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It's a game changer

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It's a game changer

In the not too distant future, the online shopper will become the dominant force in the retail world. I could make a strong case that day is already here.

The Pew Research Center reported in April 2009 that 79% of all American adults are now active online. More specific to us in the tire business, Google Inc. reported that in July 2009, there were 11 million searches performed on the keyword “tires.” That is 11 million times, just in one month, that someone was looking for tire information. The largest segment within that group? Consumers looking to purchase.

So, take a second, go to Google and type in the word “tires.” That page you are now looking at is the largest marketplace for tires we have ever seen. And just as important, these are “in market” consumers. Most are looking to buy in the very near future.

Now, let’s take it a step further. Let’s assume that your business is either advertising online or appears on the “Results” page of a Web search. The consumer clicks on your link and is taken to your Web site. What next? What do these online consumers want to see? What do they want to do?

Consumer shopping behavior is changing

For the online consumer, shopping has moved from your showroom to his home or workplace. The busiest shopping period online is weekday lunch. The shopping process of research, selection, and often the purchase decision happens before that consumer physically enters your store.

The standard, time-honored strategy of placing advertising, having consumers read that ad and then having them call or drive to your store is still viable today for your off-line consumers.

But online consumers take a different path. They search online to see what stores and what products are available in their areas. They choose which store fits their needs, and then they visit that store’s Web site. As part of the search, there may be multiple stores from which to choose.

At this point, the consumer is at the same place mentally as the consumer that has just walked through your front door. He wants to shop. He wants all the same information he would receive if he were physically in your store. In fact, he expects more.

Web site evolution

The first Web sites were coined “brochure-ware” sites because most retailers displayed their company brochures online.

In the late 1990s, they began to tell consumers about themselves, what they did and what they offered. Their attitude was, “Here is the information we want you to see, and this is how we want you to see it. And now, we want you to get off your computer and call us or stop by so we can give you the information that you wanted but we would not give you online.”

Not the best experience for the online consumer.

By the middle of this decade, the industry evolved again to what is referred to as Web 2.0, or the “customer-centric” Web design.

We started to listen to the consumer and focus on the consumer. What does the consumer want to see? What does the consumer want to do?

To truly be successful, you must be fanatical about the consumer’s online experience.

You did it before — in your showroom by adding comfy chairs, maybe coffee, maybe even a television set to help your customers pass the time. It’s time to take the same approach with your online tire store and give online consumers all the things that they want to see and do.

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What’s in it for me, the retailer?

There are a number of advantages to selling products and services online.

1. Your advertising is more efficient when you market to consumers who are actively looking to buy your products.

2. Your online tire dealership is open 24/7, and everyone gets the same, hopefully professional, shopping experience.

3. You can display and sell more non-stocking product. That is because the business of shopping online is separate from the business of installation. Often, a consumer will shop the first part of a week with no intention of installation until later in the week, giving you time to order the product.

4. Consumers want to do their own shopping online, so let them shop. That frees up your salespeople, who will have more time to focus on giving great service during the actual store visit.

5. Your online tire store visits can be tracked. Who is looking at what? Which sizes are the most popular?

True market size?

The industry online sales numbers are comprised of transactions completed online, and that number is small and misleading. But from all the research I have seen, my best educated guess is that 40% to 60 % of your customers now make the Internet part of their tire shopping experience.

Maybe only one out of 10 online customers will purchase tires online, but the other nine will shop and make their purchase decisions online, and then pay at the store at the time of installation.

This makes perfect sense from a customer point of view. And quite frankly, I don’t think we should care where they pay as long as they make it to the store.

Think about it — up to 60% of your customers are influenced by your Web site. That is what I call a game-changer.   ■

Why consumers shop online

Consumers will tell you they shop online for many reasons.

• Convenience. “I can shop every dealer in town if I want to.”

• Speed. “I can shop much faster, and don’t have to call or visit all the stores in which I have an interest.”

• No pressure. “I can shop at my pace, and look at what I want, when I want.”

• Information. “I have access to almost unlimited information.”

• Feedback. “I can see which tires fellow consumers recommend.”

In part two of our Internet marketing series, I will take a deep dive into the finer points of an online tire store — and explain what the online consumer really wants and why.

Mike Bruce, president of VTS solutions LLC, enjoyed a long career with Discount Tire Co. going back to 1967. He was a store manager in the 1970s, and started and managed Discount Tire’s Dallas/Fort Worth region in the 1980s. He was promoted to senior vice president in 1990 and moved to the Scottsdale, Ariz., corporate office to work in purchasing. Bruce started the Discount Tire Direct program in 1994, and created the www.tires.com Web site for the company in 1996. He was responsible for  e-commerce and online advertising for Discount Tire through 2007.

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