Dale Richardson is wondering if yet another nationally recognized name eventually will open up near his 20-year-old North Carolina tire dealership, but it's not Wal-Mart Stores Inc. or Monro Muffler Brake Inc. he's thinking about.
AAA Carolinas, the regional chapter of the American Automobile Association covering North and South Carolina, already has opened five AutoMark Car Care Center locations in North Carolina, with more planned-including one in Gastonia, N.C.
For now, the regional AAA-owned repair shops offer only automotive service, including maintenance, brakes, tune-ups, air conditioning and electrical. They do not sell tires, though a spokesman said the possibility isn't off the table.
``That's one of the things we're evaluating,'' he told Tire Business. ``We may like to get into it, but we're going to wait to see what the business is like. It's an inventory issue more than anything else.''
About 20 AAA-owned shops operate around the country, although their policies and strategies differ among the regional groups that operate them.
The shops are in Maine, Ohio, California and elsewhere.
Mr. Richardson, who owns High Point Tire, a Michelin, BFGoodrich and Uniroyal dealership in High Point, N.C.-and a AAA-approved shop-said he's not overly concerned about increased competition should a AAA-owned shop move into his area.
His concern is if he would lose his approved status if an AutoMark facility would move in.
``I don't mind them competing with me, but for them to completely take me out of the picture simply because they can, that's not right,'' he said.
That's exactly the situation facing Ray Fannin of A&J Automotive Inc. in Raleigh, N.C.
One AutoMark shop already opened on the other side of town, and Mr. Fannin said he was told he would lose his AAA-approved status when a second opens within two miles of his shop. Mr. Fannin's shop, which does not stock tires, has been an approved shop for four years.
``They feel that I would be in direct competition with their shop, that's why they (will) cut us off,'' he said.
The AAA spokesman said he's not aware of Mr. Fannin's situation in particular.
``At some point I guess that could happen if the market is not big enough to accommodate multiple stores'' under AAA's nameplate, he said. ``It's all about service to members, and if we have a choice between providing it ourselves or having a third party, I'm sure we'd prefer it ourselves.''
Both Mr. Richardson and Mr. Fannin said the approved status is a good marketing tool for their shops since consumers' positive feelings about AAA extend to their shop as well. ``For us, it's a small part of our business, but it's a good part of our business,'' Mr. Richardson said.
Mr. Fannin said only about 5 percent of his customers are the result of the approved status, either from tow-ins or name recognition for people new to the area. He added he's the only approved shop left in Raleigh.
``It generally brings us a nice customer, somebody who's pleasant and nice to deal with,'' he said. ``There's a level of trust already there.''
A spokesman for the national AAA group said about 7,600 shops in the U.S. and Canada participate in the approved shop program to help handle the some 30 million road service calls every year.
``They understandably handle the bulk of the referrals to automotive service shops,'' he said of the approved shops.
Although each regional group can set its own policies for administering the approved shop program, the spokesman said that the AAA-owned shops generally are not seeking to take over markets.
``Merely having another shop nearby would generally not require that a business lose its designation,'' he said.
Plus, he added, with the volume of annual road service calls and an estimated one-third of vehicles overdue for some kind of maintenance, there's a lot of repair business for both AAA and independent shops.
That's the basis of the plan for the California State Automotive Association, which represents northern California, Nevada and Utah. The group operates Car Care Plus facilities in Sacramento, Calif., and Santa Clara, Calif., and plans to open more in major cities throughout its entire region, which serves 4.2 million members. But the group said it is not scaling back its focus on AAA-approved shops.
The first shop opened in February 1999 in Santa Clara. The site had been a diagnostic outlet that did 100-point inspections as well as smog tests. After many customers asked the staff to fix the car after they had isolated the problem, the group decided to turn the office into an automotive service shop.
``We have our customer base of members who expect us to do it right and expect us to treat them better than they would get treated anywhere else,'' said Mark Woods, general manager of Car Care Plus.
The Sacramento site opened in March 2001 and included a car wash. Both outlets are near the AAA district office, which houses more traditional services such as travel arrangements and insurance sales.
For future Car Care Plus locations, Mr. Woods wants to combine the office and shop to take advantage of some crossover between the two sets of customers.
The service facilities don't sell tires, and they're not likely to soon, Mr. Woods said. The regional AAA has partnered with Big O Tires Inc. for a AAA-member discount program for tires.
Despite the group's growth plans for Car Care Plus, Mr. Woods said present plans do not call for a lessened focus on approved independent shops.
``We'll never have an imbalance of approved auto repair (shops) vs. Car Care Plus locations,'' he said. ``We're not looking to take over the industry, we're looking to add value to the industry.''