What types of product shortages have you experienced?
We've seen shortages on certain tire SKUs, certain models and from certain manufacturers. But it's sort of like Wack-A-Mole: a certain SKU is out of stock and a month or two later that one is in stock but a different one is out of stock. We've seen that with several of our tire manufacturers.
We've also seen it across oil filters and brake rotors. I guess one of the great things about our industry is with so many different providers out there, whether it's different tire manufacturers, different distributors and all the different auto parts distributors out there, there's always somebody who's got what we need. So the product shortages really have not hampered our business at all.
What kind of trends are you seeing in the marketplace?
The biggest thing we continue to see is finding and developing technicians. That, in my opinion, is the mega-trend within our industry. How do we attract more people to the industry and then how do we provide them the career path and the training and the development to make it a career?
We spend probably as much or more time on that topic than we do anything related to consumers or products or anything like that. So we've improved compensation, we've improved our benefit offerings, we've signed up with a professional technician training program that we're offering this year.
In 2021 we'll be offering 18 or 20 different sessions all taught by master-level technicians and a range of classes from entry level to undercar to advanced diagnostics.
Those are some of the things that our people have told us they'd like to see us do more of is give them opportunities to advance their own knowledge and education so they can advance their career and stay with VIP and be able to earn more money and provide better service to our customers.
So that's the megatrend that we're focused on right now is developing technicians and providing them the tools and resources and career paths to make that their career path.
The number of employees that leave VIP each year has continued to trend down. Every year we've seen that number reduced and we've also, in just the last two months, I think we've had 10 of our technicians achieve ASE Master Technician status. … We pay for all the study guides, we pay for all the test fees and everything so there is no expense for one of our associates to get that education and to get those certifications. So we've seen a lot of our technicians take advantage of that this year.
Did you implement contactless services, such as text-to-pay, during the height of the pandemic?
We were already in the middle of a major point-of-sale software implementation, which we went live with in October. So that new point-of-sale system that we implemented has the ability for text-to-pay and contactless service.
We were able to leverage the technology to offer that to our customers and we definitely had customers who took advantage of that. We promoted that. We allowed people, if they wanted, to stay in their vehicles and do things over the phone and online. We now have a technology system that supports all that.
Most customers still want to see you face to face. We don't force anybody to use that kind of technology. Some people would prefer it, especially during the pandemic, and it seemed it was a little more popular than normal.
And even today, we have some people who use the website and text-to-pay, but when I'm at the stores, a vast majority of our customers still want to come in and talk to people face to face.
Given the fact we operate primarily in smaller towns — we have only one or two stores that are in what I would call an urban or big city environment and it might be different there — but the vast majority of our customers still park their cars and come in and they want to see their service professional face to face.