CHARLOTTE, N.C.—In the Hollywood classic "The Wizard of Oz," it was the Wiz himself who chided Dorothy to "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"
That's not the kind of advice the Heafner Tire Group is giving its many dealers. They're being told to pay heed to the "wizard" as a potentially tidy little profit center.
Now, the sorcerer in question isn't some windbag with a funky hairdo, but rather the company's "Wheel Wizard" computer program. Through the use of actual photos of vehicles and wheels, a customer can take a kind of "virtual reality" tour to see how any of a plethora of custom wheels look on his or her car—without having to lug those shiny chromes out to the parking lot.
The reasoning is, anything that'll produce some extra capital with minimal effort is worth pulling back the curtain and taking a look at.
Bill Paule, director of Heafner Interactive—the Charlotte-based company's e-commerce business unit, is the father of the Wheel Wizard. He also developed its predecessor, the "Wheel Machine," in 1995 while working for Intelligent Information Innovations in Laguna Hills, Calif.
That project, undertaken for CEC, a California wheel company, began as an Internet venture based on CEC's application guide. When the program was purchased by West Coast distributor Competition Parts Warehouse (CPW), Mr. Paule accompanied it to CPW.
In 1997, with the backing of various wheel companies, he developed a CD ROM-based version that became Wheel Wizard. The software includes wheel diameter and tire plus-sizing data, part numbers, application notes from wheel makers, and information on how a vehicle installed with an Eibach-brand performance wheel spring kit will look when "lowered."
Mr. Paule came onboard Heafner in 1998 when it acquired CPW. Today, in addition to overseeing the continuous development of Wheel Wizard, he's responsible for HeafNet Online, which allows the company's dealer customers to conduct business with Heafner via the Internet.
A tremendous amount of work goes into each updated version of Wheel Wizard because, Mr. Paule noted, "it's the little details that make a difference."
"We've been very particular about making sure all our pictures are exact," he said about the photos of wheels, tires and vehicles used in the program. "For instance, if you have a vehicle with four lugs, that's the picture you see. And we actually take pictures of each diameter of the wheel, so you get the proper spoke length. Wheel photos aren't stretched."
The computer programming is ongoing but isn't the biggest task. More time-consuming are the efforts to continually maintain, update and enhance the system's data, he said. That's because "new cars are coming out constantly—not just once a year," not to mention the variations in new wheels, tire information and brands Heafner carries.
Some usability features also have been added to the program, which now includes the company's entire application guide for 15,000 vehicles, even though there are not actual photos for all of them.
The program also contains a tire application database with original equipment sizes and speed ratings for a vehicle. It can be searched to find the proper fitment based on speed, load and recommended rim widths for the tires.
"When a dealer starts the program, he can decide whether to use it simply as a visual sales tool, or as an application guide," Mr. Paule explained.
Last year the company modified the program so a consumer can select a set of wheels via Wheel Wizard, then a dealer can write a quote on the sale and tie it into the Heafnet system. "The dealer pulls that up on the screen, sees the consumer's purchase, and knows what (the dealer's) costs are and if the inventory is in the warehouse," he said.
"With a couple of mouse clicks, the products are on their way."
Consumers like Wheel Wizard, he added, since it narrows down their choices, only showing wheels that will fit their vehicles. Dealers like it because it frees them up from having to pore through catalogs, go to the back room to get a wheel, then hold it up to a customer's car. "With it, customers can virtually try them on their car."
He has discovered that, while there's a breed of car fanatics highly attuned to their vehicles' appearance, some customers specifically "tell you they're not interested in wheels." But once they try out Wheel Wizard, "in some instances, though they didn't want wheels, they decide they just have to have a set.
"It's almost overwhelming to see the kind of influence a picture can have when they see how easy it is to customize their car in ways they haven't even thought of."
Mr. Paule believes dealers who use Wheel Wizard are selling more custom wheels—and subsequently, more tires. He recalled demonstrating the system to a group at the Heafner booth during a Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas when a dealer interjected: "Don't let anybody tell you any differently—that thing makes me money!"
"That's probably the most powerful quote I've ever heard from a dealer," Mr. Paule said.
The product is geared toward a dealer whose primary focus is not wheels, but who occasionally sells them, "wants to sell more and get more comfortable with them"—without needing a large inventory and having to guess at applications. With Wheel Wizard, "all of the answers are right there."
While the West Coast has always been a hotbed for stylizing cars, the movement has spread throughout the U.S. and is big business in places such as Atlanta and Miami. "As computers show up in more and more tire dealerships," he said, dealers are looking for more tools to help them sell better and smarter.
Wheel Wizard can be loaded onto any personal computer running Windows 95, 98, NT or 2000. It can be operated via mouse clicks or with a touch screen. The program costs $500, plus an additional $250 annual fee for updates. But Mr. Paule said Heafner is offering its dealers a special rebate to help offset the cost, based on increased wheel sales.
In its next iteration, the program will be fully integrated to an Internet-based system tied to Heafnet. Eventually, consumers will be able to use Wheel Wizard online—at any hour of the day or night—to select tires and wheels, then locate the nearest dealer and get a price quote.
However, the program is currently available to wheel aficionados via three of Heafner Tire Group's Web sites: icwracing.com, cruiserwire.com and pacerwheels.com.
In an effort to introduce consumers to the sites, the company is featuring a free windshield decal offer as part of its related consumer advertising campaign.
Dan Brown, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the group, said the Web sites were designed to be interactive.
"Anyone logged onto our sites has the opportunity to post questions regarding any of our products, view answers to other questions, or even post a favorite photo of their vehicle with its new set of wheels," he said.
The Pacer, ICW Racing and CruiserWire sites are, he noted, only one component of an overall marketing plan designed to build consumer brand awareness for Heafner's proprietary brands.
"The Web sites, along with our consumer advertising, point-of-sale material and product brochures and catalogs, will help stimulate interest in our products," Mr. Brown said, "and direct consumers to dealers representing these brands in the marketplace."
The company is launching its Heafnet online component at the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week shows in Las Vegas. From that point, Mr. Paule said it will be "less than six months" until some of Wheel Wizard's Internet modules are fully in place, once all the logistics are worked out.
A consumer will then be able to do all the pre-sale work at home, even when the dealership's closed, "without having to get the dealer involved," he said. "When it comes time to close the sale and put the rubber to the rims, the dealer can take it from there."
He estimated that, in the Southeast, between 120 and 150 dealership locations have installed Wheel Wizard, while on the West Coast there are more than 200.
At this time, Wheel Wizard is exclusive to a select crowd—only Heafner customers.
"We're not looking to sell it to every independent dealer—just to ours," Mr. Paule said, adding with a laugh: "But hopefully, every dealer will eventually be a Heafner customer!"