Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2004   by Auto Service World

CounterTalk: Retail Communication and Planning

Most counterpeople worship the phone, and there is nothing unnatural about that.

However, with the changing marketplace and many organizations’ increased emphasis on retail sales, it can become a handicap. The fact is that you can put all the best merchandising methods in place, but if the man who comes in off the street is left standing for too long, the sale will be lost.

Still, even considering this, many professional counterpeople find it hard to tear themselves away from the phone long enough to acknowledge a retail customer, let alone serve them. Most counterpeople will suggest that there is a good reason for this, that it is the professional technician or garage owner on the other end of the phone line who pays the bills for the operation, and it is where they make their salary and any commission they might be due.

This is true in a way, but it ignores some important points regarding retail sales: it is a cash sale, which means no costs of carrying the account; it is a pick-up, which means there are no delivery costs; and it is generally a straightforward transaction that can take less than a minute.

A wise jobber, now retired, said once that a retail sale was worth 14 points to his bottom line over an equivalent trade transaction, even at the same price, just due to the lower costs of serving the retail customer. While his experience may not exactly be duplicated at your store, it does illustrate the fact that retail sales may be more important to the overall operation than many might think.

Despite the considerable resources that the larger retailers can throw at the market, the independent store still has some advantages: knowledge and depth of inventory.

Most retail operations do not have either in great measure. Where they have it all over the traditional players, however, is a focus on the retail customer, and not just in terms of merchandising.

While sweeping generalizations should be avoided, it is true that the best retail auto parts operations make the most of their communications skills. Consider what happens when a retail customer comes into your store. Do you:

A) Keep your eyes on your monitor while you deal with a phone order?

B) Pretend you have an urgent task to take care of in the stockroom?

C) Pray that the customer, who looks like he has a series of questions written on a piece of paper, goes away, now?

D) Shout across the showroom “Be with you in a minute” then proceed to have a long phone conversation about fishing with your best customer?

E) All of the above?

All humour aside, the lack of attention to the retail customer is no more acceptable than it would be for the trade, and you know what would happen if you treated the trade that way. There is a way to strike a balance, but it takes practice.

Consider the following approach.

If you are not actually on the phone at the time a retail customer walks into your store, make an effort to help. The stockroom can wait. If you see them looking at a particular shelf of products, avoid asking the “Can I help you?” question, which will usually elicit the response, “No thanks, I’m just looking.” Instead, offer some information about the category. If the customer is looking at accessory lighting — where there is a wide variety of quality and prices — it may be helpful to suggest some things to consider:

“These are great if you’re doing a lot of off-road driving, but you can’t use them on the road.”

“I find that this style of driving light looks better and is easier to install on late model cars.”

“These lights look similar, but this one is more effective; on the other hand, this one costs a lot less.”

The idea is to engage the customer in a conversation, but a controlled one. In fact, what you are doing is employing an interviewing technique designed to learn what the customer wants. You will find that after a question or two, the customer will give you a clear indication of whether he is ready to buy or not. If he seems interested, you can offer to check what you have in stock or when you can get the item in if you don’t have it on the shelf.

By pricing it out and telling him when you can get it, you will help the customer decide whether he wants it or not. Often, if you get this far, the customer will make the commitment.

Of course, for lower ticket items, the same basic approach can help make the sale and build the reputation of the store. Helping a customer decide on a high-ticket item may be expected to some extent, but taking a minute to suggest the best option on a fuel additive can be a pleasant surprise and build future business.

In either case, it does not have to be a matter of taking much time, literally a minute or two, but if it is used efficiently it can be time very well spent.



Merchandise effectively

Additives and other chemicals should go together, but you may also want to put a selection near the counter, and even near related products. This is called cross merchandising. Octane boost, for example, might be a good addition to your performance display.

Endcaps are for Specials

Often, jobbers will place skid loads of windshield washer or antifreeze at the end of an aisle because they are easy to leave there, instead of items that are being actively promoted. Check that specials are well signed and priced.

Equipment and Tools on Display

Equipment is seldom truly retail, but most jobbers feel the need to display it. If you do, consider putting it off to one side, perhaps in a location where it is easy for you to monitor it for safety and security reasons. Since equipment discussions can be lengthier than most, you should be able to demonstrate some aspects for a customer without having to be too far from the counter.

Treat Retail Separately

Retail product selection can overlap with your standard offerings, but there are areas where the brand preference of the retail customer is different from the trade. Packaging is also a key consideration. A kit in an attractive package may not function any better than the selection of parts you put together for the customer, but they are more apt to buy the former due to the confidence it inspires. And you should measure retail sales separately as a way to get a clear picture of the potential profit generation for your store.


Retail advertising requires that you either get flyers inserted into a local newspaper, or use the paper or radio station to advertise. Use your co-op dollars to their fullest.

Prepare Staff

If you are running a special, make sure that all the staff is aware of it and know what your sales strategy is. Have a meeting and offer incentives. Let them know what your targets are for the average sale, and which items you have in stock and what you can get in a day, or a week. You can’t do this all the time, but when you have a big event planned do what you can to get staff to buy in.

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