With an investment of mostly time, automotive service shops can tap into roughly $60 billion in unperformed maintenance, the Car Care Council says.
The Bethesda-based council this year changed its National Car Care Month to April from October in a bid to catch motorists as they begin thinking about summer vacations. As the council changes the promotion, it also said it hopes to solicit businesses to carry the message to drivers-and thereby hopefully gain some return customers to bolster shops' bottom lines.
Susan Jones, spokeswoman for the council, said 40 percent of motorists got work done on their cars after free inspections offered as part of the promotion. Those motorists spent an average of $100. In all, 77 percent of inspected cars had maintenance issues.
``That means the aftermarket is missing an opportunity on 77 cars out of 100, and you can see how that can quickly add up,'' Ms. Jones said. In fact, she said, the smallest dent in the market of drivers with cars needing work could mean an immediate windfall for repair shops.
``The long-term effect is relationship building, but the short-term effect is indeed money,'' Ms. Jones said.
National Car Care Month is most marked by inspection lanes in high-traffic areas set up to give motorists a quick, free review of their cars. The inspections look at fluid levels, tire pressure, belts and hoses and air filters, along with other visual points. The Car Care Council has sample inspection forms available on its Web site, www.carcare.org.
Ms. Jones said repair shops interested in sponsoring an inspection lane can partner with other local shops or a charity to share promotion costs. For example, if a shop teams up with the local United Way, both can run ads in local media promoting the event, then donations can be collected to benefit the well-known charity.
The result, Ms. Jones said, is that the charity brings more marketing possibilities-including news coverage by media in addition to its usual marketing clout-and motorists see the repair shops not only offering a free service but also helping raise money for a good cause.
``It promoted a positive image for the automotive industry,'' said Cathy Reichow, co-owner of Dan R's Automotive Inc. in Oregon, Ohio. Ms. Reichow said her 22-year-old shop, which sells General tires and has 12 service bays, has sponsored lanes for about 10 years with partners including other repair shops, the local American Automobile Association and the American Lung Association.
``It got so big that one time we got over 500 vehicles in just one day,'' she said. ``It got huge.''
If inspectors couldn't get to any cars, Ms. Reichow said she gave the motorists coupons to come to her shop for a free inspection later. The shop gained about five to 10 new customers a year from the event, she said.
Some shop owners said the biggest investment in the actual inspection day was their and their technicians' time, and any money spent in the effort comes in promoting it beforehand.
``You have to let people know,'' said Kathy Wells, owner of Wells Automotive Service in Metropolis, Ill. ``Use your media.''
Ms. Wells said she runs ads in local newspapers and on radio stations. She also notifies her regular customers through the company's monthly newsletter. Partnering with charities such as the local Humane Society, domestic violence shelter and United Way also helped the shop garner news coverage leading up to the event.
``That looks good for you in the paper,'' she said.
Local radio stations also did live broadcasts from the inspection lanes in some years, a move that Ms. Jones of the Car Care Council said is a great marketing move.
``In a large market, they would be the perfect sponsor because, of course, they talk to people while they're in their cars,'' she said.
The council also has promotional materials available that can be printed with a shop's logo.
Coming back for more
Since the inspections are free, the only way repair shops are going to make a dent in the $60 billion in unperformed repairs is to get the motorists back into their shops in the form of loyal, paying customers.
What can help are direct incentives for future preventive maintenance-such as discounts on oil changes or other common repairs, with the idea that the motorists will keep the shop in mind for all of their future repairs.
``They don't know anything about your service and shop unless they get there,'' Ms. Jones said.
But there are other options if a business doesn't want to turn to incentives. Ms. Jones said shop owners should introduce themselves to potential customers as someone customers can trust. ``(Shop owners) need to have plenty of face time,'' she said. ``Get out there with business cards, business hours and meet people. That's probably the best thing in the world, and it's free.''
Terry Steenholdt, owner of T.D.S. Auto Repair Inc. in Sioux Falls, S.D., said he and other shop owners make the rounds at their inspection events. He said the nature of the free event releases motorists from the common stereotype that service shops are just trying to hawk any repair even if it's not totally necessary.
``It lets people know that these people fixing your car do have a heart,'' he said. ``They do care about what's going on.''
He also makes a point to not solicit business directly or even suggest drivers head to his shop over the others represented at the event. Still, he said as many as 70 percent of customers introduced to him through the event head back to his shop in the future.
``We see this customer for everything they need, and that's what we want,'' he said.
Ms. Wells in Illinois said she follows up with customers after the inspections with reminder cards offering her shop's services. During the event, she hands out coffee and rolls as she talks to motorists about the importance of preventive maintenance. She said about 50 percent have come back.
Ms. Reichow said she has employed some coupons to attract customers, while also promoting the same preventive maintenance.
In the end, Ms. Jones said, the main idea of the car care month should be gathering business for the rest of the year.
``My worry is some people might not consider the follow-through because this is a wonderful opportunity to get names and addresses to add to your newsletter and your marketing efforts,'' she said.