Those who live by the clock may very well end up playing-and paying-by the clock.
Kind of like performing on the edge of a cliff-that's what Conrad's Total Car Care and Tire Centers' latest enticement is all about. It's a move to get busy, oftentimes frazzled tire-buying customers in and out of the dealership's 30 outlets as quickly as possible. One slip up, and the company's loss is a customer's gain. A 20-buck gain.
If he's at all worried about the ``four tires in 30 minutes or less'' strategy, General Manager Dominic Umek isn't showing it. Based on tried-and-true experience, the growing Cleveland-based, family-owned dealership doesn't think it'll have any problem keeping the bays humming. The ``Conrad's Tire Express'' plan is, Mr. Umek said, simply ``a commitment to the customer for convenience. We recognize that in today's world there are many dual-income families with both parents working. With the hours they work and the hectic lives they lead, it's an extreme inconvenience to have their vehicle serviced. So we're trying to make it as convenient for them as we possibly can.''
>From writing up the invoice to adios and out the door, the company is guaranteeing four tire installations in 30 minutes or less...with certain qualifiers. The order must use product from stock; some applications are excluded from the offer-such as extended mobility tires, non-original equipment-type custom wheels and vehicles larger than 1 ton.
``Ninety-five percent of the installations we do fall within that `four in 30' guarantee,'' he added.
And if Conrad's loses the battle with ol' Father Time?
The customer gets $20 off the invoice-``whether we're one minute late or 10 or 20 minutes late,'' Mr. Umek explained.
That hasn't happened yet. At least not at a Conrad's outlet in North Royalton, a Cleveland suburb, where Store Leader Joseph Faust told Tire Business his techs have kept up the pace and the store has not yet made a payout. ``We've been close a few times, though,'' he admitted.
A potential wrinkle in Conrad's carefully conceived plan, however, could prove to be tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS). ``Most every application will eventually have (TPMS units),'' he acknowledged, ``so I don't think we can keep those installations outside the 30-minute guarantee. It remains to be seen what the volume and impact will have. I guess we'll have to experience it and see how much conflict there is.
``Certainly it'll have some impact in terms of inventory readiness to address those issues, so we're going to take a wait-and-see attitude towards (TPMS).''
Still, monitors or not, ``that obviously doesn't change the consumer's desire for convenience,'' Mr. Umek continued. ``We'll have to commit ourselves to finding a way to overcome that (TPMS) obstacle. I think the market and procedures and process are always changing, always having to evolve. There's always some challenge you need to address and adjust to, so TPMS may be one in the future.''
The future holds at least the specter of continued growth for Conrad's. In May the dealership added three stores through acquisition of a Goodyear-affiliated chain, Painesville Discount Tire & Auto Service Inc., which operated in the Concord, Painesville and Ashtabula markets outside the Cleveland metropolitan area. Like Conrad's, that dealership also relied on sales of the Goodyear, Dunlop and Republic brands, with a heavy emphasis on service vs. tires.
``They operated very similar to a Goodyear-format store, which is our heritage,'' Mr. Umek told Tire Business, ``so it was an easy transition'' based upon layout of the facility, equipment, and the ``products and services that dealership's customers were used to receiving.''
Prior to the buyout, Conrad's-which also operates a wholesale unit-had a relationship with Painesville Discount Tire as a wholesale provider of auto parts and tires. So when the dealership's owner decided to retire and didn't have an heir-apparent, Mr. Umek said, the acquisition ``was an easy conversation to have'' with them.
He said Conrad's has been in a growth mode the last few years, going from 23 stores in 2003 to its current 30-three stores built from the ground up and four (including one in 2004) added by acquisition.
``We don't have a specific objective for store count by a particular time,'' he said, ``but we'll grow as it makes sense for us in terms of a profitable growth mindset.''
Despite slight declines in population in the Northeast Ohio corridor in which Conrad's operates, Mr. Umek and John Turk, the company's president and CEO, still see prospects for expansion. ``We've not gotten to a mature store count yet,'' Mr. Umek said, ``and new opportunities come from urban sprawl.''
Business in 2005 has been impacted somewhat by the overall state of the economy and continuing skyrocketing fuel prices, which have been responsible for the dealership's ``more modest growth'' this year compared with recent years. ``But we're generally happy with how things are going,'' he said, calling himself an ``eternal optimist.''
But it's the fuel wild card that has wreaked havoc with Conrad's retail customers. ``We see it impacting the discretionary purchases that our customers make-specifically on the maintenance side of the business. If they can procrastinate and push off a repair that's not a breakdown,'' Mr. Umek said, ``we're having many more customers interested in deferring maintenance repairs until they need to be done, or until things turn a little better for them economically and they have more discretionary dollars.''
The company believes its strength lies in ``our responsibility to be a consultant to the customer,'' he said. ``The customer needs to make the decision. We're not really here to sell them anything. As professionals our job is to inspect the vehicle and report to the customer and advise them on the priorities of what needs immediate attention and what they can put off.
``We also make customers aware of any financing options they have.''
Due, in part, to the economy, he said Conrad's has seen a higher percentage of sales put on credit cards and many customers taking advantage of 90 or 180 days same-as-cash options. ``When dealing with a customer's limited amount of expendable dollars, we're not going to misrepresent that a maintenance is a need when it isn't. Obviously you don't want to force the issue at all.
``We're in it for the long haul. We've been in business for 36 years and are continuing to focus on the next 36.''
He said the company's belief is ``if we honestly and accurately counsel the customer on their vehicle, if we've demonstrated our character and competency, when those maintenance issues become needs and when the customer's financial situation improves, we'll be in the position to get that business.''
At some point those deferred maintenance issues-like brakes, tires-can be put off only for so long.
Blame continuing improvements in vehicle quality for changing the dynamics of the repair business. Like at most tire dealerships and repair shops, vehicles showing up at the eight or so service bays in each Conrad's outlet are growing a little long in the tooth. The median age of cars and light trucks in the U.S., according to R.L. Polk Co., increased to 8.9 years for cars and 6.4 years for light trucks last year.
``They're not breaking down as much as they once did,'' Mr. Umek said. ``Components' life cycles are extremely long.''
However, as the recent flood of car makers' ``employee pricing'' deals on new vehicles dry up, he sees opportunities arising for repair shops. Conrad's service-to-tire sales ratio is 60-40. It employs 262, including 95 counter/sales personnel and 158 service technicians.
The dealership is about halfway through a three- to four-year process of modernizing and re-imaging its showrooms. The new look is very ``Conrad's brand''-meaning a minimum amount of manufacturers' point-of-sale materials, Mr. Umek explained.
All tire center, wall graphics and signs ``are reflective of the Conrad brand. We're very, very focused on showcasing our very broad selection of tires and have many units on display by category.''
The showrooms themselves-with wood tones, ceramic tile flooring, updated furniture and fixtures-have a look and feel that's ``a warmer, more welcoming environment for customers,'' Mr. Umek said.
And that's meant to appeal to women patrons, since the automotive industry is ``skewing toward female decision makers being nearly equal to male decision makers'' when it comes to shopping for auto service, he noted. ``We wanted our stores more inviting for that clientele.''
Getting those customers in and keeping them, though, remains the age-old challenge, especially with continued encroachment from car dealerships selling tires and pushing vehicle maintenance.
``The car makers are spending tremendous amounts of dollars educating consumers that they can take care of their tire needs as well,'' he said. ``Ford is the leader. Toyota is coming on aggressively.
``But all the manufacturers are concentrating on keeping their customers in their service bays.
``It's made a crowded field even more crowded, along with the wholesale clubs and big box stores,'' he said. ``It seems like everybody wants to sell tires. And everyone has the same brands and the `best' price.''