It would be easy for many to believe the cratered economy has kept customers out of dealerships in droves, but at Wilkins RV in upstate New York, that wasn’t the case in 2009. Unit sales were up dramatically compared to 2008 and owner Brian Wilkins is hiring staff. The reason, he says, is because people still want to go camping.
Wilkins RV, which began life as a detail and body shop started by Wilkins’ grandfather in 1936 in Hornell, N.Y., was on track in late 2009 to sell almost 700 motorhomes and towables by year’s end, or almost 100 more than it did in 2008, but he can’t put his finger on the exact reasons for the increase.
“Why are we doing more units? We just saw stronger interest this year than we did last year. I don’t know if it’s because in this area the economy may have bottomed the second half of last year or what it was,” says Wilkins, who also serves as general manager of the dealership that’s been located since 2006 on a 27-acre site in nearby Bath.
The turnaround began at a Syracuse RV show just after New Year’s Day 2009, and demand has remained high.
“That show started at 10 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 2, and from noon that day through the whole weekend, we had good, strong traffic,” Wilkins says. “Starting with that event, and going through the whole year, our traffic was up month to month over last year all year long.”
A certified public accountant, Wilkins is a realist when it comes to numbers and he’s quick to explain higher unit sales don’t mean things are back to normal.
“We’re selling more, but we’re selling lower-dollar stuff. In used trailers, we’re very strong, and in used fifth wheels, we’re very strong,” he says. “In new towables, we’re probably in line with where we were last year, but where we’ve made our gains was in used towables and motorhomes. What we’ve found is we did more units this year. Our dollars weren’t necessarily up, so it’s more work to get there, but we’re getting there.”
Product Mix Changes with Time, Circumstances
Like dealers throughout the country, Wilkins’ product mix has changed considerably from it was once, he says, as 90 percent of what he sells now are towable products. In better times, that number was 70 percent. He also moves more used units today and just 40 percent of the towables and motorhomes leaving the lot are new; the new-used ratio used to be 50-50.
To meet customer demand for less expensive products, Wilkins created the Repo Depot, and it consists of repossessed new and used RVs priced within more buyers’ budgets.
“That was the thing customers were looking for this year. They wanted to camp, but they wanted to do it more affordably. They wanted that deal – a new unit that was a repo and they could buy for 30 or 40 percent off, or a used unit they could buy for 20 percent less than a new one,” he says. “I think that bodes well for the industry because what it showed was people want to camp, they’re buying campers and although maybe they’re not buying new this year, they’re getting something. They’re getting into the pastime and down the road they’re going to be upgrading those campers to new ones.”
When its customers are ready to make that leap, Wilkins RV has a variety of manufacturers to choose from, including Heartland, Newmar, Keystone RV, Forest River and Gulf Stream. The dealership’s youngest manufacturer relationship (with towable builder Heartland) is now almost five years old, while its others are at least 10 or more.
“We’re kind of slow to make changes with manufacturers, and once we make a change, we’re pretty loyal,” he says. “As long as we get treated fairly by a manufacturer, and we have a good relationship with them, we’re going to stick with them.”
Facility Tailor-Made for Showing Off Units
To show off those units, Wilkins’ four-year-old facility was accordingly tailor-made. A single, 51,000-square-foot building features a 4,000-square-foot showroom capable of holding 10 to 15 units. One might assume the showroom is most beneficial during a Northeastern winter, but Wilkins says that’s not the case.
“You’d be amazed what a showroom does year-round. We’re constantly selling out of the showroom,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s because they’re the first units people see, I don’t know if it’s because there are décor kits inside them that dresses them up, I don’t know if it’s the lighting in the showroom that makes them look better, but if we change the showroom completely out and put 15 units in the showroom, three of those units will be sold within a week or two.”
Certainly, Wilkins RV’s location along heavily traveled I-86 and south of the freeway’s junction with I-390 helps bring business the dealership simply couldn’t attract 20 miles west in Hornell.
“That was the main reason why we moved,” Wilkins says. “An interstate location in Hornell on I-86 would miss all the I-390 traffic. By moving east 20 miles, we got all the I-86 and I-390 traffic. That includes anybody coming south from Rochester, Buffalo, and Canada. It’s a good chunk of traffic.”
The location also makes it easier to sell parts and services. With a 3,000-square-foot store and a 20-bay service department, Wilkins RV has established a presence among its competitors, including a Camping World store just down the road and a pair of others less than two hours away. For the parts department, being surrounded by RV’s big box boys isn’t a serious detriment.
“I would say, overall, we don’t let them dictate our business too much. We run things the way we feel we should run things,” Wilkins says. “I would say that we do keep an eye on their catalog and try to make sure that our pricing is competitive.”
It helps, of course, that Wilkins RV is a REDEX RV priority parts store dealer.
“With that, we have a catalog that comes out four times a year and it has all types of different specials,” he says. “It’s a nice catalog. It has some great specials and pricing in it and, at shows, you see customers picking it up. We’ve seen customers come in the door with catalog in hand. It seems to be a good promotion.”
Wilkins mails a portion of the catalog to customers and hands out a portion of it at the store. In addition, Wilkins RV sends its own monthly newsletter via e-mail with unit, parts and service specials. Wilkins also depends on his “pillar of the department,” Parts Manager Dave Watt, who’s been with the dealership for a decade.
Watt leads a crew of two staffers who work the counter and the service department. To help keep things under control, Wilkins is hiring a shipping and receiving person to replace the employee let go during a round of layoffs last year that ultimately claimed 20 people; his staff today numbers in the low 40s.
Product Training Taking on Added Importance
Another area Wilkins intends to improve is training. When the dealership made a switch from Coast to NTP as its distributor in November, he was determined to make product education a key component of the relationship.
“Part of the conversation with NTP was to work with us and find a way to get somebody in here doing training once a week,” he says. “Products we sell are getting more and more complex every day. If we’re aren’t teaching our parts people about what these products are and what they do, they aren’t going to be able to explain them to our customers.”
In the Information Age of today, knowledge is vital for every employee in the parts department.
“Our customers are coming in and they either are smarter than us or they think they’re smarter than us,” Wilkins says. “If we’re not on our toes and we don’t know our product, they’re going to walk out of here either frustrated that we couldn’t give them the information or thinking that we just gave them a line of BS because they don’t agree with what we told them.”
Suggestive selling plays a big role at Wilkins RV, with both parts and service people participating in the effort.
“On day of delivery, our parts staff walks the customer through the parts department talking with them about things they’re going to need, and some things that are recommended,” he says. “We call it a ‘needs,’ ‘recommendations’ and ‘wants’ list.”
Customers receive a $25 gift certificate to get them started, along with a 0-percent discount for any parts they may buy in the 30 days after they take delivery.
“Our technicians, when they do the walk-through, also do suggestive selling of different items such as screen guards for the furnaces and water heaters, and slide toppers,” Wilkins says. “I think it’s important to have all the departments working in unison.”
On the service side, Wilkins RV has 10 techs divided into two teams: one is devoted to customer work, while the other does PDIs. About the only work Wilkins sublets is paint and lamination-related jobs; for that, like other dealers across the U.S., he turns to local specialty shops.
Stable Group of Techs Keeps Dealership Humming Along
While Wilkins wonders if building his own paint booth might be worth it after seeing his paint and body invoices, one area that hasn’t been much trouble lately is his tech staff.
“We don’t have much turnover within our techs. We did when we moved over here. Once we replaced them with new guys, we’re to the point now where we’ve got a pretty stable force down there,” he says. “Over the last few years, I’ve needed to find about one tech a year. It’s difficult to do, but they are out there and you’ve just got to work at it. Fortunately, I’m looking for one a year versus having to find four or five a year.”
Usually, most dealerships have difficulties fill empty tech slots, but Wilkins bucks conventional wisdom in this case.
“At this point, I would probably disagree with that only because from my situation, I’m in a good position, tech-wise. Two years from now I might not be and then I’ll be saying, ‘Yeah, it is,’” he says. “I think they’re all hard. I really do. I think they’re all hard.”
As for certification, Wilkins believes it’s as important as training.
“Generally speaking, any employee who is in a position that has a certification, we would like them to be certified if they’ve been here for more than a year. Of our technicians, eight of the 10 are certified,” he says.
Other service and parts people are expected to become certified, too, according to Wilkins, although he’s relaxed the requirement a little during the economy. Still, he’s convinced the dealership benefits from certification in multiple ways.
“I think it’s something the sales people can promote and I also think it’s good for their morale,” he says. “I don’t know that it’s something customers really look for. I think it will mean something to them if you’re promoting it.”