WHITEVILLE, N.C.Despite years of experience operating a website to promote its business, Black's Tire & Auto Service is still grappling with whether to post tire prices online.
While the Whiteville-based dealership currently doesn't post prices, it did hire a full-time Internet salesman nearly a year ago to handle the daily online requests for price quotes and other questions from potential customers who visit the website.
We have experimented with several different formatswith putting our prices online, having a live shopping cart, taking our prices down from online, putting them back up, taking them back down again, letting our individual store managers handle their own quote requests and sales, and moving to a dedicated individual to handle all of our company stores' quote requests, said Ryan Benton, who helps his father Ricky Benton run the 37-store dealership in the Carolinas.
Currently we have a very experienced tire salesman who had been in the business all his life, Ryan Benton said. We're doing that because what we found is that consumers like to shop around but they really like that confidence that they're making the right decision by having a real person to communicate with, with expertise to make sure they're making the right decisionsuch as having the right speed rating, having the right load range, having the correct tread design for their driving conditions.
Greg Hall, Black's full-time Internet sales manager, spends his workday calling back customers who requested a quote on the company's website. He handles them individually because every customer has different needs, Mr. Benton said.
Mr. Hall is a busy man. He figures he makes 30 to 50 calls a day responding to emails and price quote requests. One phone call can last 15-20 minutes if it involves multiple price quotes or tire selection advice.
Email inquiries are sent to Black's Tire throughout the workday, but most are delivered over-night so that there are around 30 emails waiting for Mr. Hall's response when he comes to the office in the morning.
People are looking (online) after they get home and after second shift when they get off at 12 a.m. You'd be surprised at some of the times I see. They sent (emails) through at 12:30 at night and 2 in the morning.... But that's their time to do it. It suits me alright. It gives me a job, Mr. Hall said.
We see it as getting a little more personal attention. That's the way we like to look at it. You can answer some of the questions they have and give them other options, if they just clicked on a particular one, Mr. Hall said. A lot of times, even though there are a lot of other options, they may not need what they clicked on. So we try to help in that way.
Mr. Benton said it has been absolutely beneficial having a dedicated Internet salesperson.
Before we had a dedicated person to do it, (the customer) may or may not have been handled properly, he said.
A lot of the feedback from the customers we get that do close, really seem to appreciate that human contact and someone that cares enough about them to follow up and make sure they're making the right decision and getting the products they're satisfied with, Mr. Benton said.
We may need to add another person. We may need to add a whole department. Who knows?
Mr. Hall sees his job as a virtual service desk for the dealership.
I respond to all the emails for tires and the mechanic part of it. If they need air conditioner work or brake work or alignments, I respond to all of it, he said.
A lot of times they're asking for information, Mr. Hall said. Most people are not familiar with tires. It's just not their forte.... They're needing quotes for tires for their cars and a lot of times (the tire type) they send in is not what they really need and so they are appreciative of the help.
The No. 1 incentive for online customers to follow through and buy tires from the dealership is the price he quotes, Mr. Hall said, noting people will let him know if they are not happy with the price quote.
A lot of times they'll say, 'Costco has it for this amount, can you match that?' or 'Sears has them for this, can you match that?'
So we have a price-match guarantee and we certainly try to do that at all costs. We don't want to lose anything but we certainly try to price match whoever's out there, Mr. Hall said.
The dealership has had mixed feelings about posting its prices on the Internet, according to Mr. Benton. A couple of years ago, Black's Tire decided to remove prices on its website due to pricing fluctuations in the tire market.
I feel a lot of times there are price shoppers that are going online and if we have the opportunity to engage with them and make contact with them, then we feel like we have a better shot at selling them on our service, on our locations, on our total overall value proposition, he said in defense of posting prices.
We're very happy with the people that actually do request a quote and then end up coming into our stores. What we're uncertain about is how many people aren't looking for the quote. That's the caveat. That's the Catch-22. So we may put prices on tomorrow and experiment with that for awhile, he said.
The dealership hasn't figured out an effective way to track how many online queries result in an actual sale. Mr. Benton thinks it's a 90-percent conversion rate, but Mr. Hall said he believes the rate is closer to 50 or 60 percent.
Mr. Benton said Black's Tire has seen a fairly substantial uptick in online shopping on its website, year over year. But the dealership continues to tweak its website to attract customers who visit the site but don't request a quote.
I struggle on a daily basis wondering if we are doing it the right way. By no means do I feel like we have it figured out. You can quote me on that, Mr. Benton said.
Our biggest concern is that we have good traffic on our tire catalog and good traffic with our quote request forms and our salesman and car expert has a great conversion on the quotes that he handles in closing the sale.
However, my fear is we really don't know at this point how many people are not engaging in that process and bouncing off to a Tire Rack or a Discount Tire Direct or any other Wal-Marts, Sam's Clubs, Costcos, any other of the myriad of tire buying opportunities there are, he said.
So we will continue to explore and, like every other aspect of our business, it's constantly changing. So we need to stay engaged with the process and evaluate how we do it and continue to make changes in the right direction, Mr. Benton said.
He noted that some online customers come to realize it can be better to shop locally.
Many times we've experienced folks that come into our stores that have purchased tires online and had them direct shipped and brought them to us to install. And they have had a less satisfying experience than just dealing with us directly and speaking to someone local that could assist them if they were experiencing any problems or needed any advice and support and service, he said.
I think every tire dealer out there needs to have an online presence and needs to have some sort of strategy for how they're dealing with the online shopping consumer, he said.
In fact, we are also a wholesale distributor and we're often working with our local independent owner-operators in trying to help them develop a strategy to best handle their local consumers. Every company is structured a little bit differently therefore everybody's strategy may be a little different.
He added that an online strategy is absolutely a trial-and-error process.
To reach this reporter: [email protected]; 330-865-6127. Twitter: @kmccarr