NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Image may not be everything. But having the ``right'' one doesn't hurt. Take, for instance, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s ``TireStarz'' dealer program. Sure, there are intricate formulas and quotas about tire-selling that need to be met in order to belong. But along with all that, you've got to look good—because one of the criteria for membership is, plain and simple, ``image.''
That doesn't mean tux and tails are de rigueur on the showroom floor. However, "image" was the first word in a litany of requirements outlined by Bill Pace, BFS' manager of TireStarz USA, in describing what the tire maker's looking for, and why an independent dealer would be interested in joining.
They've got to have a certain image, he said. Meaning, having a store that's clean, presentable and customer-friendly—as well as an in-house share of Bridgestone and Firestone products, ``a desire for education for themselves and their people, and a desire to participate in advertising and promotional activities.''
Then, drawing upon what might be his best sales pitch to a prospective dealer, Mr. Pace added: ``Our total focus is to help dealers be more successful, to become a part of something that helps them to grow—in their sales and profit opportunities.
``TireStarz...helps them compete in the evolving marketplace and be successful.''
Since its rollout just over a year ago as a test program with one distributor, TireStarz is experiencing ``excellent growth,'' Mr. Pace said, with more than 30 distributors now involved. They, in turn, have enlisted some 230 retailers while about 115 more are waiting in the wings.
Though he was hesitant to specify any in-house goal—``It's not nearly as important as the quality of the candidates''—Mr. Pace noted that 400 by year-end would be a nice round number.
``The idea is, we're not in a race to get people signed,'' he said.
``If we went out and signed everybody, we could get a lot of numbers quickly. But as the saying goes, it's harder to put the toothpaste back into the tube than it is to squeeze it out.
``We want quality retailers. We're also trying to maintain the disciplines of image and participation in various programs.''
That's where the distributor enters the picture.
BFS demands a distributor be involved in developing marketing and promotional packages for their dealer customers, rather than watch as they're mandated from on high by the manufacturer.
``We have an outstanding education program available to our distributors,'' Mr. Pace said, ``and they are required to set up educational meetings for their retail dealers on things such as how to sell tires and service, telephone skills, etc.''
He called TireStarz a work in progress. It hasn't changed much since its debut, but minor improvements, such as co-op assistance for displays, are forthcoming.
Here's how TireStarz membership works: Distributor AZ says he's interested in bringing one of his customers, ``Joe's Tire,'' into the TireStarz program. AZ provides information and gives a presentation about Joe's to a TireStarz field representative. They then visit the retailer for a formal TireStarz presentation. If all goes well, Joe's is enrolled.
Besides abiding by various advertising and promotional conditions, the lynchpin of a dealer's participation is agreeing to the ``quota'' part of the deal.
It requires that 51 percent of his unit sales—or 150 units per month, whichever is greater—must be a combination of Bridgestone, Firestone and associate brands, including Dayton, Road King, Gillette and Seiberling, depending on what his distributor carries. Of that, at least 50 percent has to be a combination of Bridgestone and Firestone flag brands.
In comparison, the firm's Affiliated Dealer program, in which dealers order direct from the tire maker rather than through a distributor, requires a 75-percent in-house share of BFS brands.
TireStarz dealers fit into BFS' so-called ``Family Dealer Channel'' and thus can access all its material, such as an easy-to-use print advertising ``clip kit,'' a quarterly ``pop kit'' for radio and TV advertising, and promotional, display and identification material—all sanctioned by the company's Family Dealer Retail Support Group.
As for dealer sales requirements, BFS has gone the same route Michelin North America has taken in policing its ``Alliance'' dealer program, which also has a 51-percent quota.
Similar to Michelin, Mr. Pace said BFS has an auditing process. It requires that each distributor, on a monthly basis, provide the tire maker with actual sales tickets specifying the products sold to each TireStarz dealer—to certify that minimum requirements actually are being met. The distributor also must have on staff a dedicated TireStarz person whose duties include overseeing the quotas.
The company also uses an independent auditing outfit that each month randomly chooses and audits a dealer from each distributor.
``The main thing is, we want integrity in the program.... We want to do this correctly,'' Mr. Pace said. ``And we have a vision: Bridgestone/Firestone combining with a distributor to help the independent retailer sell product and be more successful.''
He admitted taking the reins of TireStarz necessitated a ``cultural change.'' He has been with the tire company more than 34 years, 14 of them managing or supervising company stores. ``Instead of getting up every morning wondering how many tires you sold yesterday, what you now think about is what you can do to help the retail dealer do more business. It's a transition.''
What if a dealer's not up to the program's standards?
A ``relatively small'' number have been dumped from the program, Mr. Pace acknowledged, mostly because ``they didn't meet their numbers.
``We have to keep in mind that the dealer owns the business,'' he said, ``so it's a matter of encouragement, like telling him, `We need to get this place cleaned up,' and refer back to what TireStarz is all about.''
One of the program's original distributors, for instance, helped a dealer spruce up his store and improved its appearance by putting up some banners. ``There's always things you can do to help people,'' he said.
``TireStarz is designed for the dealer to attract more customers, sell more tires, maintain competitive margins, assist in training employees and enhance store appearance.
"Hopefully, people are joining with the understanding they have to maintain a clean shop.''
Dealers should offer ``what customers are looking for,'' he explained: a place where there's a good-better-best choice of brands, fair pricing, respect for customers while making an effort to save them time and energy by offering products in a ``fun and educational, pleasant atmosphere.''
``We're convinced customers are looking for a place that's easy to do business with, instead of the cheapest or biggest or hottest current rage or fashion,'' he added.