Designing a store with a clean sheet of paper may seem like a dream come true, but knowing how to situate the retail space is critical to a successful layout. When Camp-Site RV moved to a new location in 2008, the small Iowa dealership’s owners knew they needed some help with their parts store plans and relied on expert help to create a space that not only looks good, but moves merchandise, too.
“When we were putting this store together, we went out and looked at all the different distributors we deal with,” says Steve McCarville, co-owner and sales manager. Regional distributor Northern Wholesale “actually came up with a nice package for us and put the most effort going forward,” he says. “They did a real nice job of coming down setting our store.”
The most obvious improvement for Camp-Site customers is sheer inventory, according to McCarville, because the original store had little room for parts.
“We had a gas station, then we had a bigger lot right next to us and we put a mobile office out there and made that our parts store,” he says. “Then, when we decided we were going to gradually get out of the automotive business, we took one of our bays in the shop and we sold the mobile office. Then we started bringing our offices into the station and we made our store a little bit bigger.”
Still, that wasn’t enough, especially since Camp-Site was the only full-service RV dealership in a 70-mile radius of Cresco, a small town situated in the northeastern corner of the Hawkeye State that’s perhaps better known as the home of Featherlite Inc. McCarville says Camp-Site – which he opened in the early 1990s with co-owner and Service Manager Tom Kubik – had room for just the basics.
“Eventually, we knew that we were kind of outgrowing this area because the trailers were getting bigger and that’s when we decided to move out here,” McCarville says. “At our new store, we’ve got a really good selection of everything.”
New Store Offers Huge Selection of Parts & Accessories
At its peak, the old location only had 15,000 parts in inventory. By contrast, the new store, which opened in fall 2008 and sits on 8 acres, has room for more than 50,000 parts. McCarville notes there are plenty of displays in the store now to help sell product. Among the big movers are chairs, awnings, vent covers and insect screens.
“We always want to try new product,” he says. “A lot of times we get ideas from our customers. They’ll come in after they see it somewhere and they want to know if we can get it and we’ll try it. If it does well, and if the product starts moving, we’ll stock it.”
That kind of open-mindedness led to Camp-Site stocking gas and electric scooters two years ago, says Heather Johnson, who works primarily in Camp-Site’s sales and finance departments. Those are products not even Camping World yet offers, but due to the big-box retailer’s distance from Cresco (the nearest store is a three-hour drive north to Minneapolis), the chain isn’t considered serious competition.
“Once in a while, a customer brings in a catalog and they have a cheaper price,” Johnson says. “We just usually honor it, but not very often does somebody come in with one."
Camp-Site also uses Stag-Parkway as a supplier and relies on the distributor’s monthly flyers to drive business to the store, McCarville says, and uses Stag for its Internet parts site, too. Although online sales constitute a small part of the business, parts and service together combined for about 30 percent of Camp-Site’s total annual sales.
Service is Key to Camp-Site RV
Given that Camp-Site, which employs 12 people year-round (plus five during the busy summer rental season), began as an offshoot to McCarville and Kubik’s auto repair business, it’s not surprising that service is a key part of the dealership’s operations.
“We’re very service oriented here. That’s what we’ve built this business on,” Kubik says. “We’ve done considerably well through the winter months as the shop is pretty much full. We’ve been able to take on a lot of winter work. We haven’t had to lay anybody off in the winters here, which is something we’re happy about.”
Camp-Site’s nine-bay service department takes up most of the single structure that houses the dealership, and Kubik and his five technicians can handle most any request except motorized chassis work and full-body paint jobs.
“There aren’t a lot of service shops in our area and there isn’t any type of work that we don’t do, so that probably puts us a cut above the rest of the shops around,” he says. “We will take on bodywork, we do complete roof and siding replacements and we do some other renovation work. We do a little bit of horse trailer interior work, so a lot of that stuff shows up in the winter months. People are willing to let go of their horse trailers, for example, so we can do some rework inside.”
Dealership Open to Customer-Technician Interaction
One facet of the service department Kubik is proud of is the informal relationship between customers and staff, something many dealers don’t do in light of liability concerns and time constraints.
“People can come to our dealership and actually talk to the technicians. They’re welcome back to the shop and talk to them if they have a question. I know in a lot of places you can’t do that,” he says. “They can really talk to the guy who fixed the unit. It’s hard for any service writer to know the specifics to a job unless they were there actually working on it. Sometimes the customer has more questions than a service writer can answer.”
Camp-Site sells mostly Forest River, KZ and Palomino towable units, so Kubik’s team does a lot of hitch work, both on the tow vehicle as well as on the rear of fifth wheels and trailers. Accessories, of course, rank high, too.
“The satellite thing has really exploded in the last three to four years, too. Those have become a larger part of the accessories that we’ve installed,” he says. “We also do a lot of slide-out awnings.”
Mobile Service a Profitable Niche
Another unusual aspect of Camp-Site’s service department started about 10 years ago, Kubik says, and it’s turned become a profitable addition to the bottom line.
“We have a mobile service business. It’s working out quite well. There are times when it’s a little overwhelming, especially in the earlier part of the year when you have a lot of people setting up,” he says. “There are times when I can be gone two to three days a week just doing that.”
Kubik says the service began when Camp-Site would set up units for its rental customers in the numerous campgrounds surrounding Cresco; usually, a neighbor asked for help with a problem on a unit, then another request quickly followed it. The trick, he says, is making sure the correct parts are loaded on the truck as the day begins.
“You’ve got to anticipate what kind of trouble you may run into when you get out there. It’s gotten to where it’s rare that we’ve got to make second trips,” according to Kubik. “Usually we can get there with everything we need the first time out.”
As is the case with any service department, Kubik says there’s room for improvement.
“We haven’t progressed to being totally certified. I think that’s something for us in the future. Some of it is due to our dealership size. Sometimes we stay so busy, I can’t really let the guys get away, but we don’t compete against other shops that are certified,” he says. “Our guys are trained well, it’s just that we haven’t gone and done the actual classes and paperwork.”
Dealership Makes the Most of Training
Fortunately, Camp-Site’s distributors have offer training that Kubik’s staff has been able to attend on occasion; in addition, his lead technician has been with the dealership for 20 years and acts as a mentor to rest of the team. Still, Kubik would like to chance to more formal training for his technicians.
“Sometimes when they run these classes, they’re not at opportune times. For example, this spring, there was one in March, which happened about the time we had an RV show offsite, so it was hard to let the guys go do that. When we had this thing going on, we were a little short-staffed around here anyway,” he says. “A lot of times, we can travel two or three hours to get to one.”
Distance also affects Camp-Site’s ability to attend auctions, a popular way for dealers to build used inventory. Fortunately, the dealer has a good rental business.
“We do have a lot of people who rent year after year and they might rent two or three times through the course of the summer,” Kubik says. “The other good part is after the unit’s been rented for a number of seasons, we always have some nice stuff to put on our used lot.”
Camp-Site was relatively quick to jump on the rental bandwagon, Kubik says, again due to customer demand. When it started renting in the mid-90s, pop-ups were the only product offered; today, the dealership also rents 15 KZ Coyote bunkhouses.
The dealership recently entered another niche: slide-in truck campers. In 2008, McCarville and his sales staff began selling products from Northstar Campers, a longtime manufacturer based in nearby Cedar Falls.
“We have a lot of customers who deal with horses around the area,” he says. “There used to be another guy who had the Northstar line here and he did pretty well with them. He passed away so we took on the franchise.”
Although McCarville admits truck campers make up a fraction of his total sales figures, offering the products is just further proof Camp-Site pays attention to its customers.
Keeping Options Open to New Business Ventures
The dealership, which last year sold 180 units (evenly split between new and used), is on track to do more than 200 this year, and McCarville says he’s thinking about adding two more full-timers to the staff. Other future plans include a paint booth.
“With all the fiberglass units that are out there right now, it takes a pretty good sized building. We can do the spot repairs, but if we want to get into the major stuff like sidewall painting, we have to put a paint booth,” he says.
For some dealers, such an expansion requires significant outlay to meet stringent regulations. That, in turn, demands a steady stream of vehicles, including non-RV types, to amortize the investment, but McCarville isn’t worried.
“I would think there’d be other business out there. Most of the body shops around the area do not have a big enough building to put some of this stuff in,” he says. “It’s an avenue we’d have to look at when we get there. Right now it’d be just for RVs.”