PELHAM, Ala. - Of three national used-car superstore chains, Driver's Mart Worldwide Inc. undeniably has been the slowest out of the blocks.
The dealer-run chain opened its second store here in suburban Birmingham last week. In contrast, arch-rival AutoNation USA, which opened for business only two months before Driver's Mart last year, already has 14 superstores open. CarMax, the pioneer of the concept, has 10.
But Driver's Mart means to make up time in a hurry. The company's franchisees have committed $150 million to opening 20 points by mid-1998, 12 by the end of this year. Another 20 points are under development, also at an estimated cost of $150 million.
'The good news is, Birmingham is finally open,' a beaming Driver's Mart President Tom Eggleston told a group of dealer franchisees, partner companies and employees gathered here last week for a grand opening celebration.
'The bad news is, we open a new store every two weeks from now until forever.'
'Bad' news because that means lots of evenings and weekends for Driver's Mart's corporate partner companies, trainers and the corporate staff, who have already been putting in long hours.
Sometimes criticized for being late to a very fast-moving party that already includes two major players with deeper pockets, Driver's Mart officials hope the time and money they have spent developing their concept will steer them around any potential potholes.
In contrast to its rivals, Driver's Mart stores are owned by the franchisee-dealers, not by the company. Those franchisees are responsible for their own real estate development and building expenses. Like the Saturn system, each dealer is given a territory to develop.
Also unlike its competitors, Driver's Mart has a skeletal corporate staff, preferring to rely on its contractor-partners to handle areas such as finance and insurance, vehicle reconditioning, employee training, advertising and marketing and so on.
One of those partner companies is Warwick Baker O'Neill, the Driver's Mart advertising agency in New York. Last week, O'Neill unveiled three TV spots designed to carry the company onto the national media stage.
Built on the theme 'A nearly new car. A brand new experience,' the ads develop the idea that car buying does not have to be a bad experience.
'You'll find people on every street who love everything about their car except how it feels to buy one,' one print ad reads.
Indeed, customer satisfaction will be a centerpiece of the Driver's Mart message.
J.D. Power III, the founder and chairman of J.D. Power and Associates, a company synonymous with quality and satisfaction surveys, has been an unpaid board member since Driver's Mart's early days. His company developed the Driver's Mart Academy training curriculum.
J.D. Power and Associates also will measure customer satisfaction at Driver's Mart stores, probably weekly, Power said. 'We're surveying 100 percent of the customers and providing reports back,' he said.
Driver's Mart has invested about $15 million in development and technology so far.
The company is betting heavily that the young professional families it hopes to woo as customers will take to its computer-driven sales process. Technology plays a major role in the Driver's Mart business plan.
The Internet will be central to Driver's Mart operations. Customers will be able to survey inventory and apply for financing via the Driver's Mart Web site, which is not yet open for public access.
Driver's Mart stores also have some techno twists the competitors do not have, such as a 'Smart Card.' The card enables customers using a computer kiosk to go out on the lot or leave the store. Then, when the customers return, they can swipe the card through a reader, call up their shopping list and pick up where they left off previously.
With a new system provided by Electronic Data Systems Corp., would-be car buyers on the Web will be able to gain access to Driver's Mart's vehicle database and search for cars by manufacturer, category and price. They also will be able to make purchases using credit card processing software.