As an elder member of Generation X, I’ve seen the lifetime of technology changes in almost everything. From full analog to completely digital, it’s been a leap in generations of advances over the past 50-plus years. According to the Adobe Acrobat Team,” A modern smartphone is exponentially more powerful than the guidance computer NASA used for the famous Apollo 11 mission,” which took place in 1969.
When my tire industry career began in 1982, there was a consistent mix of bias-ply and radial tires. It was also the beginning of P-metric sizing. Wheels were mostly steel, with wheel covers, but there were a few aluminum rims that required some extra care. Underhood mechanical components were easy to identify and most could be replaced with basic tools. To say a lot has changed since then is a gross understatement.
And the technological revolution shows no signs of slowing down or ending. Vehicles have continued to evolve with consumer tastes/budgets and some of the changes on the horizon are unimaginable when the pace of advancement in technology is considered.
Trying to predict the future of the automotive aftermarket is incredibly difficult, but the editors of MTD recognize the challenges facing their readers, so they asked for my thoughts on what tire dealers need to do today to prepare for the shop of tomorrow.
Before we can consider what the industry will look like in another decade or two, tire dealers and other automotive service providers must start getting ready for whatever comes next. That preparation starts with employee training. The companies with the best people will be the most successful. The technicians who are responsible for working on vehicles will require constant training and some more than others. Today’s automobiles are a lot more complicated than they were in 1982. By 2033, they could have the same degree of advancement in technology and more specifically, electronics.
I’ve spent a lot of time at my local community college over the past 15-plus years, with a front-row seat for a training program offered by a major automotive manufacturer. In many ways, it’s “new model” training to help instruct area technicians on different procedures for troubleshooting the latest automotive technology. Just a few years ago, the most important tool in the toolbox was the laptop computer. Now it’s a tablet. Who knows what it will be in 10 years? Whatever it is, your auto repair technicians will require continuous training in order to service vehicles for each new model year.
While it’s unlikely that tire technicians will require the same level of ongoing training, they will have to be properly trained to avoid damaging tires, wheels and tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS). Consumer tastes continue to change and tomorrow’s vehicle owner will not be as forgiving when mistakes are made. Torn beads, scratched rims and damaged TPMS sensors are avoidable when technicians are properly trained and equipped. Poor training will eventually lead to fewer customers as bad Google reviews pile up.
It’s also time to address internet access in the shop. On the automotive repair and maintenance side, access to the internet is vital. Without it, getting the necessary information to diagnose and repair a vehicle’s problem will be difficult, if not impossible. (Within a decade, I believe it will be impossible, across the board.) The cloud has become the place where all information is stored, updated and backed up on a regular basis. It’s the place where manufacturers make changes to repair procedures, which are updated in real-time for the next technician that needs to access that information. No printing, no software updates and no downloads are now necessary. Just login and you have access to everything. Without easy, reliable access to the internet at your dealership, the cloud is inaccessible.
Your customers demand internet access, too. Offering free Wi-Fi to customers in your waiting room is a must. Many dealers have already created private meeting rooms and areas where people can work remotely while their vehicle is being repaired. However, free Wi-Fi is only beneficial when it has the bandwidth to accommodate all users. If customers and technicians are using the same network, it will frustrate customers and slow down your techs. Accessibility of high-speed internet will play a major role in determining the success of an automotive repair facility in the future.
The case for ADAS
Upgrades are not limited to internet connectivity. Equipment upgrades will be needed with the growth of vehicle safety technology, like advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). I recently purchased a used vehicle with collision avoidance technology. My car is only six years old and its driver assistance technology is a fraction of what is available today. Something as simple as a headlight alignment can affect ADAS performance. Current systems like adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, forward collision and lane departure warning, blind spot and road sign detection and park assist are just a sample of the different driver assist systems that may need calibration after certain types of repair or adjustment.
As a result, tire dealerships and other automotive repair facilities must be properly equipped to repair and recalibrate ADAS. The tools and equipment required are on the market, but they require a sizable investment, along with tech-savvy technicians and enough business to justify the cost.
It reminds me of the early days of TPMS. The first TPMS tools that came out were some of the most expensive hand-tools the tire industry had ever seen. There was a rush to get them in the shop and within a few years, they were obsolete because technology had changed so much in a short period of time.
We could see a similar situation with ADAS calibration equipment. Dealers need to make a business case before going down this path, so history does not repeat itself.
Shop image is everything — now more than ever. Today’s vehicle owners can search for a service provider, schedule an appointment, pay for it and then write a review that everyone can see in seconds. Everything matters, as far as image is concerned.
Let’s start with the physical appearance of your building. The condition of the exterior and parking lot must match whatever is online. (More on that later.)
If the photos don’t match the reality when customers arrive, some people will just turn around. The same goes for interior waiting areas and restrooms. Some customers won’t care, but those who do will take their business elsewhere, simply based on the image your dealership presents. They will think, “If a shop looks dirty and unprofessional, then it probably is. Why take a chance?” Some old-school shops may be the best at fixing cars, but a growing number of consumers won’t even consider a business that has a rougher image.
Your online presence
More importantly, your dealership must have a strong online presence, starting with its website. According to Forbes Advisor, 20.8% of global retail purchases are expected to take place online in 2023, with that number growing to 24% by 2026. A projected $6.3 trillion global e-commerce market in 2023 will grow to more than $8.1 trillion by 2026. Companies like Amazon, Walmart, Apple, eBay and Target have the most visited websites, with Amazon leading the way at 37.8% of all e-commerce sales. People aren’t just using the internet for research. They’re using it to purchase goods and services.
Forbes Advisor also reported that mobile commerce, or m-commerce, sales, in the U.S. have grown from $360 billion in 2021, to $431.4 billion in 2022, with projections of $511.8 billion in 2023, $604.5 billion in 2024, and $710.42 billion in 2025.
In 2022, Pew Research revealed that 76% of Americans reported online purchases using a smartphone compared to 69% for a desktop or laptop computer and just 28% for a tablet. When broken down by age, 87% of the 18-29 group purchased something online with their mobile device and 92% of the 30-49 group used their smartphone to make a purchase. These are the automotive maintenance and repair customers of tomorrow. Having a website is crucial for marketing purposes, but having a website that is optimized for mobile devices is absolutely necessary to reach the online shoppers who use mobile devices to make purchases. A website that is not optimized for m-commerce will result in missed opportunities.
Social media marketing
The final image frontier is social media. According to Forbes Advisor and Statista, Facebook is the leading platform for social media shopping, with 50.7% of purchases. Instagram was a close second at 47.4%, with YouTube in third at 33.9%, followed by TikTok at 23.9%, SnapChat at 18.8% and Twitter (now X) at 18.5%. Using social media for marketing purposes is vital to reach consumers, but the ability to make a purchase from social media is going to be more important with the rise in social media influencers. The Digital Marketing Institute estimates that 49% of social commerce shoppers followed a social media influencer’s recommendation when making a purchase. Future consumers see an online image and expect it to be interconnected between the website, e-commerce, m-commerce and social media platforms. If it is, they make the purchase.
Shop tools and point-of-sale
I remember when my family’s tire dealership got its first computer balancer back in the 1980s. While I was the bubble balance king, the electronic spin balancer was a definite upgrade to our shop and gave us a chance to upsell, as a higher-priced “computer balance” would produce a better ride than the old, single-plane static balance. Within a few years, the bubble balancer was mothballed because everyone was opting for the computer balancer.
About the same time, we also introduced a computerized point-of-sale (POS) and inventory system.
In my earliest days at the shop, invoicing required a pen and a calculator, with the inventory listed on index cards. Every week, we would take the box of index cards and verify that the number on the card matched the number of tires in stock. We didn’t have hundreds of tire sizes back then, so it didn’t take too long to check inventory, but reconciling the taxes and sales revenue on the invoices was a long, painful process that required some skill on the adding machine. Everything had to add up and it wasn’t easy.
Then we got our first POS system. Inventory updates were live and all the revenue was automatically separated into the correct accounts. As a family we weren’t blessed with the best handwriting, so everything became much easier to read. Leveraging technology made us a better business.
The same holds true today. From the POS perspective, the amount of information that is available makes our first system look like the old handwritten invoices with adding machine tapes. As advanced as they are, modern POS systems continue to evolve as connectivity increases. There are companies that can connect to various POS providers and give participating dealers access to real-time sales data regarding tire sizes, brands and prices. They also can deliver useful market intelligence. (We just phone-shopped our competitors back in the day.)
Looking ahead, linking POS and other systems to the vehicle identification (VIN) number is the next frontier for shop management. Imagine a world where you scan the VIN and it automatically populates the invoice with the year, make and model, as well as the original equipment tire size, load index and recommended inflation pressures. Diagnostic and repair information are also populated, complete with part numbers so every technician in your service bay has access to everything they need with one scan.
That’s next level and it might be closer than you think.
License plate readers are already in place, so the moment you pull a vehicle into the bay, all of the customer’s information previously linked to the plate is available to the technicians. Drive-over tread depth scanners are another example of emerging, next-level technology that will appeal to a changing customer base. Technology is about connectivity and as more systems connect, it ultimately improves the consumer experience by saving them time and providing the best value.
Now more than ever, it takes a sizable investment to operate a tire dealership. Having strong relationships with suppliers will be the best approach as the rate of technological change in vehicle systems continues to increase. Selecting the right partners is an important factor today in staying profitable. As technology evolves, the collective universe of automotive aftermarket suppliers will develop the tools, software systems and equipment that your business needs. Partnerships with those companies that are on the leading edge of technology will keep you aware of what’s coming, so you can plan for the next phases of tools and equipment.
Keep in that that owning and operating a vehicle is going to get more expensive with each passing year. With new car prices high and used car inventories low, vehicle owners will do everything they can to keep them running as long as possible. There will be a growing incentive to keep up with basic maintenance services, so leveraging technology to improve the consumer experience and keep vehicles running longer will be a major factor in retaining existing customers and attracting new ones.
Because tire dealers have been using the “just in time” delivery and stocking model for so long, some customers have been trained to accept that they may have to wait for their desired tire to be delivered to their local dealership. Younger customers aren’t so patient.
They may shop around, but convenience is the magic word for a generation that probably doesn’t know Amazon started as an online bookseller. If they can’t see what they want on their smart phone screen, they will simply move on. They’re not showing up at your door, asking if a certain tire is in stock. Years ago, a study was published on tire buyers that divided them into three groups: brand, price and service. Most tire dealers need access to as many brands as possible to meet the needs of those buyers. Some tire buyers are looking for the lowest cost, so the retailer must have competitive, low-cost options available.
Service buyers are going to take the recommendation of their maintenance provider because they trust that it is the best option for their vehicle. When this study was published, the above categories were roughly equal in size. Those percentages could be very different with a new generation of vehicle owners. But vehicle owners will not be stopping by your store without having first researched tire availability online.
Staying ahead on labor
The absolute final piece of the puzzle, and most challenging, is labor. Tire service is not easy or clean by nature, but technology is making it easier and cleaner. Even with robotic tire changing machines and balancers with hydraulic lifts, there will always be a physical element to the job. Unfortunately, some of the next generation of workers are not interested in anything that requires physical effort, so the pool for automotive technicians is shallow, with a lot of competition. Technology is helping, but the unrealistic expectations of entry level workers out of high school with minimum wage employment are not going to make it any easier.
One thing I have learned is that you have to show younger workers a career path. If they start as a tire technician, then it can lead to other jobs in the industry. This requires investing in training and development. On the technician side, mechanical repair will require regular training and a higher level of commitment to develop the problem solving and computer skills that are necessary with tomorrow’s automobiles. Turning wrenches will be only a fraction of what happens in future shops. Technicians will have to be made aware of how their job has changed and will keep changing.
What about sales and management positions? I’ve always said that it’s difficult to sell what you cannot explain. Some dealerships have taken technicians and plugged them into sales and management jobs with great success. The tire and auto repair industry is a “skills economy” and this business can teach skills that will always be needed. Finding and keeping good people is the key to success.
Nobody can predict what the industry will look like in 10 years. There are countless factors at play, with an unlimited number of variables that can change the direction of automotive maintenance and repair in a short period of time. As technology advances, the tire dealerships that are prepared to adapt can overcome new challenges.
First and foremost, you must be able to service the vehicle with the right tools, equipment and tires/components. Next, you must have a collective image that appeals to consumers who shop with their smartphone. We live in a convenience-obsessed culture and tire/ automotive service is not considered convenient. Companies that can break down those barriers will be ones that have the best chance at developing relationships with the next generation of customers.
Despite the increasing dependence on smartphones and the internet, people will still be the deciding factor in this industry moving forward. Your employees are a reflection of your dealership’s brand, but the brand itself is determined by everything.
In the tire dealership of the future, everything matters. Vehicles and consumers are evolving as we speak — with both becoming more sophisticated, automated and dependent on technology. There are still going to be hundreds of millions of cars to service. You must decide how you want to be positioned in your market and how you will stay competitive.