CHICAGO—A few months after emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, Montgomery Ward & Co. has embarked on an ambitious program to revamp all of its 234 Wards Auto Express service centers as part of a make-over of its 252 full-line retail outlets. In June, the Chicago-based retailer also opened a free-standing prototype of a Wards Auto Express store in Hurst, Texas.
Shortly thereafter, on Aug. 2, Wards emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after two years of reorganization, that saw the company close more than 100 stores.
Wards began the remodeling program in September 1998 and said it will renovate about 40 stores and auto service centers each year, completing the project in about five years.
Wards constructed a prototype Auto Express store in the parking lot at the North East Mall in Hurst, because an extensive renovation of that mall forced it to give up some space from its existing store there.
Another mall renovation, in Hulen, Texas, will lead to the construction of a second free-standing Auto Express outlet.
"In effect, we had to relocate it (the auto center) and that gave us the opportunity to come up with the new prototype," said Steve McDowell, vice president of automotive and major appliances for Wards. It took about six months to develop the design, Mr. McDowell said.
The new store features a circular showroom area with tires displayed around the outer wall and batteries, accessories and the sales desk in the center. As much as possible, Wards intends to remodel the showrooms of its existing auto centers in a similar manner, Mr. McDowell said.
The exteriors of the existing service centers also will be painted and trimmed in fascia to resemble the Hurst store.
"We've opened up the waiting room to make it more customer-friendly," said David Baier, Wards national tire buyer and automotive service manager. The Hurst store features observation windows to the shop, he said, and data ports so waiting customers can hook up their personal computers and go online.
The service shop area of Wards Auto Express locations also will be getting a lot of attention. "In this new facility (Hurst), we went to using Snap-On Z3D alignment equipment," Mr. Baier said. Upgraded tire-mounting equipment to handle run-flat tires also is being added to the centers, he said.
Seeing productivity gains in the Hurst location is allowing Wards to take similar steps and integrate some of that new equipment in some of its other service facilities, Mr. Baier said.
The management structure and hiring and training of quality technicians are under scrutiny, too, Mr. McDowell said.
Auto Express locations perform most undercar and diagnostic services, as well as air conditioning and cooling system service, Mr. McDowell said, but they don't perform engine or transmission repair. Tires account for about 35 percent of a typical auto center's sales, Mr. Baier said.
Auto Express stocks Goodyear, Hoosier and Bridgestone/Firestone tire lines, including some "branded derivatives" manufactured specifically for Wards, Mr. Baier said. He said the company has no plans for its own private brand in the year 2000.
Wards said the total annual sales of its 252 stores "exceeds $3 billion" but the privately held company won't divulge sales figures for the auto service centers, a company spokeswoman said.
"Our strategy is to continue to develop (automotive) service business," Mr. McDowell said. "We've gotten out of the accessory-type product line, knowing that business has gone to the Auto Zones, the K-Marts and what-have-you."
Wards is installing a point-of-sale system called SMART Auto in all of its Auto Express locations, Mr. McDowell said. SMART Auto will allow technicians to access service records of customers' vehicles, accurately estimate labor and parts costs and schedule regular maintenance. The system also has simplified transactions, Wards said, making it easier for customers to purchase tires, batteries and other parts, and to make service decisions.
"(SMART Auto) is very important to our future success," Mr. McDowell said. "It really brings the whole thing into the future."
As early as next spring, Wards hopes to expand some auto services to the Internet, Mr. Baier said, allowing customers to schedule service appointments online or e-mail the service center. "We see it as a great opportunity," he said.
The location of the automotive service centers in or adjacent to full-line Wards retail stores provides a lot of benefits to the retail customer, Mr. McDowell said, such as providing discount coupons or other incentives to Auto Express customers to shop in the full-line store.
Wards is using traditional advertising media—newspapers, radio and TV—to promote "grand reopenings" of remodeled stores and auto service centers, he said. The company also is targeting direct mailings to Wards credit card holders in the area.
And while one new free-standing store is open and another is in the planning stages, Mr. McDowell said there are no plans for a massive roll-out of the new design in a chain of stand-alone auto service centers.