VIP Parts, Tire & Service President and CEO John Quirk believes customers want to do business with a dealership that offers them fair treatment, fair prices and repairs their vehicles quickly and correctly the first time.
Armed with this common-sense approach, he has kept busy investing in VIP and repositioning it in the New England market as a quality, value brand. After some tough self-evaluation about three years ago, he changed the dealership's name from VIP Discount Auto Centers Inc. to reflect this repositioning.
``We've actually spent a lot of time on this whole issue over the last few years,'' Mr. Quirk told Tire Business. ``It was pretty evident that the marketplace knew that VIP was a discount auto parts supplier, and many customers didn't realize we were in the service business. The ones who knew we were in it thought we were pretty poor at it.''
The name change, which highlighted VIP's three major revenue streams, was a first step. Mr. Quirk said he and his team have devoted much time and energy towards upgrading the dealership's services, products, equipment and the caliber of its technicians and salespeople.
``With any brand repositioning, you try to look within the company as well as outside and listen to customers in the marketplace'' as well as get all personnel on board with it, he said.
To improve its service, VIP two years ago rolled out a safety check and tire installation procedure called Speed Lane, which is now standard in all its stores. Mr. Quirk said he believes Speed Lane has vastly reduced his employee turnover because it gives entry-level techs the opportunity to work their way up in the chain through hands-on learning and certification testing.
``Customers don't want to see new people in the store every time they come in,'' he said. ``They want to feel that they can connect on a one-to-one basis with the service manager and recognize the technicians that are working on their cars, and that builds the trust.''
VIP also does a ``fairly decent business'' in supplying car dealerships, he said. VIP has staff dedicated to this channel and meets with auto dealers regularly to develop a ``well-rounded service strategy'' for their tire business that encompasses more than just pricing, he said.
That strategy includes motivated service writers trained to know the right product screen, having the right inventory and managing it, as well as point-of-sale materials. VIP also focuses on training car dealership technicians in tire work ``because if you don't get the technicians to support the program, it generally falls on its face,'' Mr. Quirk said.
He added that his employees work hard to show car dealers that VIP can do a better job in helping them generate profit from tire sales than a manufacturer-based program such as Ford Motor Co.'s Around-the-Wheel strategy.
Lewiston-based VIP continues to grow and now operates 57 stores. This year, the company opened newly constructed stores in Billerica, Mass., and Bath, Maine. It renovated a 20,000-sq.-ft. outlet in Watertown, Mass., and added equipment, personnel and trucks to its commercial operation in Westborough, Mass.
Three stores are slated to open in 2006-one in Hillsborough, N.H., in May; one in Gorham, Maine, in June; and one in Kennebunk, Maine, in July. A store in Scarborough, Maine, is being renovated and slated to reopen March 1, Mr. Quirk said. There are also two or three more expansion sites Mr. Quirk said he hopes will materialize in 2006 but declined to name them since agreements for those locations have not been reached yet.
VIP operates in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire, though Mr. Quirk is looking at expansion sites in Rhode Island and Vermont.
The dealership is projected to post 2005 sales of $115 million, a 9.5-percent jump from 2004. Auto service sales in 2005 are up 18 percent. VIP carries BFGoodrich, Michelin, Uniroyal, Continental, General, Bridgestone, Firestone, Multi-Mile, Pirelli and Yokohama brands.
Like many tire dealers, Mr. Quirk admitted he's concerned about rising tire prices and believes the increases are not going to hold much longer because of consumer concern over gas prices. ``We've passed (tire price hikes) on but I think at some point you're going to see the market finally say, `Enough is enough.' I think it's here, if not here, then in the next quarter or so,'' he said.
Mr. Quirk said VIP is encouraging its customers to come in regularly for tire pressure checks, rotations and alignments to get the longest wear out of their tires. The dealership also is offering a free, winter maintenance special that includes a 14-point inspection, tire pressure checks and rotations in the hopes that customers will return for big-ticket repairs.