SOMETIMES the best expansions are the simplest expansions.
Rayside Truck & Trailer recently doubled the size of its parts and accessories display area the easy way. No concrete had to be poured. No outside walls were knocked down. The company just figured out how to more effectively use available floor-space.
Instead of office cubes, a storage area for vending machine supplies, and a place where slow-moving tires were kept, the West Palm Beach, Florida, truck equipment distributor has freed up an additional 2,500 square feet that is now turning inventory instead of storing it.
It's not accurate to say that the project is complete. President Charles Rayside is a marketer and merchandiser who always has another idea ready to implement. But the early returns are in, and sales are up. The company now has a 5,000-sq-ft display area that is making the cash registers ring.
Some products just don't sell unless they are displayed, Rayside says. He cites large, job-site toolboxes and safety vests as two examples. One section of the expanded showroom is designated for such safety products as traffic cones, fire extinguishers, and triangle reflectors. But the sales of safety vests have increased tenfold since being put on display. The vests, made of nylon mesh, typically come packaged but are not readily identifiable. The additional space has allowed the company to display the vests - and back braces - on hangers, and sales have not been the same since.
Most of the showroom features displays of personal use accessories - boat trailer parts, light duty trailer hitches, pickup caps, tonneau covers, and other products. But with the expansion, Rayside added a wing off the main showroom that is dedicated to displays of commercial truck equipment.
Displays enable commercial customers to see and operate a wide range of van accessories, service bodies, liftgates, and Rayside's own line of platform bodies - all in a compact area.
"Let's say we want to show a customer a service body," Rayside says. "Before we had the showroom, we had to go out into the weather, and the only bodies he could see were primed. Now it doesn't matter if it's raining, and we have painted service bodies that really show the customer what some of his options are."
The options include an application of spray-on bedliner applied to the cargo area, the top of the sidepacks, and the inside of the compartment doors, all of which are high-wear areas.
A jam-packed display of Weather-Guard van interiors and accessories also can be found in the commercial truck equipment display area, and a special display of Rayside's truck body manufacturing capability. The display is based on a 7-ft by 8-ft platform body. But within that area, customers have an idea what it is like to have a body with wood sides, steel stakes, a body made of removable steel panels, a drop-side body, and one with fixed sides. The two sides of the body are split in two, for a total of four samples. The rear also has two options - swing doors and removable steel stakes.
"We don't always think about displays for commercial truck equipment," Rayside says. "But it's been interesting to see how even commercial truck equipment customers are able to visualize what works when they are standing in front of a pickup box or service body. They can see details that they have not thought of before."
Dedicated Displays One of the problems of showrooms has been the urge to sell floor samples, Rayside says, creating gaps in the displays. Many of the products on display at the Rayside showroom, however, are not for sale.
"The best way to keep our displays intact is to make them so that they are not removable," Rayside says. "We have $45,000 in merchandise that is bolted down and cannot be sold. That's a lot of money to have tied up. But with all the accessories we sell, it's worth it."
Some of the displays, such as the special hybrid of Rayside platform body options, simply have no function outside the showroom. Other displays are usable truck bodies and accessories that have been converted into trailers. They can be readily towed to one of the many area trade shows for exhibition.
"We just tow them to our booth, and our exhibit is ready," Rayside says.
The service bodies and pickup box displays are mounted on frames that include an axle and removable trailer tongue. Telescoping outriggers mounted beneath each corner hold the display steady once the trailer tongue is removed. A removable pin holds the trailer tongue in place. In addition to making the display portable, the tires, wheels, and axle give the service body or pickup box an added realism that is missing with empty wheel wells.
Rubic's Cube Construction The expansion project lasted a year, a process that displaced two offices and caused the company to rotate its showroom regularly.
"To keep everything up during the construction, the showroom floor went down in seven or eight pieces," Rayside says. "It was a Rubic's Cube type thing for awhile, but customers noticed that things were different from their previous visit."
After the dust settled, three desks were available for the sales department to use instead of the desks that were in the two offices. Plus, the visibility between sales staff and customers has increased.
But with greater visibility comes, well, greater visibility. What may have been acceptable when enclosed in an office just does not work when it is part of a revitalized showroom. Part of the project involved replacing the old showroom's 1970s oranges and browns with a new color scheme featuring blue, gray, and yellow.
Knowing that he probably could not find new desks to match the decor, Rayside bought used metal desks. They, too, got a redo. A new paint job and new laminate glued directly over the imitation walnut desktops make the desks fit right in.
New carpet was installed in late September, signifying the end of the major changes. That does not mean that the showroom has stopped changing. Many of the displays are on wheels and can be moved easily.
"Things sell better when you move them around," Rayside says.
Show It, Sell It Making a showroom successful involves a lot of factors. Whether the customer makes a purchase starts with knowing the product is there. In showroom settings, people buy what they can see.
"Wheel simulators are a good example," Rayside says. "We used to think that if someone wanted them, they would come in and ask us for them. When we weren't displaying wheel simulators prominently, they weren't selling. Now we have them on an end of an aisle, and people are buying them."
Bicycle racks are another example.
"I really didn't think they would sell, but I stuck one on the shelf," Rayside says. "When I came back from lunch, it was gone. We kept restocking the shelf, and they kept disappearing. Now we keep a good number of them in inventory, and they keep on selling."
Designing the Counter Rayside intended to have a local carpenter build the parts counter, but conversations with Design By Association, a retail design consulting company that Rayside met through the National Truck Equipment Association, convinced him that he could have more.
Instead of the original idea of a counter with flat sides, the company suggested using conventional store fixtures that have shelves on either side and topped with a laminated countertop with steel overlays. The steel overlays would provide extra wear resistance and could be cleaned easily.
"We still get a lot of customers who bring in a dirty, oily part and put it on the counter," Rayside says.
The store fixtures, which the company has arranged in a quadrangle, provide display space on the top and the outside surface. Inside the quadrangle where the sales staff works is space for manuals, catalogs, and other "stuff" that parts people use.
Only the inside corners of the store fixtures come together. The resulting equilateral triangle provides space for corner displays.
The square-shaped parts counter is located in the heart of the showroom. Computer terminals, one for each parts salesman, are located at each corner. Drawer units, such as those used to store mechanics tools, also make up the parts counter structure. These provide quick, organized access to small parts.
Utilities for the computers and telephones are run from the ceiling through conduits - one at each corner of the parts counter. Aluminum tread-plate boxes, built to resemble toolboxes, cover the electrical outlets at the bottom of the conduit.
To enhance the visibility of the displays, Rayside has fluorescent lights beneath the shelves of its fixtures.
"It makes a big difference. Watch this," he says, flipping the switch that controls the lights on all the shelves.
Suddenly the showroom becomes dull despite the presence of overhead lights and Florida sunshine. Products on display on the bottom shelves and along the walls are especially hard to see.
"The lights cost us a few thousand dollars more, but they will pay for themselves in the long run," Rayside says, turning the lights back on.
Another different twist to the standard store fixture is the Astroturf that lines the shelves. Rayside buys the material from Monsanto in 3-ft by 55-ft rolls and cuts it to length. The Astroturf protects the painted steel surfaces from the wear that metal parts would otherwise produce. It also serves as a sound deadener while at the same time making it easier for the customer to pick up small pieces.
The company has arranged the shelves so that they run parallel to the line of sight of those standing at the parts counters. This arrangement makes it easy to see customers as they shop the shelves.
"We have had a few incidents of shoplifting," Rayside says. "The important thing is not to put valuable items right by the front door."
To be on the safe side, the checkout stand has been located near the door. In addition, the light-duty winches displayed fairly close to the door are attached to the shelves by cables.
Organizing the Showroom Rayside has found that the way parts are grouped affects the way the showroom performs. He cites nylon tow ropes, a product that did not sell well until it was placed next to the company's line of electric winches.
Light-duty trailer parts fill a major part of the display area. Wiring kits for trailers occupy one side of a fixture, and one aisle of the showroom is dedicated to boat trailer parts. Another is for showing electric brakes. Further on are the heavier retail parts, followed by light-duty commercial truck equipment.
Each part is barcoded. The barcode provides a variety of information, including the place it belongs in the showroom. The company keeps track of its inventory through the truck equipment management software developed by Spokane Computer.
One of the enhancements Spokane has made to the system is the ability to cross reference part numbers. Rayside Truck & Trailer has built its own database of part numbers. Using a barcode reader, the company converts the existing product UPC to its own parts numbering system.
"The big advantage is that we don't have to put our own barcodes on products that already have them. With the database in place, we can scan the product and automatically convert that data into our system."
For those products that do not come with a UPC, the system generates barcodes that Rayside tags on the parts and accessories it sells. In addition to speeding the checkout process, the barcodes help the company monitor stocking levels. Using a computer mounted on a cart, parts personnel check the showroom weekly. The barcode reader scans the bins, identifying products that are out of stock or stocked in low quantities.
Promoting Parts, Accessories Rayside Truck & Trailer spends heavily on advertising and sales promotion to drive traffic into the showroom.
"Some truck equipment distributors have an advertising budget that is tenths of one percent of sales," Rayside says. "We budget about 6% of our parts and accessory sales for advertising. If we could afford to, we would market our parts and accessories the same way we do our commercial truck equipment sales - with personal selling. But the size of the market keeps us from being able to do that. We have a couple hundred commercial customers. The market for truck accessories here is a couple hundred thousand. We rely on advertising to reach our customers."
One advertising medium Rayside Truck & Trailer has found effective is radio. The company has a contract with one local radio station that includes a remote broadcast once a year from the Rayside Truck & Trailer facility. Rayside is planning to use that remote broadcast later this year to do a grand opening of the showroom.
Radio has been a relatively low-cost way to reach a broad, scattered market. The company sells a lot of personal use accessories, including light-duty trailers, bike racks, toolboxes, tonneau covers, bug shields, and a limited amount of ground effects.
"We don't do a lot of complex truck conversions," Rayside says. "The trend is away from accessories such as sunroofs, visors, or anything that requires drilling. Truck manufacturers have made customers reluctant to buy things that require holes to be drilled. Some companies are still doing things like suspension modifications. But we don't want to affect what the truck OEM is doing - making a really nice vehicle that performs well."
Bang for the Buck To promote commercial truck equipment, Rayside Truck & Trailer relies heavily on trade shows and group events such as truck club sponsorships and golf outings.
"If we are going to do one of these events, we want to do more than is expected," Rayside says.
He cites golf tournaments as an example. Instead of contributing $200 to sponsor a hole, Rayside Truck & Trailer spends $500 to feed golfers halfway through the course. The company sets up a trailer from which it cooks hotdogs.
"We could spend the $200 and consider it a contribution," Rayside says. "But when we cook lunch, our salesmen can mingle with the golfers. When we do this, we are getting results."
The company also has a twist to the practice of sponsoring truck club meetings.
"Typically you meet at some restaurant and have a few minutes to talk about your company. You then pick up the meal and bar tab," Rayside says. "We have begun hosting the Ford Truck Club at our shop. Instead of restaurant food, we serve a wild hog barbecue. It's all you can eat - hog, smoked turkey, and food you wouldn't normally be able to get. By having it here, the people attending don't just meet our salesmen - they meet everyone. They can place a face with the voice they hear on the telephone. It's an event that helps our commercial sales and our accessory business. In our market, the same guys who sell commercial trucks also sell personal use vehicles. If their pickup customer needs some accessories, they steer them to Rayside Truck & Trailer."
Adding Pools Rayside recently increased its commercial truck marketing efforts by adding Ford and Dodge chassis pools. The company moved 200 trucks through its Ford pool in 1999 - the first year of operation. The Dodge pool is brand new, with the agreement being finalized in early October.
"We are still trying to determine stocking levels," Rayside says. "But we probably will keep about 30 Dodges and 70 Fords on the lot."
The addition of the pools has put the company in a bind for space. After reaching leasing agreements with neighboring companies, Rayside Truck & Trailer now has seven acres.
The shuffling that the showroom experienced has now spread to the shop. By leasing additional property for the pools, Rayside Truck & Trailer also picked up more shop space. The company will be moving its metal fabrication department to a leased building, freeing up additional space for truck body installation and a new 44-ft paint booth.
"The chassis pools have been an entirely new marketing approach for us," Rayside says. "It really is a partnership with the truck dealers."
It marks another major change for Rayside, who at age 12 asked for and received his own welding machine. A few years later, he began building his own light-duty trailers and opened a four-wheel-drive shop. When the business proved difficult, Rayside began selling truck accessories. After eight years of sending accessory customers to other companies to buy truck bodies, the company began distributing commercial truck bodies - primarily Reading service bodies and the Rayside line of platforms.
As Karen Rayside says, "We are always trying something different."