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'Customers have to be number one': Service is king

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'Customers have to be number one': Service is king

Bangkok is a city of striking contradictions. Perhaps the most dramatic is the disparity between rich and poor.

The sight of ultra-modern, steel and glass skyscrapers surrounded by shanties that make some of the worst slums in America look like five-star luxury resorts is sobering, to say the least.

The gap between affluence and poverty in this enormous city of nine million people extends all the way down to its tire shops.

A bus ride through Bangkok reveals that many of the city's tire dealers operate out of tiny, cluttered storefronts -- some of them even lacking service bays.

Few tire stores in Bangkok look anything like Apichai Tanwongsiri's shop. The five-month-old outlet is just as clean and high-tech as any Western tire dealership.

Tanwongsiri, 30, owns T. Siam Commercial, a successful wholesale tire operation that his late father, Pravit, opened in 1973. Tanwongsiri assumed control of T. Siam three years ago. The new outlet represents his first stab at retail. It's already turning a handsome profit, he says -- in large part to how different it is from nearby competitors. (Tanwongsiri estimates there are more than 500 tire retailers in Bangkok.)

In a city where haggling over the most basic product is the norm, "we have a one-price policy - no negotiations, no discounts."

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He only sells one brand, Yokohama. It is positioned as a premium label. "People are willing to pay because they believe in the product."

His best-seller is the size 215/45R17 Advan Neova, which he retails for $170 (U.S.) apiece. "More than 50% of the tires we sell are 17-inch and up.”

Tanwongsiri sinks a substantial amount of money into advertising, including the placement of ads in motorsports magazines. He keeps track of customers via computer and sends out direct mail "so we can remind them to come in."

His techs fill tires with nitrogen at no charge. And he's planning to create his own custom wheel brand.

Most importantly, Tanwongsiri knows his customers. "They want a reliable dealer who will tell them what's good and what's bad. They want professional service -- good information and good maintenance. We want to serve as an information center for the end user."

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