A penny for your thoughts? How about a flower bud for your patronage?
Tim Bell still finds it somewhat surprising that of all the promotions he's tried at the service shop he and his brother Steve own, the one that seems to bloom most prolifically is an annual spring maintenance package capped with a simple gift. Pushing it via a flyer, he ``lists what we're going to do for a certain price. And we offer the women customers two or three flowers with that.''
It's not like a dozen roses or a bouquet or anything. The co-owner of Bell's Automotive in Lynchburg, Va., simply buys a bucket of flowers from a local market, then divvies them out to the ladies, thanking them for patronizing the shop. ``They really appreciate that. I have a lot of women clientele,'' Mr. Bell acknowledged. ``I don't know what it is, but I have a lot of people in the area who trust me. That's a good thing, and it gets around.
``I guess I'm just easy to talk to....,'' he added.
Virginia has what he calls a ``pretty intense'' annual vehicle inspection mandate covering most everything on a vehicle. Sometimes, to attract new customers, he'll put out a flyer offering complimentary inspections.
Another tactic that has worked for the one-outlet dealership involves giving away oil changes as prizes in silent auctions conducted by several local universities and charities.
``I don't sell a lot of tires-probably only several hundred sets a year, and just as a service to my regular customers,'' Mr. Bell told Tire Business. His shop offers complete automotive maintenance and, he noted, ``the market around here is so competitive, with a lot of price shoppers in this area, that my regular customers would just as soon get everything done right here.''
Bell's Automotive participates in A-C Delco's ``Total Service Support (TSS)'' shop program, which is running a promo for a rebate of up to $200 on four shock absorbers.
The shop has fine-tuned a system whereby Mr. Bell can monitor his customer database on a daily basis, ascertaining from where customers come and how they've heard about the shop. ``And 85 percent of my business is word of mouth. My best advertisers are my customers.''
He's also found ``if I run a flyer in a newspaper, it usually will generate some business.''
The dealership offers coupons for maintenance repairs such as cooling system and transmission service. For the average $26 charge for an oil change, Mr. Bell will sometimes tack on an offer for customers to register to win a set of free tires ``up to a certain amount.''
Generally, though, he said he has chosen not to run Yellow Pages ads, discovering ``it is not a good advertisement for me.''
Instead, he regularly sends oil service and inspection reminders via bulk mail.
However, the biggest advertising disappointment for him has been radio ads. ``I spent a lot of money on it. I even ran a special,'' he recalled. ``Over a three-month period I never got a single customer out of it. That was very disappointing. So I said never again will I do radio advertising.''
Another iffy proposition is the Internet. Mr. Bell's shop is running ads on three Web sites, but he has found they've not been a big draw for customers-he's gotten a few, but not as many as anticipated. He's now evaluating whether to continue that effort.
But one basic tried-and-true philosophy still holds weight: ``I have very few comebacks,'' Mr. Bell said. ``If you do good work and take care of your customers, they'll generally come back.''
In a random sampling of dealerships across the country, Tire Business found promotions that work for some but don't make it out of the starting gate for others. The bottom line: Success usually depends on solid service-simply put, treating the customer right-and then regularly monitoring that customer base for future routine maintenance opportunities. Read on:
* * *
It's got to be more than just luck that Dave's Tire & Auto Repair in Canaan, Conn., keeps the service bays humming despite never pushing any special promotions to boost traffic. Actually, a lot has to do with location.
``We stay pretty busy all the time with just what we do,'' said David Lawroski, co-owner of the single-outlet retail dealership, raising his voice over the cacophonous whine of shop equipment in the background. ``We're in a small area off in the woods, up in the corner of Connecticut between Massachusetts and New York State. We don't really have any competitors.''
The company doesn't offer promos, though he admitted once in a while the shop will give free oil changes to good customers, ``but nothing from a separate advertisement.'' Why not? ``We're in an area where we don't make enough on service anyway,'' so why give it away, Mr. Lawroski explained.
* * *
Free? You want free?
Then perhaps Mr. Fox Tire Co. in Buffalo, N.Y., isn't the place for you.
Jordan Fox, co-owner with his brother Eric, said the dealership ``mostly offers coupons and things like that with vehicle inspections-but never really anything free.''
New York recently boosted prices on state-required vehicle inspections to $21 from $14, but Mr. Fox said the dealership will do the checkup for $6.99. Sometimes it will offer coupons for from $5 to one-half off the regular price to attract customers. That's always been a big draw for the company. For a while it charged $9.95 for oil changes, using the waste oil to heat its garages, but now the standard oil change rate is $19.95 for most cars.
``About 80 percent of our advertising budget goes to Yellow Pages ads,'' he said. ``We sell used tires, too, and have a coupon for tires that gives a price range from $10 up.''
Tires and wheels comprise 65-75 percent of Mr. Fox Tire's sales, along with what he called a ``complementary'' full auto service department. The company is direct with the Hankook brand but handles most majors including Michelin, Firestone and BFGoodrich as well as the Vogue private brand.
``We've done the `four-for-$99' tire promos, depending on size, or $129 plus mounting and balancing. Those actually didn't flop,'' Mr. Fox said, ``but they weren't as successful as oil change and inspection coupons.
``It's amazing. People saving $5 on a $15 sale-that's a big deal for them.''
Several years ago the dealership ran an ad in a newspaper for a ``weekend warehouse sale,'' discounting stock in every size. ``We were busier than usual, but that really wasn't worth the effort,'' he said. ``The coupons and phone book ads have been the most successful. We see one to five customers a day from them. That's pretty good.
``Even if they just come in for an inspection, at least it gets them in the door.''
* * *
With the price of gasoline continuing to soar across the country, you'd think any promo offering ``Free Gas'' would make customers beat a path to your door-unless you're a Mexican restaurant.
It has, in fact, helped Tire Source, an authorized Goodyear Gemini dealership with six outlets in northeast Ohio, including the Greater Akron area.
Paul Kanya, manager of the Medina, Ohio, store, said a lot of the advertising enticements the company fronts ``are actually promos offered by Goodyear. We don't personally go out and offer them,'' but rather, they're tied to a Goodyear credit card. That was the case with a recent ``free gas'' promotion. ``It brings some customers in, but it's more of a selling tool at the counter,'' he said.
``Goodyear put it on radio and TV. We utilize it more at the counter than anything. When we're making the tire sale, it can help clinch the deal.
``It definitely helps if somebody tells you you're getting 25 bucks in free gas. Even if you've got a competitor trying to beat you, you've still got an extra 25 bucks to play with. So it definitely helps.''
The dealership uses a punch card system for oil changes: Purchases of five oil changes at the regular $19.99 charge gets a customer five punches on the card, then a free oil change. ``They work well. It gets customers in here and they start becoming repeat customers because they want that...free oil change,'' Mr. Kanya told Tire Business. ``It opens up other possibilities for belts, hoses, things like that. It lets us keep an eye on their car and know what's coming up and what they need to do.''
Tire Source does ``quite a bit'' of co-op advertising with Goodyear, including putting out flyers and coupons, he added.