Getting tire customers to understand that a Goodyear tire shop also did automotive service used to be a hard sell, according to Frank Pyeatt, general manager for Santa Maria Tire in Santa Maria, Calif.
But after Goodyear launched its Gemini marketing program in 1999-a start that company officials acknowledged was rocky-Mr. Pyeatt said that job eventually got easier at his four Gemini outlets. He said point-of-sale materials explaining the workings of vehicles were a big push for the customers' realizations.
``It really makes it a real easy transition for maintenance items and those kinds of things,'' said Mr. Pyeatt, who is in his third year on the Gemini National Advisory Board.
Cheryl Ward, marketing manager for the Gemini automotive program, said in the four years since its launch, the Gemini program has exhibited marked improvement, primarily from a focus on member feedback. Gemini replaced Goodyear's 15-year service program, Certified Auto Service (CAS). Studies at the time showed CAS had only a 2-percent public recognition factor.
So far this year, about 870 independent dealers-operating more than 1,110 locations-fly the Gemini flag. Another 600 company-owned stores also operate under the format. At year-end 2002, 1,074 independent locations joined the roughly 600 company outlets. The number of independent locations is expected to grow by about 100, Ms. Ward said.
For future growth, Ms. Ward said the tire maker is looking for quality members to grow the ranks instead of just numbers. In the beginning, she said, Goodyear was focused on creating a national brand in only a few years. Now the focus is more on branding Gemini from the inside out, such as store presentation and customer service.
``(A dealer) is bringing-from just the way he meets and greets the customer-that Gemini message,'' she said, adding a uniform presentation offers consistent experiences for consumers no matter where they go.
To ensure quality in Gemini locations, Ms. Ward said the program has instituted extensive criteria for prospective Gemini dealers. For example, dealers have to employ ASE-certified technicians, be accredited by the Maintenance Awareness Program (MAP) and meet certain equipment standards. Members are audited for compliance, she said. Part of the monthly fees also is directed toward staff training.
``Really, it's to benefit the consumer in the long run if you're doing that, considering you're not only managing but you're checking yourself,'' Ms. Ward said.
But the key to the growing success of the program, she said, is the advisory board and Goodyear management's openness to dealer feedback. ``The independent retailer himself has a very active voice in how we go forward,'' she said.
As an example, she cited the ongoing pilot program testing a health insurance plan for member dealers. A health benefits committee appointed by the advisory board looked for carriers that would provide insurance for dealers. Members in Georgia and Texas are now testing the program for the rest of the year, Ms. Ward said.
``We're taking it slow,'' she said. ``We want to do it right.''
Shawn Long, owner of Long Tire & Auto Service Center in Tampa, Fla., said the program as described to him wouldn't necessarily bring rock-bottom prices that will just go up in a year or so. Instead, he said the idea is to lock in a decent insurance rate that wouldn't suffer the huge increases that many dealers have seen.
``The independent, single-location dealer, they can really get hurt'' by those jumps, Mr. Long said. The bigger group of Gemini dealers could lock in a better rate, he said.
Mr. Long said the broader health plan is coupled with smaller improvements, such as a change in the warranty program. Before, he said he would get a bill for repairs made by another Gemini dealer for a vehicle originally serviced at his dealership. Now some funding is set aside for third-party Gemini providers.
``I don't ever see a bill back,'' Mr. Long said. ``It's an insurance policy.''
The advisory board has 22 to 24 members from various regions who are elected every three years by member dealers and Goodyear personnel, Ms. Ward said. The board meets twice a year. Four members also make up the executive committee, which conducts its business be-tween regular meetings.
The regional representation helps resolve differences among areas that officials in Akron may not have realized, she said. For example, spring promotions were spaced out to allow for climate differences among regions and price ranges were modified to better suit markets. ``It really helped,'' she said. ``We've listened to them-we've built in some of the flexibility they wanted.''
Mr. Long said he is familiar with the dealers that represent his area, so he feels comfortable sharing his feedback with them.
``I think it's effective,'' he said of the board. ``They get things done.''
Jack Winterton, director of dealer sales, consumer tires, reiterated corporate's support for the program in a statement.
``We believe Gemini is the strongest tire and service program for dealers in the industry today,'' he said. ``Goodyear's North American Tire management supports Gemini as a viable future growth mechanism for independent tire dealers.''
Doug Stevenson, owner of Stevenson Tire Service in Fremont, Calif., said Goodyear seems to approve some of what the Gemini dealers and board want, and he's seen an improvement in the program since costs came down while buying programs and advertising services were expanded.
``It's growing into what it should be,'' said Mr. Stevenson, whose three stores have been Gemini outlets since the program's inception.