Time for some ‘positivity’

Dec 3, 2009

There isn’t a soul in America who doesn’t know that times are tough.

People are taking their once-disposable income and shoving it under the mattress. No aspect is immune. Not construction and building trades. Not the banking sector. Not your local tavern. Certainly not the automotive restyling industry.

These are indeed the times that try restylers’ souls.

In a field so dependent on the positive mood of the buying public, this thunderstorm of a recession is following every individual restyling business like they seeded the clouds themselves – it’s tough to sell spoilers and graphics when buyers aren’t sure they can afford to keep the car itself. So what to do?

Read on, that’s what. It’s time for a little positivity. We talked to distributors from around the country to glean the best ideas for recession-proofing your restyling business in advance of the summer season. When the going gets tough, the tough don’t hide in the basement waiting for their creditors to drag them out by their feet. They get tougher. They get smart. They get creative.

Cheap tricks

Don’t feel creative? Don’t worry. We’re not talking about re-inventing the spinning rim. Creativity, in this case, is as much a re-visitation of fundamental business principles as anything. So let’s focus on one of the bedrock aspects necessary to growing and maintaining any successful company, yet one that all too often gets pushed to the side by the day-to-day necessities of management: marketing.

Doug Jacobs is the president and CEO of Restylers’ Choice, based out of Cincinnati but with warehouses in Dallas and Jacksonville, Fla. When we asked him what the most vital element of any jobber’s budget was in tight times, he was unequivocal.

“Marketing,” he says. “Pretty straightforward and simple. But when I say marketing, I do not necessarily mean advertising. There are great ways to market your business that cost few dollars and can get you a long way.”

Among those, Jacobs says, are the most obvious –  and free – methods.

“Bulk e-mails are extremely cheap and can net you some big results,” he says. As well, he notes that “making a few more sales calls on wholesale accounts per week can net some big results. Focus on working accounts that you have lost or passed on before. This extra marketing can go a long way to bringing in more business, especially if your competition has succumbed to the economic crisis. These accounts may not know who to call for help, and this extra time marketing yourself may pay dividends.”

Jhan Dolphin, vice president of sales and marketing at Gurnee, Ill.-based supplier RealWheels, concurs with Jacobs’ assessment.

“I love postcards,” Dolphin says. “They are cheap to mail and always get my attention. They are relatively inexpensive to get done. Obviously e-mails. But it’s all about coming up with something that gets people to take a look.”

The advantage of such low-cost, high-return marketing techniques is that they cast a wide net. Too often, business owners rely on their storefront as their sole marketing venue. Dolphin says that kind of thinking can be a mistake.

“In-store (promotions) sure, but people have to know about you to begin with,” he says.

To that end, Dolphin offers an example of what he believes to be a successful in-store promotion.

“I knew of some guys who sold trailer hitches,” he says. “They contacted every customer in their database who had ever bought from them and sent a promo e-mail saying that ‘This week’- this full week – ‘just come in and get your hitch worked on.’ They had guys there checking bolts and cracks. It brought people to the location. That’s what it’s all about. ‘For this period, we’re doing it for free.’

“But you’ve got to have a call to action: this weekend. Don’t let it be ‘all summer,’ make it specific – this week, this Friday. Make it immediate. Get people into the store, because otherwise it’s out of sight, out of mind.”

Don’t hide  seek

Isn’t that really the crux of any successful marketing campaign, regardless of industry? Get your product out in front of as many people as possible – but give it a hook. And because marketing and advertising are such crucial elements of the continued health of any restyling business, you ignore them to the peril of your bottom line. Joel Ayres, national marketing director of the Leer Division of the Truck Accessory Group (TAG), explains.

“One of the first mistakes a business can make is to cut advertising budgets,” Ayres says. “In economic times such as these, you need to make sure your cuts in marketing do not become a self-fulfilling prophecy of decreased sales and slow store traffic.”

That doesn’t mean that you should spend your whole ad budget willy-nilly. Successful marketing is targeted to specific customer groups and reliant on the shop owner’s ability to tell a good buy from a bad one.

“Make sure your return on advertising and promotions is maximized,” says Ayres. “Areas that could be eliminated are advertising opportunities that you cannot quantify from past experience and ‘ego’ advertising.”

Ego advertising?

“An example of this would be a banner ad at local events which do not drive sales or traffic. If you own a local bar and restaurant, sponsoring softball team may drive business to your establishment; however, for your business it might not be your best dollars spent.

“Remember, other members of the business community are reacting to the economy, too. You may find that the local TV, radio station or newspaper is offering significantly better deals on advertising than normally available. Don’t hesitate to negotiate with them. Many will be very flexible and accommodating now that business is slow.”

Count Broomfield, Colo.-based Bestop Inc. among the list of companies that get it.

“For Bestop, we haven’t hid from the economy,” the company’s print materials marketing manager, Megan Thompson, says. “(We) instead have increased our marketing and advertising spending. Since we don’t sell direct, any advertising we do puts more people in our authorized dealers’ stores. At times like this manufacturers need to amplify their presence, not hide behind their desks.”

Go grass-roots

Amplifying the presence of your business through marketing is important; but so, too, is that elusive angle that makes the whole thing work. Promotional deals are key to capturing the interest of the public at large – as Dolphin mentions, without them, there’s no bait on the hook.

But what bait to use? There are a number of factors that inform a shop owner’s decision. Speaking of bait, what do people in your area of the country like to do -hunt, camp, go fishing? Boating? What time of year is it? What are the things a retailer can take advantage of at low cost? The options may be nearly limitless, but there’s one thing that should be avoided: predictability.

“You can’t do the same old thing,” says Dolphin. “You need grassroots efforts, to be local. There are these local (business) networking groups that do things like breakfasts-some of these things are crazy for local business owners not to take advantage of. Since nobody’s got the budget to run ads, you have to keep it lean.”

Ayres agrees, and mentions that taking advantage of the local chamber of commerce is an idea that offers great networking potential at minimum cost.

“Network with local chamber of commerce, Rotary club, Lions club,” says Ayres. “Getting involved in local events provides new opportunities with low cost – just time invested with the potential of large exposure.”

Jacobs cautions, though, that targeting local marketing is not a one-size-fits-all deal.

“Every business and every market is different,” says Jacobs. “The things that all installers, restylers and jobbers should focus on are the things that their suppliers offer them. If your supplier offers a monthly special or sales spiffs, you need to take those things and make your own promotion from them. So many times the installer gets a promotion from a distributor and does nothing with it. Pass it along, create buzz and excitement. These are great ways to promote that don’t cost you margin.

Focus on the product

Our industry experts offered a variety of other specific, outside-the-envelope promotional ideas that restyling business owners might employ.

“Offer a fuel-efficiency checkup to consumers,” says Ayres. “Start with a free tire-pressure check, offer to top off the tires, and then explain some of the other fuel-saving accessories you offer. Sponsor a weekly grass-roots custom car show in a local parking lot. Contact customers, friends and car-enthusiast groups in your area, and suggest all meet with their vehicles at a local fast-food restaurant.

“Enlist the restaurant’s cooperation by getting everyone to eat there; park the vehicles where everyone can see them; make sure everyone who attends or stops by knows you’re the ‘sponsor.’ Keep it informal, so anyone who has a car or truck to show off feels welcome.”

Thompson feels that the single best way to market any promotion is to have a sales staff capable of fielding any question.

“The best way to market any promotions is to have an educated sales force behind the counter,” she says. “Rebate programs are also a great way to get new and repeated traffic into the stores, as well. Bestop launched its first Truck Rebate program, ‘Truck into Cash,’ and is offering up to $600 cash back on selected Bestop truck products. Now is a better time than any to get cash back – with the details above put into place, the rebate program has really taken off in our customers’ stores and online.”

But with all of this talk of marketing techniques, it’s easy to lose focus of the single most important element: the product itself. How might certain products work to lure in business? What’s currently on fire? A shop can be as well-marketed as Microsoft, but if there’s no meat in the sandwich, then the whole effort – business breakfasts, direct mail, local events – will be for naught. How can specific items be successfully used as marketing tools in themselves?

According to Jacobs, it goes back to thinking about circumstance and turning negative into positive.

“Chrome is hot,” he says. “More and more cars come from the factory with chrome, and people are in love with putting chrome on their cars. With the down economy, more people are holding on to their cars longer. By restyling with chrome, spoilers and graphics, you can take your old car and freshen it up and make it new again. A great way to prolong your investment.”

Ayres suggests targeted appeals on holidays. Buy Dad a GPS for Father’s Day and end the arguments over stopping for directions, for instance. Or promote family “driving adventures,” where anyone who buys a tonneau – which has been proved to reduce drag, thereby resulting in savings on fuel – gets a sleeping bag, fishing pole or life jacket.

The possibilities are only limited by a retailer’s imagination. Get out, get local, talk to your people. Make your personal vehicle a billboard for your business. Make friends with the local chamber of commerce. Turning into an ostrich is never a good option, even less so these days.

Above all else, take a step back. Remember why you got into the industry in the first place.

“Why did you get into the business?” muses Dolphin. “What did you do as an enthusiast? What got you fired up? People still love their vehicles, and are still going to spend money on them. It’s all about getting that market share. Go back to the grass-roots, be involved in the community. But it takes a business owner to say ‘I’m going to commit to it.’