Tire dealers planning for the future must realize two marketing facts of life: First, they aren't as unique as they think they are.
Basically, they are retail sales stores similar to other, non-automotive retailers doing business around them. This makes them a retailer first; an automotive retailer second.
Second, once they understand they are primarily retailers, they must conduct themselves the way savvy retailer planners do-by making business decisions that are prudent and well-informed, but aggressive.
This means tire dealers cannot live in a vacuum-because consumers who buy tires and automotive services don't. Customers deal with first-rate retail operations daily, so conscious and unconscious comparisons to service shops are inevitable. The net result: Dealers must outgrow shortsighted, convenient comparisons to other auto repair facilities and size themselves up against successful non-automotive retailers.
In a nutshell, they've got to compare their image and level of service to the big boys.
According to Mark Grote, vice president of marketing at Merchant's Inc., a 130-store dealership based in Manassas, Va., grasping these concepts isn't an option for growth-minded dealers-it's a requirement. Recently I've discussed how this company excels by ``inspecting what it expects.''
Because Merchant's expects to excel as a retailer, Mr. Grote inspects the spectrum of consumer habits and expectations.
Regular readers know I repeatedly emphasize that businesses grow by distinguishing themselves from the competition. Exceeding consumers' expectations is the most effective way to accomplish that. However, some service shops can't grow to their full potential until owners and managers broaden their perspective considerably.
For instance, a boss may be content with his shop's lackluster image only because the competition in his market looks downright grotesque. Actually, consumers who enter his service shop or tire store aren't overwhelmed by its brightness or cleanliness per se. They just notice that it's much less dreadful than the competition.
If this same owner could survey the local landscape with an unbiased eye, he'd see bright, cheerful, clean retail establishments. He'd realize that as the consumer completes his shopping list-going from the home center to the supermarket to the video place-entering a dingy tire store is a giant step down in image.
Merchant's exemplifies a modern, enlightened breed of tire dealer working to eliminate the psychological letdown people exper-ience when they step from a major retail store into a service shop.
Mr. Grote knows the importance of meeting and exceeding expecta-tions, thanks to extensive market-ing experience with electronics products, furniture, appliances and mid-to-upscale restaurants.
``Today, retail service and products providers-from common home centers on up to Nordstrom's department stores-are constantly raising consumers' expectations,'' Mr. Grote said. ``Not only are consumers' expectations of service providers greater than ever, the level of expectations climbs higher every year.''
Studying consumer expectations helps dealers understand what people really want regarding cost, value, promptness, etc. Once they know how consumers approach major transactions such as purchasing tires and/or service, it's infinitely easier to meet-let alone exceed-customers' expectations.
This is the first step toward growing a business based on loyal, repeat customers, he explained.
Doing basic homework, such as in-store customer surveys, provides invaluable information about people entering a dealership and their needs. Mr. Grote cautioned dealers that their customers aren't always who they think they are. Nor are people's priorities the same ones the dealer expected.
But surveying auto service customers alone isn't enough for Mr. Grote. He constantly monitors and analyzes consumer buying trends in general, watching for clues on how to raise customer satisfaction among Merchant's patrons.
This approach is a long way from that of the typical owner or manager I meet who's still running a business strictly by seat-of-the-pants instincts!
And like other people I interviewed at Merchant's, Mr. Grote stressed that image-conscious retailing and raising customer satisfaction are grown into-rather than grafted onto-the fabric of the company.
When ownership and leadership set the example, the company usually reflects that example.