Gary Janice knows the last thing customers want to see at his one-outlet tire dealership is a technician in grubby clothes and a dirty waiting room.
``People aren't looking for that,'' he said.
Instead, his customers at Bennett St. Tire in Lynn, Mass., walk into a clean, professional setting, courtesy of TireStarz, he said. Help with his business, the snazzy decor and hefty advertising are all culled from his membership in the marketing group, administered by Bridgestone/Firestone.
``It more or less makes you look bigger than you are,'' said Mr. Janice, who has owned the shop for 25 years. ``Instead of just being one guy, you're like part of an army.''
That feeling is a driving force for small dealerships that decide to join a marketing group. Many dealers contacted by Tire Business said marketing groups give them an advertising and buying edge they could never get on their own. Some even said that advantage is the difference between being in business and closing down.
But others doubt the need for paying into a marketing group. They said they have established their own niche in their specific markets, and marketing groups aren't worth the costs.
``Basically, I've been on my own,'' said Rudy Zacharias, who has owned 10-outlet Zach's Tire Co. in Irving, Texas, for 42 years.
Still, leave it to the tire business to be complicated.
``It's hard to survive either way,'' said Dan Melchert, owner of Dan's Tire & Auto in Seymour, Wis.
Also a TireStarz dealer, his shop is only 15 minutes away from the competitive Green Bay, Wis., market. ``It's tough right now,'' he said.
Tom Cullinane, owner of Southwest Tire Inc. in Omaha, Neb., said he joined Tire Pros, administered by Ampac Tire Distributors, about five years ago after a falling-out ended his 20-year stint as a Goodyear dealer. Since he moved to Tire Pros-selling General, Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal, Pirelli and Continental brands-he said business has improved drastically. ``It just opened the doors for us,'' he said.
A major benefit, he said, was improving the impression potential customers had about the shop. In the past, he said many were turned away by their perception that Goodyear tires-his main stock-were more expensive. Promoting his broader selection has lured more cost-conscious customers. Mr. Cullinane said his one store sells about $2.5 million.
National advertising and training also are powerful draws, he said. With more than 250 dealers nationwide on the Tire Pros program, he said the promotions are a powerful tool in competing with the national reach of Sam's Club and Sears, Roebuck and Co. auto centers.
``The independent tire dealer-we're a dying breed,'' Mr. Cullinane said. ``...We all have to face the reality that the more they build (mass merchandisers) the more we have to compete. It's tough.''
Mr. Cullinane and Charlie Vannoy, owner of Vannoy's Tire Inc. in Pensacola, Fla., said marketing groups can be an alternative to dealing with tire manufacturers.
``They make you dance through too many hoops,'' said Mr. Vannoy, who used to participate in Tire Pros' program but now works with American Tire Distributors Inc. The switch was amicable.
Doug Anderson, vice president of two-outlet George Oren Tire Specialist in Oakland, Calif., said it is virtually impossible for small dealers to survive without a marketing or buying group. His dealership belongs to the Independent Tire Dealers Group L.L.C., a member-owned buying group. ``If you're a small dealer and you've got 10 stores or less, you need to align yourself with some type of buying group,'' he said.
But Jim Murray, owner of Bob's Tire Service & Alignment Center in Victorville, Calif., doesn't buy that.
His 30-year-old business, which has a retail outlet and a commercial center across the street, decided against joining a marketing group and is still going strong, he said.
The secret, Mr. Murray said, is to carve out a niche and reputation in the market.
``This business is family owned and operated,'' he said. ``We've maintained that identification.''
The dealership does its own advertising, and Mr. Murray's son records the television and radio commercials to put a local, recognizable face with the message, he said.
With 80 percent of his business from repeat customers and nearly the rest from referrals, he said treating customers right-even telling them they don't need work done when they're ready to pay for it-is more valuable than a national advertising program.
``It's the longevity we look for'' in customer relations, Mr. Murray said.