MISSISSAUGA, Ontario—It is a frightening malady, often found in tire stores. Known to cause profuse sweating, confusion and an uncontrollable urge to run away screaming, ``Sea of Tires Syndrome'' can afflict tire-buying customers of all ages. It begins almost immediately after they enter an outlet and face wave upon wave of tires of every shape, size, price and design.
Within moments, the sea of black appears to mesmerize them, putting them in a trance-like state.
Only with the words, ``May I help you?'' does the customer snap back to reality.
The good doctors at Bridgestone/Firestone Canada Inc. (BFC) have seen their share of the syndrome. They hope they've developed an antidote with a new program: ``The Tire Club.''
A ``store-within-a-store'' concept, Tire Club recently was launched by the tire maker at three independent Firestone Tire & Auto Centers—called TACs in Canada—with hopes that the program eventually will become a staple in all 80 stores nationwide.
Those TACs are independently owned and operate similar to, but are not true franchises, according to BFC. They offer a wide range of tire products and also provide a full range of vehicle maintenance and repair services.
``What we're looking for is the opportunity to put a greater focus on the tire side of their operations in a unified, consistent way, coast to coast—something that is visually appealing to consumers and helps them follow different options when purchasing tires,'' said Jerry Priddle, manager, public relations and special events for BFC, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.
The company claims the new club, designed ``to provide consumers with a complete range of on-and off-road benefits,'' is the first of its kind from a tire manufacturer in Canada. Membership is free with the purchase of four new Bridgestone, Firestone or Triumph tires at a participating TAC.
The club's comprehensive package of value-added benefits, said to be worth a total of more than $100, include:
Complete roadside assistance: Members are covered by a ``service protection plus'' program anywhere in Canada or the U.S. for one full year from date of tire purchase. Overseen by U.S.-based Auto Road Services Inc., it includes on-site tire change, jump start, lock-out assistance, fluid delivery and, if necessary, one tow back to a participating TAC or the nearest qualified repair shop.
Lifetime no-charge tire rotation on Bridgestone, Firestone or Triumph tire purchases.
No-charge tire disposal.
Limited workmanship and material warranty on tires.
No-charge road hazard protection for tires, with replacement with a comparable new tire if an eligible tire suffers road hazard damage deemed irreparable.
One free oil change, lube and filter service.
Free annual vehicle safety inspection of brakes, exhaust, shocks, belts and hoses, fluid levels, air and breather filters, and steering and suspension parts.
Special discounts on various items and promotions throughout the year.
Of those perks, the dealer absorbs the cost for the tire rotation, tire disposal and lube/oil change.
Mr. Priddle said BFC research has indicated consumers are often perplexed by that ``sea of tires.'' The club is an attempt to bring structure to the purchasing process by providing flexibility to store owners in how they set up tire modules—preferably in an informative, educational way.
``We're urging them to structure displays by brand and type so, for example, when the winter season approaches, consumers see specific offerings of winter tires,'' he said.
Belonging to the club is not mandatory for TAC operators, but Mr. Priddle said, ``We've talked to them about the changing landscape of tire retailing and the industry, and about opportunities that we feel exist through Tire Club.
``...We see this as an opportunity to bring tires into a greater focus and have people think more about them, while giving dealers the chance to reach customers through various means, including direct mail or an activity at the dealership.''
In addition to a TAC's familiar big red Firestone sign, participating stores install interior and exterior Tire Club signage, banners, point-of-sale displays etc.
A chief target of the club is maintaining communication with customers beyond the initial buying experience—what Mr. Priddle called its ``loyalty component.''
``If they've shown a commitment and support to our products,'' he said, ``we want to maintain that and reward them so that the next time they make a tire purchase, they choose us.''
The Canadian automotive aftermarket, estimated at $13 billion, includes sales of 16 million passenger and light truck units.
A sophisticated new database system being prepared for launch will enable TAC dealers to track Tire Club customers.
Once installed, it will be able to automatically track customers and contact them to advise, for instance, that it's time for a tire rotation or oil change. Or it could provide them with information on special Tire Club promotions or enhancements related to tires or auto service, such as alignments or shocks at a reduced price.
Mississauga, Ontario-based BFC will have the capability to access a store's database, said Don Moore, BFC national advertising manager, but he said the company has reassured dealers that such access would occur only with their permission.
``We're not looking to take away these independent dealers' databases,'' he said. ``We're providing them with the means to get more information from it, to better manipulate it so they'll have the flexibility to do things such as measurement analysis.
``They'll know, for example, when a customer came in last for a brake job and be able to analyze that data.''
Both he and Mr. Priddle emphasized that Tire Club is a BFC-initiated program that is not being evaluated for an eventual roll-out in the U.S., but was developed to meet specialized needs of the Canadian market.
The concept currently is being tested at Red Line Automotive Centre in Scarborough, Ontario, operated by Eric Latino; Tune Ups to Tires in Toronto, owned by Frank Mazzotta; and Clearway Tire & Auto Center Inc. in Abbotsford, British Columbia, operated by John Bier. A fourth TAC, in Montreal, is set to roll out Tire Club in August. Stores in other regions of Canada eventually will follow suit.
BFC is using these outlets ``as living, operating research-and-development operations'' to continue perfecting the Tire Club concept, layout and design, Mr. Priddle said, with a view toward launching it in all 80 TACs in early 2000.
The tire maker operates three subsidiaries, primarily in Canada's Maritime Provinces, encompassing a total of 58 company-owned stores. They do business under the Crown Tire or Pardy Tire banners, but operate as CTR in Quebec and as CTR Ontario in northern Ontario.
Mr. Priddle said BFC is looking at launching the club concept in its Quebec stores and would likely use the ``CTR Tire Club'' name there.