The most important thing in real estate, the saying goes, is location, location, location. A likely addition to that is ``curb appeal.''
Both concepts apply to retailing, be it the tire industry or anything else.
More and more, tire dealers are finding homes for their dealerships in newer and upscale suburban developments. The local denizens come from nice modern houses with all the trimmings, and they want to do their shopping where merchants care just as much about appearances.
``Consumers are extremely sophisticated in their shopping habits,'' said Janet Beaudry, vice president of marketing and sales for Greenwood, Colo.-based Great American Tire and Auto Service Centers. ``If you step away from our industry, look what Starbucks has done, and Nordstrom's, and malls. They created their own destinations.
``We're a retailer. Customers have high expectations of what they want to experience. We wanted to create this expectation of: `You've entered somewhere different; it's comfortable, easy to maneuver around and inviting for consumers to come into our shops.'''
Great American is a convert to the concept of curb appeal and offering multi-service locations in upscale locales. A typical Great American outlet features retail tire sales, full automotive service, including quick lube facilities, a convenience store and gasoline. That all comes wrapped in a nice-looking package, including modern exterior, plush waiting rooms and spotless service areas.
Myriad consumer surveys have pointed out that the majority of tire store customers are women, often with children in tow.
Those are two demographics to which more dealers are catering with in-store amenities. Great American, for example, has comfortable furniture in its waiting rooms, refrigerators stocked with bottled water, table space for those who bring work and Gameboys for the kids.
However, such goodies aren't likely to ever entice customers if the building's exterior fails to attract them through the door.
``It's extremely important for a variety of reasons,'' said Big O Tires President John Adams. ``First of all, image is becoming more and more of an issue in choosing a place to shop.''
Newer structures-such as those Great American is building-often feature striking architecture that blends in well with other stores in and around a neighborhood strip mall. But buildings are more than bricks and mortar. They're arches, awnings, creative roofs, large bay windows, colorful exteriors and more.
But what of those dealers who have decades-old buildings? They aren't necessarily obsolete, Mr. Adams said.
``You can remodel,'' he said. ``We went through that in the early 1990s: a major change in our logo, our exterior color scheme and our interior color scheme.
``Sometimes it's not major things. It's not like you have to go through a total remodel. Perhaps a fresh coat of paint every year on the inside, a good spring cleaning each year. It's a weekly maintenance issue, if not daily. Mop down the shop floor a couple times a day. It's difficult to do on a day-to-day basis. Little things start to slip by.''
Mr. Adams pointed out that not only does cleanliness say a great deal about a store's overall operation, but consumers are well aware that car dealers-more and more of whom are selling tires-have spotless showrooms and service areas. He said tire dealers would do well to follow suit.
``At least subliminally, it's a better experience when I go to the car dealer for service,'' he said.
Little things like a clean floor mean a lot. In a recent interview with Tire Business for a story in a previous issue, Jilanna Swann of Swann's American Car Care Centers in Ripley, W.Va., talked of how she couldn't take her daughter certain places because the restrooms weren't clean enough. Ms. Swann said she made it a point to make sure the facilities in her dealership never got that way.
A snazzy exterior, after all, may draw in potential customers, but a shabby interior may just as quickly drive them away. There are more ways to attract customers from the inside than simply good service and clean floors and restrooms. Part of that, Mr. Adams said, is knowing that different customers have different sets of needs.
``In some locations, if you're in a store close to a business park, their focus has been putting in Internet connections so people can come over and work while their cars are being serviced,'' Mr. Adams said. ``Others put in Playskool toys. It has to be tied into what your local market is into.
``Other guys have set up VCRs and show movies throughout the day. It's really about understanding your customer base. It's really a different issue than the original image. Once your customers are there, you have to keep them entertained.
``The whole business world has changed. It's faster paced. People don't have a lot of time. We want to make consumers' experience as good as possible. Even if it's just 20 minutes, you hate to waste 20 minutes. It's, `What else can I be working on?'''
Great American has gone to great lengths to design and build stores that customers will like. Its 11 outlets were designed by Retail Group, a Seattle-based design studio credited with designing stores for Starbucks Corp., Blockbuster Inc. and RadioShack Corp.
The dealership has five stores in the Denver area and others in the Seattle, Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta and Washington D.C. metro areas. In addition, it has two more locations scheduled to open later this year and aims to have a total of 50 outlets by the end of 2004.
In each case, Ms. Beaudry said, the company has targeted population growth areas-in particularly well-to-do neighborhoods-in which to build. In the Washington area, for instance, Great American's store is in Sterling, Va., home to some of D.C.'s wealthiest commuters.
``We tend to go into high-growth neighborhoods, and those tend to be where you have higher incomes,'' Ms. Beaudry said. She added that Great American hasn't ruled out building stores in the inner city but said they need a good-sized lot to accommodate their current design.
The company has designated growth areas in Chicago, North Boston and Dayton County, Fla., as places it will soon build.
The formula has worked so far for the retailer. Ms. Beaudry said same-store sales are up 21 percent in the past year for stores that were open a year ago.
``It has to be a strong influence on sales,'' she said of the unique design. ``We have a very high retention rate. Once (customers) come to Great American, they stay with Great American.''
It was a mission accomplished by doing what Ms. Beaudry called ``creating a retail destination for our industry.''
``If you look at retail in general, everyone is trying to look more attractive,'' she said. ``It's what (customers) want, and more importantly, what they expect.''
Great American Tire is backed by Shell Oil Products Inc., the entity that controls the marketing of Shell and Texaco gasoline in the U.S. As a result, Great American stores are located on the same site as a Shell gas station and use Shell's Rapid Lube quick oil-change service in their stores.