Color them happy: Dealers pay attention to cosmetic detail at their dealerships

Nov. 1, 2001

Have you ever felt a sudden wave of relaxation on a trip to a national grocery or department store chain? Could it be the soft music they play? Yes. Could it be the mood-enhancing lighting that filters out the higher frequencies in the visible light spectrum? Yes. Is it the cascading effect of blues and purples from these lights that reduce the rate at which your eyes blink? Yes again.

It's all part of what interior designers do to slow your pace and mind. Using lighting and color to create a relaxed, positive atmosphere is not unusual. All fast food chains use red, orange and yellow. Why? Orange, an impulse color, also is the color most associated with appetite. Red, also an impulse color, causes the body to go into a state of excitement, while yellow is the color the eye sees "fastest," so it gets our attention.

At Crosscreek Tire & Auto Service in the Jackson, Miss., suburb of Madison, owner Mike Upton is acutely aware of what color can do for tire sales. So he hired Kyldell Johnsey, an interior decorator, to turn his new showroom (see photo) into a tire-buying experience his customers would not forget.

"I started to work on Mike's new showroom before and during construction," she says. "He had a vision of what he wanted and it was my job to deliver what he needed."

Johnsey liked the curb appeal of Upton's new dealership. The roofline didn't resemble any tire dealership she had ever seen and she liked the use of copper for the overhang, brick for the walls and brass for the windows.

"When I got inside, I asked to see his tire displays, the ones available from his tire suppliers," she says. "There were strong reds, royal blues and, of course, the black tire. Splashes of yellow were also employed.

"Normally, the tire stores I've visited use utilitarian gray that lends a cold, commercial feeling. Adding to an already unpleasant experience were the men standing around smoking, gray metal chairs with cracked black vinyl seats, out-of-date magazines, plus windows, counter tops and floors that needed a good scrubbing."

Upton did not want that look in his new tire store, nor did Johnsey. So they went to work to create a warm, pleasant, upscale place to buy tires where customers could feel comfortable.

"For the walls and the floors, I worked in the yellow family with colors like wheat, oatmeal, caramel, camel and biscuit," she says. "I purposely avoided taupe and gray because they tend to be cold and neutral. I wanted the blues and reds in the tire displays to stand out."

That was one purpose of the camel/caramel floor tile. "We arranged the tile in a geometric pattern that subliminally guides the customer from the front door to the sales counter," she says. "To pull even more reds and blues from the displays into the thought process, I used a geometric red and blue pattern in front of the sales counter and again in the customer waiting area."

Johnsey selected an oatmeal for the walls in the showroom because the color is associated with "cozy" and "inviting" as well as "happiness" and "comfort." Next she balanced the oatmeal with a wall of blue in the main office, which is visible from the showroom. "Blue is a calming color, a sincere color," she says. "I also used blue carpeting in the children's playroom, with elements of caramel and red, for its playful, yet calming effect. Toys, books and games are also part of what the kids will find."

Johnsey says the use of caramel, camel and oatmeal also are more conducive to conversation and sales interactions, particularly when integrated with reds and blues in the displays, and with geometric floor patterns.

Customer waiting area

Upton and Johnsey pulled out all the stops in the customer waiting area. "We ruled out a couch immediately because strangers don't like sitting side-by-side," she says. "So we purchased modern dining room chairs with wide, comfortable, fabric seats. Chairs provide the division between customers and an inviting place to wait.

"The color of the wood chairs is honey tone, and the fabric seats have been redone in red, blue and caramel to pull color from the tire displays and the floor leading to those displays. To that we added a honey tone armoire with a television set that gets a load of channels from a dish, and our waiting area was complete."

On the walls Upton displays black and white photographs taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Eudora Welty (1909-2001), a hometown girl whose yard Upton once mowed. Her books also grace Upton's waiting room library.

In addition to Welty's photographs and writings, Upton has stocked his showroom library with other popular Mississippi authors such as Rita Smith and Mark Millett.

Almost complete. Johnsey added a magazine table with current issues of such publications as the Wall Street Journal, Gourmet magazine, O (Oprah) magazine, Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly ready for reading. There also is an area where customers can plug in their laptops and go to work or check their e-mail while they are waiting. Coffee and free Coca Cola also are available.

But Johnsey wasn't finished.

* Every metal door in the place was painted with a blend of caramel and camel for a warm, neutral presentation. Support poles were transformed into attractive wood columns in the center of the showroom and painted antique white. The sales counter is a Formica wood tone.

* The large, handicapped-accessible customer restroom, complete with a 36-inch door, was painted in a khaki color.

* While lighting in the showroom is primarily fluorescent, Johnsey placed a wrought iron fixture near the sales counter. It features an alabaster translucent face behind which resides an incandescent light.

"Along with everything else we have done, we have created the kind of ambience, you're not going to find in a giant chain store," she says.

Upton's use of color doesn't stop with the brick and mortar of his dealership. For example, he wears a light blue shirt to work. "It is not an intimidating color and it expresses a level of respect our customers like," he says.

"We also employ a variety of color in the shirts we provide for our employees. From khaki, denim, dark blue, light blue, green, maroon, camel and black, I like to see them mix it up with what they feel comfortable wearing on any given day. It all ties in with the colors Klydell has given us."

Finally, Upton is a plant nut. Inside his 800-square-foot showroom, customers will encounter an array of plants ranging from philodendrons that add oxygen and warmth to silk flower arrangements.

"Every tire dealer's customers shop the big chains and they shop us," says Upton. "If we don't sell the experience, the way the big guys do, we are going to fall behind. I'm not going to let that happen.

"Our showroom not only looks nice, it smells nice. People who come here tell me how much they enjoy the softer, less commercial look and that includes our mayor, Mary Hawkins-Butler. She was initially concerned about a tire dealership in Madison, a planned community, but she likes what we have done and that is a huge plus.

"I knew that to be successful here we needed to fit into this community, not stick out like an eyesore. Today we are part of Madison, we are proud of that and we followed the strict zoning covenants of the city to the letter."

Upton, who also owns a store in nearby Brandon, Miss., hasn't forgotten why he is in business. "It's just that we are taking a somewhat different approach. Some dealers sell price, others the product. I'm selling the whole package, what I call the experience.

"While the kids are watching Nickelodeon, and dad is checking his e-mail, and mom is reading Gourmet magazine, the technicians in my 12 bays are busy installing Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal, Bridgestone and Firestone tires," he says. "We are selling the experience and we are doing very well."

At the movies

From his office in the former projection room of what used to be the Foothill's Twin movie theater (two theaters in one), Jim McWilliams is proud of his remodeling.

"I took a former movie theater and turned it into an attractive tire dealership that draws customers who shop at the Foothills Fashion Mall, just across the street," says McWilliams, owner of two Mountain View Tire stores in Fort Collins, Colo.

Starting from the outside and working in, McWilliams knew he had to create an inviting exterior before customers would even give him a look. Green is a color that conveys calm and naturalness, perfect for what McWilliams had in mind.

"We carefully landscaped the outside with bushes, grass and trees, even a picnic table where customers can enjoy the Colorado outdoors," he says. "That was first, it was quiet, it was effective."

The most eye-catching exterior feature of Mountain Tire may be the former Foothills Twin marquee that McWilliams has remounted on the side of his dealership. At night, the messages on the back-lit marquee are changed regularly. "One side might call us the 'hospital for your car' and the other side might note an upcoming community event or a blood drive. This has become a real conversation piece."

Also receiving special attention is an inviting wood gazebo that leads customers to and through the front door of Mountain Tire. "This really sets us apart from the competition," says McWilliams. "That and the glass door leading into the showroom that receives a thorough cleaning several times a day."

McWilliams' sales counter is located four feet inside the front door. "Although our showroom is 1,000 square feet, we don't want our customers wondering where they need to go for help. We are up front with our customers, literally."

Then the fun with color begins. "Half of our showroom has been done with high quality, Pergo wood-grained flooring, the other half with light beige tile.

These colors, derived from the red family, are warm colors that produce feelings considered to be pleasant and inviting."

For the showroom walls he stayed with the yellow family, wheat and khaki. His three-sided sales counter is beige. The gray chairs in his customer waiting area are drawn into his color plan by a green and gold area rug featuring the logo of the Colorado State University Rams. An identical area rug, trumpeting Fort Collins University, has been placed in front of his candy and soda machines.

"All of our tire displays are near the windows so they show up nice and bright," he says. "Bright, fluorescent lighting from a decorative white-tiled ceiling add to the comfort level of the showroom and enable customers to see what we have to sell."

As thrilled as he was with the way the front part of his new dealership turned out, McWilliams is equally excited about what happened in his 12-bay service area. "During construction, I added green dye to the concrete floor and installed super-bright, $400 halide lights in the ceiling, each encased in a bright metal fixture.

"It is so pleasant back there and so bright, I have never seen one of my techs use a drop light," he says. "There just aren't any shadows."

The smell of popcorn

There is a reason the ovens in the bakeries of supermarkets are on full blast. Studies show the smell of baking bread drives people wild. The scent sends sales skyrocketing all over the store.

"Because everybody from this part of town remembers the building when it was a movie theater, they ask us what time the matinee starts," laughs McWilliams. "We always tell them 3 p.m. and then invite them to help themselves to some free popcorn from our new machine. The smell is irresistible and seems to warm up the whole dealership."

To McWilliams, it's the combined sum of all of the little things that set him apart from the competition. "We all wear light blue shirts and dark navy pants. If we get dirt on our pants it doesn't show and the light blue shirts are worn for another reason. They don't push the customer away, they draw them to us because they are not intimidating.

"Outside, our stucco walls, which feature a brick color along with light and dark beige, send a signal that we are not just another tire dealership. And when customers set foot inside, they know they aren't in just another tire store."

A Goodyear dealer, McWilliams has a pair of three-and-a-half foot by 17 foot blue and yellow signs, one with the familiar Goodyear logo, the other a Goodyear Gemini sign. Both are illuminated and can be seen easily by drivers on the Foothills Parkway.

"What we're doing here is something I call relationship marketing," says McWilliams. "We work every day on avoiding the use of such words as 'not' and 'no.' The dealership itself has been designed and color-coordinated to make the customer feel comfortable.

"He or she knows instinctively that they are not in a fly-by-night operation. They understand they are in a business that is part of the Fort Collins community and here to stay."

McWilliams sees to it that a call is placed to each and every owner of the 55 cars he sees every day to make sure they got what they came for and are happy about it. "That's when we hear comments about our Pergo flooring. 'I sure like your new store, it sure is comfortable,' or 'I can't believe the flooring in your new digs.' They just can't believe we spent that much money to make them feel more at ease.

"But that is exactly what we are doing here.... Customers who just shopped the mall across the street do not experience any letdown in merchandising professionalism at Mountain Tire. We are as bright and shiny, as colorful and professional as any big chain. Our customers expect it and, speaking as a consumer, so do I."