If there's any one lesson to be learned from the two tire retailing experts' panel discussions at the recent International Tire Expo, it would be that there's no one right way to make a dealership better.
But for the 175-plus tire dealers who invested 90 minutes of their time during the show, there was plenty of good advice, ranging from tips on hiring and retaining employees to suggestions on ways to boost the size of the average ticket.
Moderated by Don Olson, the retired founder of Florida's Don Olson Tire (later Morgan Tire and now Tires Plus), the panel discussions were free-ranging, rapid-fire exchanges of ideas, with audience members contributing their fair share as well.
Panelists for the Nov. 5 session were: Bob Dabrowski of Tire Warehouse Central, Keene, N.H. (28 stores and 25 franchised sites); Jerry White of White Tire Supply Inc., Beaumont, Texas (one retail store); Ron Lautzenheiser of College Tire Inc., Fort Collins, Colo. (one store); Bob Purcell of Purcell Tire & Rubber Co., Potosi, Mo. (49 stores); Jeff Darrow of Certified Tire & Auto, Moreno Valley, Calif. (19 stores); and Dave Komaromi of Tires To Go Inc., West Sacramento, Calif. (one retail store).
Panelists for the Nov. 6 session were: John Kauffman of Kauffman Tire Inc., Atlanta (41 stores); Paul Hyatt of Superior Tire Corp., Toronto (six stores); Terry Westhafer of Central Tire Corp., Verona, Va. (one commercial and two retail stores); Chris Wyborny of Ramona Tire & Service Centers, Hemet, Calif. (14 retail stores); Charles Creighton of Colony Tire Corp., Edenton, N.C. (25 retail stores); and Phil Raben of Raben Tire Co., Evansville, Ind. (25 retail stores).
In both sessions, attendees were keen to learn how leading dealers generate store traffic. And amidst the range of answers, one common thread emerged: Don't overlook the business in your own back yard.
``Get out and knock on doors,'' Mr. Raben said. ``Retail store managers should be out getting to know their neighbors. There's lots of business at other businesses in a store's area.''
Mr. Olson agreed. ``When we opened new stores,'' he said, ``I or the new store manager would go and visit all the local small businesses and offer them, and their employees, incentives to do business with us.''
When it comes to new locations, panelists urged their fellow dealers to make a splash.
``Always do a grand opening sale,'' Mr. Wyborny said, ``and advertise it big. Bring in reps from your suppliers and arrange for giveaways. We often get local radio stations to do live broadcasts from the store, and we arrange for concert ticket giveaways, etc. You have to spend money!''
``We do tent sales, and concentrate on local media to help promote it,'' Mr. Kauffman said. ``Our Wooster, Ohio, store does a three-day tent sale every year, and it has become an event. We do hot dogs, etc. We've sold 1,200 tires in three days at tent sales.''
Opinions on yellow pages advertising were mixed.
``Several years ago we cut out yellow pages altogether,'' Mr. Komaromi said, ``and we didn't see a drop in business. Instead we put together a store brochure and went after local commercial accounts,...and their employees.''
``With one or two stores, you can make it a personal one-on-one thing,'' Mr. Dabrowski said. ``With multiple stores, though, I think you have to use yellow pages.''
Mr. Lautzenheiser suggested dealers test their yellow pages accounts by setting up a separate phone number and monitoring those calls.
The panelists were in agreement on some issues, including training of managers: promote from within when possible, and if not feasible, make sure new hires work in your organization at least nine to 12 months before being given control of a store.
In terms of generating more revenue, the panelists had a variety of suggestions.
``If you're going to offer wheels, make sure you get a good warehouse distributor and build a good relationship with them,'' Mr. Hyatt advised. ``This will help in order consistency over the long haul. We'll order just about any wheel a customer wants, but if it's not something we normally stock, we ask for cash up front,...lots of cash.''
``The tuner business is a different business,'' Mr. Creighton said-``one that's easy to end up with a lot of problems. You need to have a motivated and knowledgeable employee.''
Mr. Creighton's comment was echoed by most of the panelists and many of the attendees, who told personal anecdotes about seeing their wheel business fall into disarray when the ``wheel guy'' left or was promoted.
Mr. Lautzenheiser, a former longtime Big O Tires Inc. executive, related the story of how he added a Grease Monkey oil and lube franchise to generate some added income and free up space in his existing store. The bonus for his dealership was that ``now we see those customers several times a year and can retain them for other business.''
He also urged dealers to make sure they're properly equipped to service the light truck market. ``Light truck owners take better care of their vehicles,'' he said, ``and if you treat them right the first time, they'll become loyal customers.''
Several panelists suggested dealers look at creating their own warranty programs. ``We do our own tire warranties-$4.95 per passenger tire, $8.95 per LT tire-replacement down to 50 percent of wear, pro-rated thereafter,'' Mr. Purcell said. ``We do it ourselves. Just run the numbers on your own business and figure it out. It can add a lot to the bottom line.''
Don't overlook the impact of credit cards, Mr. Darrow said.
``We qualify more than 100 new customers a month for a credit card,'' he said. ``With the average ticket we're writing exceeding $275 per car, offering credit can be an effective closer.
``And for customers who don't qualify for a card, we offer them a `membership card,' which offers only limited credit but allows us to keep them in our system for future business. Then don't forget to offer your credit card customers specials from time to time.''
Mr. White summed up the panelists' suggestions with a simple: ``Play whatever tune makes the cash register bell ring.''
How should dealers best take advantage of ``e-commerce?''
``We capture e-mail addresses for all of our customers (who have one),'' Mr. Hyatt said, ``and send out e-mail specials once a quarter. We treat them like VIP customers.''
``We're a preferred dealer for Tire Rack (installing tires for Tire Rack customers),'' Mr. Westhafer said. ``We don't make any money on the sale of the tire (and/or wheel), but we charge for labor and quite often get an alignment or other service. And we have the chance to make that person a repeat customer at our dealership.
``Don't hesitate to ask the mail order customer what he paid....When you add in the shipping cots, often we could have offered the same package for the same price or lower. That surprises a lot of customers.''