After 13 years of evaluating the service and sales techniques of thousands of tire and auto dealerships, Steve Brown maintains that a showroom is a store's most critical selling point.
When two auto repair shops are vying for a customer's business, showroom appearance and overall cleanliness really can differentiate one store from another, especially when pricing and service offerings are equal.
``It's kind of like the icing on the cake,'' he told Tire Business. ``The consumer experience, the condition of the facility, my showroom setup, all those kinds of experiential elements really are the icing on the core cake.''
Mr. Brown, 48, owns S.H. Brown Co. of Rochester, an ``automotive forensic research'' firm that has critiqued auto dealerships for DaimlerChrysler A.G. and Ford Motor Co. and has conducted aftermarket studies for dealer associations and groups. Since founding his company in 1991, Mr. Brown has probed and analyzed more than 10,000 dealerships and has found that tire company-owned stores offering auto service and national warranties have changed the way independent dealers must go to business.
To compete in the auto repair industry, first impressions do matter for tire dealers.
``I think the showroom for tire stores has more to do with dealer marketing positions than anything else,'' he said. ``What I mean by that is, tire stores in many cases are in a unique position between the (auto) dealer experience and the independent repair shop experience.''
Mr. Brown and his employees regularly make covert visits to dealerships posing as potential customers to investigate how well an aftermarket company is serving its customers. His research is collected for car manufacturers, parts suppliers and other aftermarket companies for the purpose of improving business conditions across the automotive industry.
Among the firm's achievements was receiving an exclusive contract this year from DaimlerChrysler to audit 2,500 of its Five Star dealerships.
S.H. Brown employs 22 and expects gross sales of $2.5 million this year.
Prior to founding his company, Mr. Brown spent 10 years with D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles where he handled Pontiac and Cadillac advertising accounts.
Based on what he's seen, Mr. Brown advises tire dealers to give their businesses a ``reality check'' to see if their stores truly are customer friendly. That reality check includes asking if the store is functional and efficient:
* Does the organization of the store make it easy for customers to shop?
* Is the environment safe?
* Is it ``sexy''?
On the issue of what makes a store sexy, Mr. Brown emphasized that he isn't referring to sexual appeal but rather anything that catches a customer's attention and makes them say ``wow.''
In the South, a tire dealer may have a large NASCAR display in its showroom to appeal to the locals' enthusiasm for racing. A store Mr. Brown visited in Huntington Beach, Calif., used a surfing motif to jazz up its showroom.
``I was in a store one time where a guy was an amateur train guy,'' he recalled. ``He had a wonderful little train set up in the store that went around the top of the store.... It caught people's attention and it was interesting. That's kind of sexy and kind of fun.''
Tire dealers also need to create an environment within their store that's clean and informs the consumers about products and services, Mr. Brown explained. That means keeping a non-cluttered showroom, having a comfortable waiting area and using what he called effective point-of-sale (POS) materials.
``When you see a lot of these pre-built displays, with light up this and light up that, and they show you about braking systems, those are all wonderful; they do a good job,'' he said. ``But it doesn't necessarily have to be that elaborate or expensive, as much as it has to be educational.''
Simple, neat and clean wall posters that graphically describe a shop's services are a big selling feature and are informative for customers waiting for their vehicles, Mr. Brown said. However, he warned that he has seen many POS displays that were poorly thought out and he advised tire dealers to consider what they want to accomplish with POS materials. Then sketch it out.
``I want to see (POS materials) in an organized format. I want my showroom to be able to flow and people to feel comfortable in it,'' Mr. Brown said.
``I don't want to crowd the door and I don't want to crowd the exits. I don't want to block vision. I want people to be able to see their vehicles when they're being worked on if that's set up in my showroom.''
When Mr. Brown has been asked by auto dealers for advice on revamping their showrooms, he said he often asks them to consider their business objectives and how that meshes with customers' experiences.
His firm often tries to marry a dealer's business policies with what a customer can see inside the store.
``Sit down as a customer would in your own store,'' he advised.
``Take a customer chair in your lounge and look at your showroom. How are we set up? What's good, what's bad about it? Check with the cleanliness and conditions issues.... Can I learn from that chair?
``Can I look around the showroom and see most of the things that are going on without having to get up and walk around?'' he continued.
Emphasizing that displays don't have to be expensive, Mr. Brown recalled a dealer who almost spent $10,000 on a manufacturer's POS displays but instead implemented an idea Mr. Brown gave him that cost $200.
``I said to him, `Didn't I just pass a farm and feed store a couple miles down the road? Why don't you just go and buy some of that fencing they've got, take it back to the body shop and paint it and put it up?''' Mr. Brown said of his conversation.
Emphasizing that a dealer can change his or her business's look with cost-effective ideas, Mr. Brown said dealers shouldn't be afraid to ask people they trust for opinions on their showrooms.
``Sometimes you don't always know what's best,'' he said.
``Get some other opinions. You know the core elements of your business. You know the cake.
``But when it comes to the icing, get some other opinions....
``It's not bad to not know. What's bad is to not know and not ask.''