AKRON-Unless your dealership is located in a cave, you've no doubt heard the advice: ``Computerize your shop.'' Admittedly, though, computers and computer software still have plenty of negative connotations. Most notably: They can be costly and may require hours of intensive training-especially in a dealership using computers for the first time.
Moreover, with the cashflow and competitive problems faced by many small, independent dealerships, new computers and software programs often remain low on the list of ``must-have'' items.
Nevertheless, there has never been a better time for small dealerships to get in on the benefits of computerization, according to officials at a number of software companies.
Today's software packages are targeted more specifically at the needs of tire retailers, with cheaper and easier-to-operate programs offering greater automation throughout the shop, these officials stress.
One of the developments affecting the latest generation of dealer software packages comes from a company best known for working with some of the largest U.S. aftermarket retailers.
Profit Pro Inc., which has marketed its automotive software to, among others, Sears, Roebuck and Co., has integrated its electronic parts catalog into existing packages from AllData Corp., ASA Tire Systems Group, Compu-Power Inc., Icas Systems Inc., MaddenCo Inc., Progressive Computer Systems and Signal Software Corp.
Those programs now allow tire dealers to consult parts pricing and inventory data on-screen-eliminating the need for stacks of catalogs and reference books behind the counter, a Profit Pro spokeswoman said. Most such programs also offer monthly pricing updates.
The integration of catalogs into such software highlights a change in Profit Pro's marketing direction, the spokeswoman said.
``We had focused on large automotive chains,'' she said. ``Now we are focusing on working through other (software) companies to help smaller chains and independent dealers.''
Helping small, independent dealerships-those with three or fewer locations-has also become a focus for Signal Software, which has stripped many of the more complex items from its ``TireWorks'' package to create ``RightTrack.''
RightTrack, which is designed and priced for small, independent dealerships, includes point-of-sale, inventory management and accounts receivable operations, without the more complex functions needed for multilocation dealerships operating over large geographic distances, according to Joseph Parker, Signal Software vice president of operations.
``Signal wanted to be the first software company to offer a truly affordable software solution for the independent tire dealer, with many features of more expensive systems,'' added John Fischer, vice president of marketing and development.
Software companies today say their programs allow dealers access to repeat customer maintenance and account information, obtained from a license plate number, before that customer even enters the dealership showroom.
``You have all of the latest information on customers as soon as they walk up to the counter,'' Mr. Fischer said during the recent National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association convention and trade show in Dallas, where the software company was displaying its latest offerings.
After initially identifying the customer, computer packages can lead salesmen through an entire sales transaction.
For instance, ASA's recent CatMax II release can show salesmen additional services that can be provided along with required maintenance. Pricing information, along with labor charges, are automatically placed on the customer's invoice.
``Time is saved and, more importantly, everything is right there so you can make sure you don't miss a step,'' said Wayne Croswell, general manager of ASA's Tire Systems Group.
The ease of use of today's programs and declining prices on hardware and software have begun to catch the eye of independent dealers who believe computerized dealerships can help ease workloads and improve customer relations, Signal Software's Mr. Fischer said. He said his company has installed its RightTrack software in more than 100 dealerships in less than a year.
More and more small dealerships are entering the computer age, the Profit Pro spokeswoman said.
``There is a lot of potential (for computerizing small dealerships),'' she said. ``We want to be a large part of that.''