Tire stores have always faced challenges, but dealers now have to overcome changes they’ve never seen before. Some are here-and-now, including the pandemic, while others are building momentum, such as new technologies and the relentless rise of online sales.
They’re all considerations Jim Caldwell faces as President and CEO of OK Tire Stores Inc., as he guides the company into the future.
“It’s critical that we have a vision and strategy focused on supporting the growth and prosperity of our dealers across the country,” he said. “It’s my job to support all the different leaders in our organization, so they are aligned with our vision and have the day-to-day support, guidance, and tools they need.”
Forty years of retail experience
Caldwell has been in the retail industry for more than forty years, starting as a part-time commissioned salesperson with Woolco Department Stores in 1980. He stayed on when Walmart acquired the company in 1994, holding several executive positions in operations and merchandising – including leading the Tire and Lube Express division.
His career path included president of The Brick, and heading up Lowes. In January 2018, he took on his current role at OK Tire. Growing up in a military family, since 2016 he has also been an Honorary Lt. Colonel in the Canadian Military Reserves with 32 Combat Engineering Regiment.
Having dedicated people is essential to any business, “and our OK Tire dealers are certainly leaders in our industry. They’re focused on implementing service levels, efficiencies, and technology that allow them to deliver on customer needs.
“But a sincere interest and willingness to evolve and change is also key. Our most successful dealers are able to recognize when to make changes to their operations, processes, and product offerings to take advantages of changes in their individual markets, within the industry as well as changes in customer behaviour.”
Customer behaviour is changing
Those changes are going to be a huge driving force for an industry that hasn’t really evolved all that much over the years, Caldwell said. “One of the biggest trends in recent years is the emergence of online-only tire retailers, and this is changing the landscape of how we do business today.”
It’s part of a bigger picture in customer behaviour and attitude that also includes vehicle ownership, but there are benefits as well as difficulties in adapting to the challenge. “More and more young people don’t own vehicles the way previous generations did,” he said. People who don’t own cars will pay to use them, while vehicle owners will drive more to serve them, and Caldwell expects an upsurge in ride-hailing and short-term rental services. “This means vehicles will be in use more frequently, and thus require more frequent service, and at hours more convenient for their owners.”
The auto industry is moving forward on electric vehicles, while today’s semi-autonomous features are the building blocks for future cars that will eventually drive themselves. “This really changes the maintenance and repair needs of a vehicle,” he said. “Vehicles today require technicians to have specialized training, and specialized equipment to service them. Even something as simple as a wheel alignment can be affected, if it’s not done with the proper equipment.”
Changing to address change
Eventually that will require major changes for dealers, and they’ll need to be prepared, he said. “They’ll have to make strategically-timed investments, like installing charging stations, and hiring technicians with specific skill sets. There’s a perception among young people today that coming into the auto industry will mean working on greasy cars. It’s the opposite, and there is a growing need for service technicians who can work with very advanced technology. With the current challenge we’re facing of attracting young people into the industry, shops will need to be nimble and prepared to evolve along with consumers.
“I believe we will also see an increase in demand for providers who can meet the increasing requirements of small and medium vehicle fleets. They all have unique requirements such as location, or electric vehicle service. OK Tire stores will be well-prepared and positioned to meet those needs with over 350 locations nationwide.”
An essential service during pandemic closures
The COVID pandemic affected every industry, but “we were fortunate to be identified as an essential service early on, and that allowed us to keep our doors open,” he said. “Many essential service workers like nurses, doctors, and grocery store employees still needed their vehicles serviced, and we were able to help keep them on the road. There were also emergency, farm, and other commercial vehicles that needed to be serviced, and consumers who had to get to family members in need to drop off food and supplies. We feel privileged to have been able to help all of them by staying open.”
Of course, staying open involved far more than just opening the doors each morning. It required dealers to follow health agency guidelines for social distancing, sanitizing, and wearing masks, and offering contactless services such as picking up and delivering vehicles, paperless invoicing, or communication through text messaging.
Moving to online
Rather than visit retail stores – many of which were closed to the public anyway – people increasingly turned to online shopping, and decided they liked it. “Consumers are expecting online shopping for items and services, and more are turning to e-commerce for automotive products, where they wouldn’t have shopped (for them) online prior to COVID.”
Still, the negative sales at the beginning of the pandemic are turning around. Consumers are driving on longer road trips rather than flying, and as more industries reopen, commercial vehicles need maintenance and tires again.
“For the last three years, OK Tire has focused strategically on investments in people, product, buildings, and systems to prepare the company to provide services that meet all of these changing consumer expectations,” Caldwell said. “It will give our dealers access to multiple different revenue streams that allow them to grow their business in this ever-changing and more competitive market.
“I am proud of the total organization, and our dealers are rising to a position to take advantage of the opportunities the future has in store for our industry.”