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The Many Ways to Sell Tires Online

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The Many Ways to Sell Tires Online

It was more than two years ago when two tire dealers, in completely different markets more than 1,000 miles apart, made the same decision. Both were ready to boost their online presence.

In northeastern Oklahoma, Tate Boys Tire & Service was operating an “old-fashioned website” that was overdue for a makeover, says Jamie Schoenthaler, director of digital business. The company was ready to show its tire inventory, with pricing, online.

In Utah, Burt Brothers Tire & Service Inc. was looking to step it up a notch. They already had the capability for customers to request a quote for tires online, but Jeremy Burt, an owner and the operations and marketing manager, says Burt Brothers was ready to transition from quotes to online sales.

Both tire dealers ultimately chose the same tool: TireConnect Systems. But as is so often the case with independent tire dealers, they’ve both found a unique way forward. Even though they have access to the same bells and whistles, Tate Boys and Burt Brothers are using the platform in different ways. ‘We were afraid’ 

Tate Boys, based in Bartlesville, has seven locations surrounding Tulsa. In the last decade Tate Boys has joined the Bridgestone Affiliated Retailer Nationwide Network (BARNN), and in that time Schoenthaler says the tire dealership has volunteered itself to the tire maker as a guinea pig for new initiatives.

The company also asked Bridgestone for guidance on how other BARNN dealers were pricing tires online. 

That’s when Bridgestone introduced Tate Boys to Chance Harrington, director of business development, sales and marketing for TireConnect. Bridgestone bought the software company at the end of 2015, and Harrington, who was a partner to the platform’s founder, George Silagadze, is working to expand the Canada-born company in the U.S.

“(Chance) was able to put our minds at ease about pricing online,” says Schoenthaler. “We were afraid we were going to lose sales, and that customers would just price tires. We were afraid our services would be diluted.”

The TireConnect software is inserted into a tire dealer’s existing website. It culls the dealer’s in-stock inventory as well as what’s available from its distributors. After a consumer conducts a search — either by tire size, vehicle, or in the U.S. with a license plate number — the way the results appear is set by the dealer. There are three spots that highlight “top recommendations,” and below that is a larger list of tires. Harrington says dealers control what tires show up in the list, how they’re sorted, and what’s marked as a top recommendation. They can highlight certain brands, prioritize tires in their own inventory, and identify tires that are a best match in certain vehicle categories.

Dealers also have options on how to close the sale. If consumers want to shop and compare and then ask for more information from the dealer, they can do that. Or consumers can view their out-the-door price and request an appointment. Or they can start the sale online by requesting an appointment and paying a deposit on the tires.

Even though the platform is Bridgestone-owned, dealers don’t have to highlight or even include the company’s tires among its offerings — though the monthly fee for using TireConnect is discounted for dealers who mark the company’s tires as their “top recommendations.” Tire dealers who don’t sell Bridgestone or any of its brands can use TireConnect, too. Close to half of TireConnect’s dealers aren’t part of the BARNN.

“We’re like the Switzerland of the tire world,” says Harrington. “We have all brands.”

He says among the best selling points for dealers are that TireConnect doesn’t take consumers to another website for the shopping experience, or to close the sale.

“It’s part of the dealer’s website. It’s not redirecting them anywhere, which means all the money and effort they put into promoting their own website pays off. It’s great for Google search and AdWords because it’s a part of their site.”

Past, present and future

Of course, there’s more than one way to sell tires online. TireConnect is in an ever-crowded field of providers and platforms, and this article isn’t intended to be a list of every option. It would be impossible to create a list of every tool or widget created since Tire Rack Inc. pioneered online tire sales more than 20 years ago.

Brian Rhode, business development manager for TCS Technologies, a company that provides software and websites for tire dealers, offers a trip down memory lane of how the technology has evolved over the last two decades.

“In the latter part of the ’90s as the internet was beginning to grab hold of consumers, the independent tire dealer was well ahead of the competition if they just built a website with their basic business information listed.  Fast forward to the mid-2000s and that kind of website was no longer enough.

“Dealers had to start providing consumers with the ability to conduct the online research necessary to make an informed purchase decision. Tire websites began, both at the manufacturer and independent dealer level, offering tools to allow a consumer to search for the tires that would fit their vehicle.

“In more recent years, as consumers are looking for a more complete online shopping experience, tire dealers are now displaying their tire inventory and tire prices coupled with installation, taxes and fees for a complete out-the-door price.”

Rhode says TCS helps its dealers show their tire prices, and inventory, online. Both are possible due to partnerships and back-end technical integrations with tire distributors and wholesalers.

“We at TCS have seen more than half of our website customers utilizing distributor/wholesale integrations to show updated pricing and inventory to their consumers.”

One of the new players in the domestic online market is Tirescanner, which is launching in August in Florida and on schedule to have national coverage by the end of 2020. But Tirescanner comes with the brainpower and experience of Michael Welch, considered the pioneer of online tire sales in Europe. Welch started his first online tire business when he was 16, sold it in 1995, and started another in early 2000. That venture, Blackcircles.com, was acquired by Michelin Group in 2015. He’s also invested in online tire businesses in India and China.

Welch says he always envisioned bringing Blackcircles to the U.S. market, but those plans were interrupted by the sale to Michelin.

He says the top priority for Tirescanner “is to deliver the best online and offline customer service proposition in the market.” Long term, he wants to create a system that offers same-day tire installations nationwide.

To do that, Tirescanner is building a network of tire dealers. But rather than repeat the models of Tire Rack, Goodyear.com or MichelinMan.com, which pay a dealer a fee to install tires purchased on their platforms, shoppers on Tirescanner.com will buy tires from dealers’ inventories.

“Those units will count toward the programs that the retailer is part of. We want the volume to drive value for the retailer, and we don’t want to be in a position where we break the relationship between the supplier and the retailer, because we think that destroys value.”

Welch says, “We want to work with retailers where they set the price point. They know the margins they can sell for, and then we work together with them on that basis. And then in turn, we work with manufacturers to make sure that we’ve got the right brands listed, and the supply chain works.

“It is very much a collaboration. That’s what we built at Blackcircles.com, and that’s why today Blackcircles.com is the largest online retailer in Europe, and it certainly is the fastest growing because it has most of the characteristics of a really good brick-and-mortar retailer, but it just so happens to be an online-based business.”

But if tire dealers sell the tires and count those tires toward their purchasing agreements and programs with manufacturers, how does Tirescanner make money? It charges the dealer a commission for every sale — “a really modest commission.” It’s on a sliding scale, and Welch says it’s “an absolute fraction of what we would call the cost per acquisition to get a new customer.”Shoppers trust their salesman

In Helena, Mont., Nick Fox was eager to sell tires online. He thought it would be a gateway to steady sales increases at the two Point S tire dealerships he owns with his father, Bob Fox. They started showing their tires online two-and-a-half years ago, and then added the sales function about a year ago.

“It’s a very small portion of our business, which is surprising to me,” says Fox. “But for the average person there’s a lot of unknowns in tires. We have a lot of people who will bring in their cell phone or tablet and show us our website and point to what they want. We’re not seeing tons of purchases (online).

“A lot of people are still trusting the advice of the tire salesman.”

Some of those online inquiries could be converted if consumers had a way to ask questions while shopping online. Point S has created an after-hours (4-9 p.m.) online chat function for dealers. Fox says the bulk of his online sales have come in during the evening hours.

The chat team is trained to answer questions about products and schedule appointments, and they communicate as a representative of the specific store where the consumer is shopping. Fox says he hopes his stores’ service schedules are integrated into the system yet this year so they can take advantage of the new service.

The good thing is the online sales platform, which is available to other Point S dealers, is directing consumers to the store, and Fox says they’re brainstorming ways to market to the online crowd. One idea has been to offer a pick-up and delivery service within a certain distance. In Montana, where there’s not much traffic, he could see offering that to customers within a 15-mile radius. In congested cities he doesn’t think stores could offer it to such a large territory.

Giving customers the personal touch

Tate Boys expects online sales could be slow to grow in Oklahoma, too. That’s why it’s using TireConnect to show its inventory and pricing, but for now isn’t allowing consumers to close the sale online. “We’re not using that feature,” says Schoenthaler.

When its new website and online tire shopping feature was ready to go live, the company created a list of its community connections and polled those potential customers about their likelihood of buying tires online. It wasn’t a scientific poll, but they worked to include people of different ages, demographics and vehicle types.

“There are a couple folks who buy online and want to purchase online, but the vast majority, 80% to 85% of our customers that we polled, want to research and know what they’re getting into before they walk in the store,” says Schoenthaler. “We feel that our in-store experience is unmatched, and this allows our customer to have that personal touch.”

Five things to know about Burt Brothers’ online customers:

They don’t buy the cheapest tire.

They’re not last-minute shoppers. Most are scheduling installation a week ahead of time.

They’re open to upgrading their tire purchase.

They tack on additional automotive services to tire installation appointments

Established Burt Brothers customers are opting to shop online.

On the flip side of the online equation is Burt Brothers in Utah, which has taken consumer credit cards for online tire sales for the last two-plus years. Jeremy Burt sees the company’s online platform as another sales counter that’s open around the clock, 365 days a year.

He says the family-owned business partnered with TireConnect after looking at the options of building its own in-house platform. Burt says the cost of doing it yourself was “way more” expensive.

And on top of that, he likes the flexibility TireConnect offers. Even though Bridgestone is Burt Brothers’ biggest manufacturer partner — followed closely by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. — the tire dealer can sell and promote any brand of tire online. And when a consumer finds the tire he or she wants to purchase, the shopper makes a 5% down payment online.

“We’ve opted to do 5% because it still allows us a lot of flexibility in case the consumer got the data wrong. Plus we can also offer the Burt Brothers credit card, and an alignment, oil change or any other service work they might need.

“We start the sale process with the 5%. They know what they’ve paid and what their current total is. It’s a lot easier to get that alignment sold when they’re already expecting to pull that credit card again. If they’ve already paid $1,000 for tires, it’s much harder to sell that alignment.”

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The Burt Brothers team capitalizes on the time it spends conversing on the phone, or face-to-face, with the online tire buyer. They’ve moved an entry-level tire shopper into a better brand. Other times they’ve talked about a product that maybe the consumer overlooked, or one that’s a big step up and on special for only a few dollars more. When the consumer changes his or her mind, there’s no refund to process or paperwork to do. The down payment is simply applied to the new purchase.

“It gives us flexibility,” says Burt.

“There’s nothing better than waking up in the morning and checking your email and already having some tire sales started.”    ■ 

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