. “The big thing now is cash preservation. You have to watch your expenses like a hawk because your income is down, but we’re fortunate to be in the position we’re in… When this thing breaks, we’re going to need every one of these people [employees].”

Welsh also said he’s having meetings with his team and checking in with them “to let them know I got their back because they got my back. I want them to know that I’m going to advocate for them. I think that’s super important for employees to know that.”

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Mullaney has done the same at Mullaney’s Tire & Car Care Center. Although he’s reduced the shop’s hours, he said suppliers are working in full force, his business has been deemed “essential,” and “we’re able to fight for our lives.”

“We’re dedicated to keep them [employees] here,” he said. “They want to work and whatever adjustments we have to make along the way, we’ll take them. We’re a small business, and we take it day by day, and are doing what we must do to survive.”

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