PORTLAND, Ore. — As computer programmers go, Steve Helstrom is quite an anomaly. In fact, he might be the only software expert whose hardware experience includes wrenches, lug nuts and rims.
That's one of the reasons why Mr. Helstrom, director of information technology and operations at Point S Tire & Automotive Service, is heading one of the most ambitious technological revolutions in the independent dealer cooperative's four-year history.
Mr. Helstrom, along with a group of Point S leaders, the Technology Committee and other forward-thinking dealers within the group, are launching the All-Trac Platform, designed to grow the expanding digital marketplace.
• This article appears in the April 1 print edition of Tire Business.
The platform, rolled out during the annual Point S dealer meeting Feb. 14-17 in San Antonio, will provide online scheduling, reputation management, declined service management and other time-saving resources for tire dealers.
The system provides a complimentary set of tools — some of which members currently are paying separate vendors for — that gives customers the ability to research, buy and schedule tire or auto service before entering the dealership.
"A lot of our dealers ... feel like the customer is pushing too much when they start asking for online appointments and wanting to show up," Mr. Helstrom said. "We're trying to help them embrace this type of customer and make it easy as possible, take some pressure off of them when it comes to their entire digital process."
"I hope we can be a differentiator," Point S CEO Walter Lybeck said. "Everyone is making the push. The tire industry is significantly behind the curve in terms of embracing technology."
Mr. Helstrom, the man tasked with leading the charge, certainly has the street cred — or more appropriately, the garage cred — to help coordinate the project. He worked at his father's Goodyear store in Butte, Mont., while attending college, changing tires, fixing brakes, "doing all those kinds of things," he said.
"I never thought in million years, I would be still selling tires today, but here I am. I'm selling tires."
He refined the programming part of his resume during his previous job at Whalen Tire Inc., a family-owned and -operated dealership with a dozen locations in Montana and Washington. There, Mr. Helstrom began selling off old Whalen Tire inventory through eBay, years before Amazon and others entered the space.
As more people started going online, he got requests for more current stock. Mr. Helstrom said the last year he was there — around 2004, a year before he joined Point S — online sales were approaching $2.5 million, giving Whalen a virtual online monopoly selling ultra-high-performance tires in Montana.
"My boss got nervous when I ordered a container (of tires)," Mr. Helstrom said. "But when he saw them flying out the door, he said, 'Let's run with it.' "
And that's exactly what Point S is doing with the All-Trac Platform, being beta-tested by a handful of dealers.
The platform includes:
An online scheduler, one of the key components of the software. Customers can schedule service online, based on days/times provided by each shop;
Bay monitors that allow service advisers to schedule when cars are supposed to go into in the bays. This will be integrated with the TireSoft by FreedomSoft point-of-sale system being used by about half of the 200-plus Point S dealers in the U.S.
A vehicle inspection report system. Dealers can build individual reports for different types of vehicles. As a technician inspects the vehicle, using a tablet or shop desktop computer, he or she will be able to take pictures and/or video and get that inspection report to customers. These reports can help shops identify repeat customers or those new to the shop.
Real-time tracking. Mr. Helstrom calls this the "Domino's pizza of tires." Email and text messaging are built into the platform, allowing the customer to receive status updates on the car and then receive the inspection report once it's available.
Reputation management. The platform will email and/or text the customer when the work is complete, whether the customer uses the online portal or not. The system will ask the customer how the dealership did, asking for a rating from 1 to 5.
"I think we'll get more customers to actually engage with it if we don't ask for a big long review," Mr. Helstrom said.
If the customer rates the experience with 3 stars or fewer, the store is alerted immediately. If the customer rates the store with 4 or 5 stars, the system provides a link so that the customer can review the shop on Google.
"That's big for our stores," Mr. Helstrom said. "A lot of them don't know how to manage or how to deal with especially negative comments. Ultimately this gives us a platform that we can slowly integrate more and more pieces."
Mr. Helstrom said the majority of Point S stores are not using a system like this, especially taking online appointments or following up with customers. And some members, he said, are reluctant to show prices online, fearing they're sharing too much information with competitors. That, however, leads to mistrust from online customers, who believe the shop is trying to cheat them or hide higher prices.
"They're missing the boat in a lot of areas," Mr. Helstrom said. "The world is growing up around them, and we need to help them."
As many as a third of the Point S store owners were ready to sign up after learning about the platform during the dealer meeting. Components of the platform, particularly those that involve additional labor, will carry additional costs, Point S said.
Mr. Lybeck said the motivation behind the platform began with the need to be technologically more efficient.
"Our desire is to be able to provide services to members that make our company invaluable to independents. But also it gives the independents the capability of owning and controlling their own destiny when it comes to technology instead of being stuck with what other people provide them, that may or may not function," Mr. Lybeck said.
"It quickly became a lot bigger than that as we recognize the level of depth of need," he said.
"It became more of a customer interaction tool in a lot of ways. In our development phase, we ended up focusing on simplifying the process in the store and the shop and connecting it via communication to the new online customer that they're not accustomed to dealing with."
Point S plans to expand the dealer base for the platform by May 1, marketing it to customers soon thereafter. By year-end, all the pieces of the platform should be in place.
"The stores will see how they can improve efficiency ... and how to maximize their return on every car that comes through," Mr. Helstrom said. "... If we can show reduction in cost and improving of margins in stores, we'll get a huge adoption rate."
Mr. Helstrom is the connection, Mr. Lybeck said, between the Point S dealer and programmers.
"Steve speaks both languages," Mr. Lybeck said.
"I try to be the translator," Mr. Helstrom said. "I speak to the programmers and talk to the tire guys."
The long-term goal is to add more tools to the platform, such as providing a dashboard for members to benchmark how they're performing compared with other members.
"Our goal is not to control the customer or the margin of the stores," Mr. Lybeck said. "Our goal is to provide a link to connect the customer to the store in an efficient way."
He said other online organizations secure a customer, take a cut and don't look back.
"Our job is make sure we're profitable when we wholesale the tire," Mr. Lybeck said. "But to us it's a wholesale connection. It's about transferring the profit back to the member.
"We don't have an equity firm or a public entity or someone else trying to pull profits out of this organization or out of the retailer pocket. We're developing it for them to put profit back in their pocket."