WASHINGTON (Oct. 6, 2004) — By common agreement, computers are a wonder of our time.
For tire dealers alone, their benefits are obvious: They allow direct, split-second communication with suppliers, making orders a snap; they allow easy, touch-of-a-button access to inventory, billing and customer records; they make tire registration a breeze; and they offer a highly effective, centralized tool for employee training.
So why do so many tire dealers resist computerizing their businesses?
“The biggest thing is that they're a little afraid of it,” said Jeff Riddle, president of Portland, Maine-based RTM Marketing, which specializes in providing online training programs to tire dealers and wholesalers. Mr. Riddle estimates that maybe 70 to 75 percent of U.S. tire dealers use computers in their business in some way.
“Growing up, the current generation of tire dealers weren't experienced with computers,” he added, implying that it's just a matter of time before the entire industry goes online. “They don't feel comfortable with computers, period.”
Chris Marnett, director of training for the Tire Industry Association, agreed. “Typically, they (dealers) don't trust computers and feel uncomfortable using them,” she said. “As far as this industry goes, we're a little behind the curve in going online.”
Resistance to computers is not true of most major tire dealerships and wholesalers, which have recognized fairly quickly the benefits of computer use. Carroll Tire Co., the Hapeville, Ga.-based TBC Corp. wholesaling subsidiary, had a promotion earlier this year offering free computers to customers who signed on as associate dealers.
Carroll ended up giving away more than 400 computers in the promotion that ended in late May, said Jay Marcoe, the company's sales and marketing support manager.
“We appreciate the value our customers bring to our business, and we wanted to give something back,” said Mr. Marcoe, who added that customers with computers can take advantage of Carroll's online ordering system. But not all of Carroll's customers see the advantage to being online.
“Some folks still do things the way they've done them for 30 years,” Mr. Marcoe said.
To Rudy Zach, president of Zach Tire in Irving, Texas, computers have one big drawback that cancels out any potential benefits: impersonality.
“This is still a personal business,” he told Tire Business. “I started it in 1961, and I still write things up with pencil and paper, the same way I was taught when I was a Firestone management trainee.”
To Mr. Zach, going online would be a major step toward losing the face-to-face, handshake trust he's built up with loyal customers over the past 43 years. “I have a man I'm talking to,” he said. “I sold tires to his daddy, and I just sold a set to his son.”
Nor has the lack of a computer kept Zach Tire behind its competitors. “If I had four or five stores, I might go online,” Mr. Zach said. “As it is, I have an NTB, a Sears and a Discount Tire in my neighborhood, and me and my wife, we did $1.2 million worth of business last year.”
Motostar Tire & Auto Products, a Manchester, N.H-based tire distributor, is on the verge of introducing the “Tirz Max” online system, according to Motostar President Gene Bova. “We've been working with it for quite a while, but we'll be ready to start it up in a couple of weeks,” Mr. Bova said Sept. 20.
The company's dealers will have a choice between a pay service with a wide range of features and free service in which they can check Motostar's pricing and inventory as well as their own accounts, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, according to Mr. Bova.
Instantaneous access is the key advantage to the new system, he said. “Our dealers can turn on a light and see what our pricing and selection are while talking to a customer,” he said. He couldn't say offhand the number in Motostar's dealer base but did say “a tremendous amount” of dealers are online in the East.
The same is not true of rural dealers in the South and Southwest, noted Ron Thrasher, vice president of Burggraf Tire Corp., a Quapaw, Okla.-based distributor. Of more than 800 dealers in Burggraf's dealer base, he said only about 100 or so have computers.
“It's habit more than anything,” said Mr. Thrasher, whose distributorship offers full online service including e-commerce and links to its vendors. “So many of our dealers value one-on-one contact with customers and distributors, which is why we still have an 800 number and representatives in the field.”
Lackey “Stepper” Sebastian Jr., owner of Lackey's Tire & Tow in Seagoville, Texas, about 15 miles from Dallas, is one of those dealers—like his fellow Texan dealer Mr. Zach—who values one-on-one contact. Not that he's against computers, mind you, but he's in no hurry to get one.
As far as computers go, Mr. Sebastian said, “The want-to is there, but the get-off-your-duff-and-do-it isn't.…Modernization is wonderful, and it makes things a lot easier. But when you get to the older dealers, you'd really have to have a son or daughter who says, 'Dad, this is something we can do for you.'”
A handshake and word of mouth is how Mr. Sebastian has always done business, he said, and he's not about to change now. “I like to look in a man's eye, and his body language tells me a lot.”