AKRON (March 14, 2005) — 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:
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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Call it a “pleasant predicament.” You could say Garcia Tire Service Inc. in Oklahoma City advertises once in a while—whether it needs to or not.
“We don't do a lot of advertising,” owner Sammy Garcia admitted. “We normally have as much work as we can possibly do.”
It's the one-outlet commercial dealership's reputation that continues to bring in the gravy.
“About every two or three years we do a little radio advertising, just to keep our name out there. Other than that, it's just basically word of mouth,” he said. “We've been around for 35 years and do a lot of business locally, and I guess we've been blessed by a good following.”
The company, which operates three service trucks, rings up annual sales of $3.5 million to $4 million while catering to the road and building construction industries, as well as servicing small off-road equipment.
While passenger and light truck tire sales make up roughly 25 percent of Garcia Tire's commerce, Mr. Garcia said the retail market in Oklahoma City is crowded with competitors—Hibdon Tire, Big O Tire and Firestone Mastercare stores, to name a few. So he never runs any special promos for that segment of his business.
The formula that keeps the place hopping is simple: the economy. “If it's good and we've got people out there workin', they're tearin' up stuff,” Mr. Garcia said. “We do a lot of truck and off-road business—backhoes, Bobcats. So I don't have to do a lot of promoting.
“You give the service, you get the business.”
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“Tires are a necessity only when they're needed…you can have the best promotion in the world, but if people don't need tires, they're not going to buy.”
A simple philosophy, but Jim Uliano, vice president of marketing for Town Fair Tire Centers Inc., based in East Haven, Conn., swears to his statement's veracity. The company, ranked by Tire Business as among the nation's top dozen retail dealerships, has flown under the radar for years, preferring to keep a low profile.
Don't expect a lot of gimmicky promos. Town Fair's approach, according to Mr. Uliano, is to advertise every Sunday in the sports sections of 47 major newspapers where the dealership does business. It has 65 stores operating in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Neil Mellen is president.
Those ever-vigilant ads act “as our silent salesman,” he said. “It becomes almost a subliminal message that when they need tires, they'll look in the Sunday papers for our ads.”
Strictly a tire-related business—tires, alignments, custom wheels—rather than automotive service specialist, the dealership doesn't do special ad promos, concentrating instead on only what its tire manufacturer suppliers offer their dealers.
The company handles all major brands as well as some private labels. Its sales figures, Mr. Uliano said, are confidential.
In April, for instance, Michelin North America Inc. will have a free gas card promotion worth $50 with the purchase of four hoops. Town Fair will offer that, Mr. Uliano said. In the past, the tire maker had a promo tied to its BFGoodrich brand offering a backpack or an MP3 player. “We don't do anything above and beyond that,” he said.
Successful? “Yes and no,” he continued. “It might encourage a customer to buy four tires instead of two if they're getting a gas card. But we do things in our own very quiet way. We try to keep low-key and go about doing our business…on a day-to-day basis and not give away too many trade secrets.
“The margins on tires are decreasing and the prices keep escalating, so we don't try to spend any more money than we have to.”
But there have been at least some flubs promo-wise. Like a BFGoodrich offer of a backpack with a built-in radio—“for some reason, that didn't go over very well,” Mr. Uliano said.
“The public likes cash. The free gas card worked very well two years ago when Michelin had it, so they're bringing it back. They felt it had a strong response on that particular ad.”
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In a sea teeming with derivative marketers—all trying to milk the same hackneyed schemes—Stan's Automotive owner Stan Elmore prides himself on being, well, simply put: different.
There's not a lot of “typical” in the Lafayette, Colo., repair shop: a gleaming showroom with a latté/cappuccino bar; a soda fountain; filtered hot and cold water; an aquarium. Before you even enter, you'll notice that sign tacked onto a side of the building: “Free air 24 hours for your convenience.”
“We're in an ‘A' location, a community shop off a four-lane” with a lot of residential housing around, Mr. Elmore said. The free air sign—which has been up several years—is on the side of the building facing a credit union that easily stacks up cars four deep every day. Hundreds, thousands of cars a week. “And they notice us and that sign. That air sign is a warm, fuzzy.”
Although Stan's is not open on Saturdays or Sundays, the parking lot on weekends is often crowded with people airing up boat trailer tires, motor homes, inflatable kids toys, etc. It says to the public, “Hey, here's a place that's not charging me a half-a-buck to fill up my tires,” he said. That type of publicity goes a long way toward building a trustworthy reputation in a growing community.
Tires actually only account for about 10 percent of Stan's overall $2 million in annual sales. The shop started as a tire store in the 1970s but focuses more on the automotive side.
While customer referrals are the shop's bread-and-butter getter, its second biggest clientele draw is a new resident direct-marketing program from Moving Targets, a Perkasie, Pa.-based firm. Mr. Elmore has “consistently”—that's the key word—used the service since about 1994. It allows him to target new move-ins with a letter he writes introducing them to the shop. At the bottom is a certificate for a free oil change.
“It's a ‘welcome to the community' kind of deal,” he said. And the beauty of that is, he can target potential customers, for instance, by the area they're moving into differentiated by zip code or by income. He can knock out every household below a $40,000 per year income, for example. “We're in a good growth area, so we send out about 400 of those welcomes a month.”
If Mr. Elmore is in the shop and one of those targeted customers comes in, “my service consultants flag me. I always shake their hand, thank them for coming in, give them a shop tour. It gives us an opportunity to see if we're a fit for each other.”
And the typical comment he often hears: “This isn't your average automotive store.”
“And we don't want to be the average automotive store,” he emphasized.
For years the company also has used software allowing it to track every new customer on what marketing source brought them in. “It's great information,” Mr. Elmore said. “It lets you use your money where you should be using your money instead of just throwing it at marketing, like 90 percent of the dealers out there do.”
Way, way down on the dealership's list of tools to grab customers are Yellow Pages ads—Mr. Elmore only buys a small three-quarter-inch ad.
Stan's has been in business 31 years and “there's not much I haven't tried,” he continued. “I'm not the typical marketer and most of the typical marketing stuff—like newspaper ads, your company's name on grocery carts and hundreds of other promos like that—I just don't do it.”
What he most often hears from many new customers is that before they've actually visited Stan's, they've already heard about the shop countless times…in local cable TV ads the shop runs, from new neighbors, the teller at the bank, the local dentist who has been a customer for years. They tell Mr. Elmore: “By the time I got your letter in the mail, I'd heard about you three or four times and figured I've got to go there.”
“You want those multiple hits, especially for new people,” he added.
That, and “continually marketing out of our database to our regular customers, including regular maintenance reminders every 60 to 90 days…. That's so easy, yet a lot of people don't do it. Sometimes people need a regular reminder, just like the dentist does to get you in for the next cleaning.
“You know, it works if you just get a system going and stick with it. Like Moving Targets—don't just do it for three or four months and give up. Do it at least six months to a year…because it won't instantly make people come in your door.”
About three months ago Mr. Elmore branched out into a new venture, what he refers to as a “power sports” store. He purchased a motorcycle/ATV business in Longmont, Colo., housed in a 16,000-sq.-ft. building with a large showroom. The location, at the corner of an interstate junction, has service, sales and parts departments and, he said, “is a lot like running a car dealership.”
He plans to “take the Stan's Automotive concept and translate it to another industry.”
Mr. Elmore calls himself a “proactive rather than reactive marketer.” He prefers to consistently and systematically work at building his customer base rather than spending extra money to react to a downturn in business. And, he advises, being active in your local civic club, chamber of commerce, and being a force in your community goes a long way. That, too, is marketing.
“But you have to do it for the right reasons, and help the community out because it's from the heart…. The return is automatic.”