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Tuning In: How a Pennsylvania Dealer Tapped into a Growing Market

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You wouldn’t expect the northeast quadrant of Pennsylvania to be a high performance hotbed. Four-wheel drive pickups and SUVs would be more like it.

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But from Scranton and Wilkes-Barre south to Allentown and Harrisburg, the high performance market did grow, aided by the emerging tuner segment and the proliferation of high-end sports cars. Well-heeled customers ®“ ages 18 to 55 ®“ with everything from a Honda Civic to a BMW they wanted to personalize.

Even self-professed car nut Bill Williams, a multiple Corvette owner who has been in the tire business long enough to see opportunity before it’s passed, was surprised. More and more high-end sports sedans were cruising by his stores, and he didn’t realize what the tuner market was all about until his youngest son tuned him in.

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“We’d see 15-20 tuner cars in the mall parking lot on weekends,” the owner of Jack Williams Tire says. ®On the high end, we’d see Mercedes and BMWs with plus one/plus two tires and wheels. We didn’t really realize the potential out there.

“We knew they weren’t getting their tires and wheels from around here.”

More pointedly, Williams knew they weren’t buying them from any of his 22 retail stores.

 

 Planning and Investment

That set the wheels in motion, so to speak, toward a business transformation that is paying tremendous dividends for the second generation retail and wholesale dealer.

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Williams and his tuned-in son did a lot of investigating, which included talking to tuner and sports car owners and researching the competition, and laid out a comprehensive budget and attack plan. Coincidentally, Williams was in the process of remodeling and expanding his headquarters location in Kingston, Pa.

Williams had tried the high performance business “several times over the years,” he says. ®We’d do the training and get some wheel displays and be all ready for the spring season, and then the stores would get busy, and we just didn’t have the time to pursue the performance customer.

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“It takes a lot of time to make a sale in that market, usually three visits and a lot of hours,” he says. Performance customers want information, they want someone knowledgeable to talk to and they want to look at options ®“ it’s not a five-minute, all-season tire sale. On a typical day, Williams says, ®we’d have half a dozen cars waiting to get tires and alignments and so on, and the phone is constantly ringing. We just didn’t have the time to dedicate to a high performance customer. Most of the people who did walk in walked right back out.®

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Right Personnel

Williams knew there was a market there for the taking, but reaching for that potential business would take a bold move. “After we convinced ourselves that the only way it was going to work was to isolate it, we put the thing together, hired a high performance guy, and bought the location next to us,” he says.

The “performance guy” was Rich Williams (no relation) who helped run Auto Addictions in nearby Allentown. Over the years, Auto Addictions, founded in 1988, had become THE high performance center in eastern Pennsylvania. Customers came from far and near, including Philadelphia, to have their rides modified and decorated. Having a few pro athletes as customers certainly didn’t hurt.

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“Rich gave us a lot of insight on what we could expect and what we needed to do,” Bill Williams says. He helped design Williams’ first dedicated performance shop, a store-within-a-store that became part of the renovated and expanded Kingston location. The resulting 19,000-square foot, 18-bay showcase features a traditional tire store up front and a dedicated performance grotto inside. Bay space was allocated specifically to the performance business, as was inventory and new personnel.

Most tire dealers who think “high performance” settle on offering the latest tires and hottest wheels. Williams took it a step further. He went the whole 10 yards by offering exhaust and intake kits, body and ground effects kits, lights, brake kits, suspension kits ®“ including installation. Toyo and Falken tires were added to the Michelin, BFGoodrich and Goodyear mix. And well more than a dozen wheel lines were stocked.

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When customers walk into the expanded location, they first see a traditional retail tire store. This was designed intentionally for the benefit of Williams’ existing clientele and new customers looking for tires for their minivans or new shocks for their pickups. A bulk of the service bays handle traditional customers, with dedicated tire and service lanes.

Performance customers walking in the door quickly see Williams’ high performance store. An archway cleanly separates the two sections, and a black-and-white checkerboard tile floor leaves no doubt you’ve entered another world.

“We paid special attention to the design of our Kingston performance center,” Williams says. ®We used high-tech looking chrome furniture, diamond plate, and also incorporated neon into the building design.  It is definitely a modern-looking showroom.®

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Performance Touch and Feel

High performance customers want to see products on display. They want to touch and feel the tires, wheels and components before making a purchase. They certainly don’t get cheated at the Kingston store. Aisle displays, including glass cases, show off the latest wheel styles, performance brake rotors, exhaust components and bolt-on parts. Wheels, wire kits, spoilers, body kits and lighting products adorn wall displays around the showroom. Other stand-alone wire racks display Williams’ tire and wheel offerings.

Catalogs and magazines can be perused, and adornment options can be discussed while sitting at round, four-seat tables. Windows located high on the tall, bright-white walls let in ample natural light, and area lighting is used to set off specific displays ®“ including cars ®“ around the showroom.

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The right look is one thing; the right information and attitude is quite another. Williams ®“ Bill and Rich ®“ put together a top-shelf staff of knowledgeable performance pros ®“ guys who could talk the talk and walk the walk. “There’s a lot to plus-size fitments and suspensions and all the other things,” Bill Williams says. ®It’s pretty high-tech stuff, and you have to have a well-trained staff that focuses on that.

“Performance customers tend to be very sophisticated. Many are well read and educated on products. So, we are constantly training our staff so that they will meet customer expectations,” says Williams.

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Still, the performance customer mix is broad. “There are some tuner customers whose parents bought the kid a car, but they probably couldn’t change a tire if they wanted to. Then there are kids who are real motorheads, who like to work on their own cars, and they come in knowing exactly what they want, and all you have to do is give them a couple of different selections and prices.

“It’s the same on the upper end, where you have guys with Porsches who belong to the Porsche Club and really know their stuff, and you have other guys who own a Porsche and just want it to look cool. We have to be ready for all of them,” he says.

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Special attention was also paid to organizing the service bays to handle the vehicles of both traditional and performance customers effectively. “We established one bay with a lift so when we have an upscale car, a Mercedes or a Corvette, that comes in for expensive tires and wheels, we can shoot that over to the high performance bay and really treat that car the way it should be treated,” Bill Williams says. ®Because a lot of these cars have ground effects, we put in a pit bay to do alignments on tuner and performance cars.®

Of the remaining bays, Williams designated three just to do suspension and tire work “with the idea that, if we needed more room for performance work, we could take one of those bays, or if things were slow on the performance side, we could use it for regular tire work or whatever.”

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Williams’ biggest concern is inventory. “You have to put a lot of money into inventory,” he says. ®It’s a specialized inventory that goes obsolete overnight, and there’s an awful lot of training that goes behind it. The biggest headache is proper inventory balance. Obsolete inventory and inventory turns need to be closely monitored.®

 

Crossover Success

So has it all the investment been worth it? The new Kingston store only opened last September, so its first real spring performance selling season is now in full bloom. Customer reaction ®“ on both sides of the fence ®“ has been quite positive. “Our performance customers like to come in and talk with someone and see the different options that they have. I think they gain a comfort level in that they’d get the right product,” he says.

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It’s a different kind of business ®“ one that cannot be measured by traditional metrics. “On a busy day in one of our retail stores, we might see a hundred cars,” Williams says. ®But on the performance side, we might get six or eight customers a day and be working on three or four cars. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s all big ticket, high-profit business.®

Even on the traditional side of the building, the performance influence has been felt. “It’s generated a lot more traffic, a lot more buzz,” he says. ®Our people at our other stores feel a little more comfortable working with customers interested in plus fitments with tires and wheels or body kits or whatever because we now have a place to direct those customers.®

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His wholesale business has also seen a boost, especially in tire/wheel packages sold to smaller dealers. On an overall basis, the return on his investment is heading in the right direction, “perhaps a little ahead of target.”

Not one to sit still, even before seeing the bottom line results from the refurbished Kingston store, Williams bought out Auto Addictions, merging it with his existing performance business to create “Auto Addictions by Jack Williams” as an operating division of the dealership.

 

Right Move, Right Time

Williams’ plunge into the HP business has resulted in another interesting change, as well. “All our competitors put up wheel racks, and one guy hung up a canvass sign outside his door that says ‘High Performance Headquarters.’ If all it took was hanging a sign and putting in a wheel rack, we’d have done that years ago.”

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The proof is in the performance, they say, and so far, Bill Williams feels he made the right move at the right time. “It’s not a slam-dunk business. It takes a lot of work and planning,” he says. ®The budget is a pretty hefty one. It’s an expensive venture, so when you make that commitment, you better follow through and hire the people and do the training and put the bucks into it, or it’s not going to work.®

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