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DIGITAL SHOWROOM

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I recently found a black and white photograph of my grandfather from 1953 and, in the picture, he was standing in the showroom of his new tire and auto service shop in Scranton, Pa.

He and the showroom were polished and neat. My grandfather wore a suit and tie and the showroom was clean and well organized.

The pride in my grandfather's face was reflected in his showroom's layout. While working with my father at the same store over 50 years later, I could see the same pride in that showroom. I also learned the importance of its details and why it was a large part of the success of my family's business. Indeed, the showroom of a tire dealership or auto repair shop serves a similar purpose to a classroom in a school. The education of the customer in that showroom not only transfers knowledge but is a critical step in making the sale.

For many years my family has focused on educating customers and preparing the showroom to be the center for that education. Their showroom includes all the materials needed to deliver information to the consumer—including not just tires, but detailed information like placards describing features and benefits, technical information, warranty data and available specials. The salespeople are ready to provide reviews on the various products and comparisons among tires.

This approach is followed on auto services as well. Handouts on the benefits of a fuel injection service are neatly stacked at the counter, and a brake pad and rotor are within reach to help explain why brakes need to be replaced.

The combination of props, products and knowledge are available to customers to help them not just buy, but to match the right product and service to meet their needs. Making the consumer feel comfortable helps my family make sales and is instrumental to their success.

This level of service and knowledge is one reason independent tire and auto repair dealers have thrived over the years and why their customers are the most loyal in the industry.

We all want to be educated about our purchases and this applies to auto-related items more so than for many other types of purchases. Customers increasingly are being educated about their auto-related purchase online as opposed to in your showroom. This shift requires your business to adapt to get new customers and retain old ones.

Twenty years ago consumers shopping for brakes or tires followed a very different shopping process than they do today. Previous generations used the phone book and probably called three shops after realizing they needed brakes or new tires. Based on those calls they would visit a shop or two to learn more about what they needed and then make a purchase. (see “Traditional Tire and Service Buying Process” above.)

Today, however, more than 70 percent of consumers shopping for automotive-related products and services use a process called ROBO—Research Online, Buy Offline—where the research and education is occurring online. A recent study by Google revealed that, while e-commerce is growing fast, nine out of 10 purchases still occur at brick-and-mortar stores. That same white paper states: “If the last five years were about selling online, the next five years will be spent working out how to use online to influence the way customers spend money offline.” (“Influencing Offline - The New Digital Frontier,” Google, December 2011.)

The Internet is fueling a fundamental shift in the purchase process for tire and auto services, empowering the consumer to gain more information faster than ever before and much of this information gathering is happening online. While the fundamental steps in the shopping process remain the same, the activities and sources of information have changed drastically.

One of the biggest shifts is that education and research are moving online. That means the showroom experience needs to move online as well.

This shift in consumer behavior means you need to think differently about your dealership's or service shop's website and the data it provides. As in years past, the business that educates the consumer is likely to be the business that sells the consumer.

Various studies indicate online shoppers are looking for the following information online: consumer reviews, manufacturer rebates, product images, warranty data and product/service comparisons. How well is your website providing that information?

If we take my dad's approach to the showroom and apply it to a website, you need to replicate the following items digitally: product pictures, feature and benefit data, warranty information, manufacturer rebate info, consumer reviews and comparison shopping data. Similarly for auto services, a great website will provide visual aids, answers to commonly asked questions and descriptions of services to help make the sale.

A website without these items is like an empty showroom without products, selling aids or salespeople. You would not invite consumers into an empty showroom, and similarly, you should not invite customers to a website without critical information like consumer reviews, a tire fitment guide and the ability to compare products side-by-side.

The days of a website displaying only your dealership's name, address and phone number are over—consumers today demand much more from websites. For an effective showroom experience, lots of easy-to-understand information is best, and the same holds true for your website. Having more information than your competition may give you the edge that makes the sale. (See graphic above.)

The good news about the tire and auto service business is that it is hard to buy tires online—and the Internet is never going to replace your brakes or give your car an oil change.

Even in industries like publishing that lend themselves to e-commerce, brick-and-mortar retail is still the No. 1 sales channel, according to a 2012 article in the New York Post. This fact, however, does not mean that you can pursue business as usual. Consumer habits are certainly changing and we need to change with them.

If your customers want to get educated online, move your showroom online as well. Embracing this trend can be a critical advantage over your competition, while ignoring it could cost you your best customers.



Patrick Sandone is the founder and president of Net Driven, a software-as-a-service technology firm. He also has worked with Monitor Clipper Partners in Boston and Paris as a venture capitalist, and the Investment Banking firm of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette in New York. Net Driven's mission is “to drive superior results for the automotive industry by producing distinctive Internet solutions.” Its three-part Internet marketing system is designed to drive traffic, leads and sales. The company serves more than 3,500 automotive businesses including tire dealers, repair shops and distributors. Its website is www.netdriven.com.
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