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Blazing a trail(er) in Massachusetts: All-American Retailing Contest winner took his expertise directly to customers with a mobile tire service station

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Blazing a trail(er) in Massachusetts:  All-American Retailing Contest winner took his expertise directly to customers with a mobile tire service station

Spencer Carruthers wasn't satisfied. His tire dealership, Kenwood Tire Co. Inc., had been a fixture in the small town of West Bridgewater, Mass., for decades and was making money.

But he wanted new customers. And he also wanted to promote his company on a broader scale.

Unfortunately, Carruthers was hampered by a small advertising budget. So he decided to take his message directly to customers by creating a mobile tire service station out of an old race car trailer.

The idea and its subsequent incarnations earned him top honors in the inaugural All-American Retailing Contest sponsored by American Car Care Centers and Modern Tire Dealer.

Carruthers, 39, grew up in England. During high school, he worked for large U.K.-based tire and service chain Kwik-Fit.

Kwik-Fit operated a fleet of mobile service vans that changed customers' tires where their cars were parked. The vans even performed on-site tune-ups and oil changes.

"I thought, 'Why don't we try that?'" he says.

In 2001, Carruthers drew up a budget and found a 24-foot trailer on-line. (He already had a Chevy Suburban with which to tow the unit.) He drove to nearby Boston and inspected the trailer -- which already was outfitted with a finished floor, work cabinets and a generator - and paid $12,000 for it.

His first move was to change the trailer's worn-out appearance. "I didn't have a firm plan as to what it was going to look like. It just had to be visually stimulating."

His main supplier at the time, Michelin North America Inc., came up with an appealing design and helped finance a new paint scheme.

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"There was still quite a bit of work to be done inside the trailer," says Carruthers, who proceeded to install some tire machines.

"I started making a business plan. People were supposed to call us and we'd dispatch the trailer."

He promoted the service through his Web site and also direct mail, but the idea didn't take.

Kenwood Tire's mobile tire service trailer only changed tires for three customers.

"We realized it wasn't going to work. To promote something like this you need serious clout. We didn't have the time or the funds.

"And I already had a business to run. Trying to get another business going... I couldn't do it. Moving to the next level was going to be hard."

The trailer sat idle until 2002, when he decided to convert the trailer into a mobile tire pressure checking unit. He took his new idea to Michelin, which came up with a concept called "Bib Tire Patrol" (based on the tiremaker's Bibendum mascot).

"We'd go to offices and check air pressure in parking lots. We have some big companies in this area. The air pressure issue was hot at the time." He solicited corporations by phone calls and letters. It was a hard sell to some firms. "To send somebody a letter, cold, saying, 'We're going to come to your place, we're going to check your tires and we're going to hold a lunch-time seminar on tire safety'... the concept was ahead of its time."

But Carruthers had some takers. He even received invitations from a number of companies.

He and his staff methodically walked up and down rows of vehicles and checked air pressure levels. Afterward, they left small cards on vehicle windows stating what their pressure was and what it should be.

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"There were a couple of people, to my surprise, who didn't want us to check their tires. I'd tell them, 'This is a free service.' Our aim was to (advertise) that we were Kenwood Tire, we were in West Bridgewater, and that we sold tires."

Carruthers also took the trailer to vocational schools, where he taught tire maintenance classes. On slow days, he'd promote the service by driving the trailer up and down a nearby freeway. "It was a marketing concept to get the word out."

By the end of 2002, he estimates that he and his staff had checked the air pressure on up to 2,000 vehicles.

"It felt good doing something for the community." Unfortunately, the service didn't pull many customers into his two outlets.

Undaunted, Carruthers began thinking about another concept for the trailer. "We always talked about capturing the performance market," he says. "The equipment I bought for the trailer was also state-of-the-art as far as performance stuff goes."

A teacher who worked at one of the vocational schools the trailer visited and was involved with a local car club approached him with a question. "He said, 'Have you ever thought about doing a car show? We'd love to have you guys show up with some tires and hang out.'

"I thought it wouldn't be a bad idea. I could fit 100 tires in the trailer. My equipment was so light it could be rolled in and out on a dolly."

Carruthers took his trailer to its first car show in late 2002. It was a hit. "We set up, folded out an awning and displayed some tires. Guys at car shows, if they see tires it's like bugs to a bug lamp. They come over and want to talk 'What do you think will fit my '66 Nova?' You can have a bunch of engine parts there, but tires are different. It's amazing.

"People had never seen this concept before. At the end of the show, all the vendors were packing up to leave. So here we were driving this huge trailer through the whole show at five miles an hour. You cannot buy that (kind of exposure)."

Soon other car show organizers began inviting the trailer to their events. Carruthers used the shows as a chance to unload discontinued tires that were taking up space in his warehouse. "People would come over with a dolly, load up four tires and go home.

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Carruthers also used the opportunity to invite show attendees to his shops. "But it wasn't a hard sell. We're not like that. I know all the closing lines, but I've never been comfortable doing that. If they go home with a warm fuzzy feeling, they'll tell somebody."

He then started taking the trailer to tuner shows. "They were our best shows. These were very technical people. They know what they want on their vehicles. And we really had our act together. We were good at performance tires and wanted people to know it."

Many of the people he met at tuner shows visited his dealership. "They have to see that you can do it, that's all. If you do well with one guy, the next day everyone is talking about you."

Kenwood Tire's status as a Tire Rack installer also helped cement its relationship with tuner customers. Carruthers reports his performance and ultra-high performance tire business has quadrupled thanks to the relationships he established at tuner events.

Unfortunately, just as things were starting to roll with the trailer, he says he had to pull back as corporate support from Michelin began to wane.

He sold the trailer in 2004 but believes the venture was well worth it. "Not only did it build momentum with customers, it built momentum for me. Nobody else was doing this."

In retrospect, Carruthers says he would have done a couple of things differently. "I wouldn't buy a trailer; I'd buy a van. They're a lot more versatile.

"I also think a laptop with a wireless computer hooked up to our stores' computer would have been great." (At car shows he looked up fitments and prices in a book.)

"But unless you try it, you'll never know if you could have done it or not. That's the advantage of being an independent tire dealer. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want.

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Grassroots marketing: ACCC/MTD contest honors mobile dealer

The inaugural All-American Retailing Contest was sponsored by American Car Care Centers (ACCC) in conjunction with Modern Tire Dealer. The goal of the contest was to "gather good grassroots retailing ideas that tire dealers can share with one another to build their business and increase traffic," says ACCC Director of Marketing Dave Crawford.

This year's winner, Spencer Carruthers of Kenwood Tire Co. Inc. in West Bridgewater, Mass., was selected from a large pool of respondents who submitted a wide range of ideas. ACCC officials liked his concept of a mobile tire service unit. "Time and convenience are near and dear to the consumers' heart," says ACCC President and COO Len Lewin. "The idea of him going to the consumer makes it very time-effective. And this (idea) was repeatable. It's something that can be done as many times" as needed.

Carruthers received round-trip airfare to Las Vegas for this month's SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Show, plus a two-night stay at the Riviera Hotel.

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