CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. -- A visitor to Don Jenkins' dealerships in this north Tennessee city will find a fair share of brawny men. Steel-cut U.S. soldiers, some of them, along with guys quizzing salesmen about rugged towing packages.
But female shoppers are a little less plentiful.
So the dealer's daughter, Casey Jenkins, is doing something about that -- starting with a pink website and including such accessories as complimentary fingernail files and bouquets of flowers.
"What woman doesn't need a new fingernail file?" she asks, handing over one printed with these words: "Women at the Wheel.net. For women. By women."
The younger Jenkins -- the designated heir to the Jenkins & Wynne group of Ford, Lincoln and Honda dealerships in downtown Clarksville -- is on a mission to broaden the family's customer base -- not to diminish its loyal base of male customers, she clarifies. The goal is purely in the interest of helping women in the market feel more empowered to shop for vehicles, seek service work, buy a part or ask for customer service.
"I want to attack the problem of females not feeling knowledgeable when it comes to asking for service or sales help," says Jenkins, 34 and a repeat competitor in the grueling Ironman triathlon races. "You wouldn't believe how this has opened the door for women to call us and let their guard down and talk about cars."
Step one for the dealerships was a website, WomenattheWheel.net, created by Jenkins and her sister-in-law, fellow company manager Fran Jenkins. Emblazoned in pink, the site is not so much a sales site as an information center, Casey Jenkins says.
"It's not a girl-power site, and it's not really a selling site," she says. "It's a place where females can just ask about automotive things. Our hope is that they can learn more about sales, service, parts and even body-shop issues to make them better at communicating with a dealer, whether it's us or somebody else."
In truth, the stores have a manly kind of ambience to them. But male shoppers have been good to the dealerships since Don Jenkins' father and a partner opened for business in 1953. The Ford store is one of the brand's top retailers in Tennessee, thanks to good trade-in trucks. And a third of the group's 320 to 350 new- and used-car sales a month come from the Fort Campbell Army base on the north side of this market.
Fort Campbell is an enormous engine of the greater Clarksville market. It is the home of the 101st Airborne Division Screaming Eagles, the Green Beret 5th Special Forces and several other command units and Army intelligence groups. It boasts more than 83,000 active-duty military and family members.
But the business needs to keep growing, says dealer principal Don Jenkins, 65. Clarksville is growing and sprawling into new areas, and just across the street from him, Austin Peay State University's 10,000-student population is forecast to grow as the university expands its campus.
Jenkins wants his dealership group positioned for a bigger and more diverse community.
"With women, it's more of a trust issue," he says. "If they have a relationship with somebody they trust here at the dealership, then this is where they continue coming back."
The effort has included more diverse staffing, Casey Jenkins says.
"We now have women working in every department of Jenkins & Wynne, including parts and body shop," she says. "We have two in the body shop, and three female service writers.
"Sometimes females just feel a little more comfortable talking to other females," she says.
The WomenattheWheel website directs questions to a call center staffed by Casey and Fran Jenkins and a third female employee. They answer all calls, ranging from car specs to finance to mechanical issues -- or at least offer to track down answers.
Jenkins & Wynne also started a marketing campaign called "Going the Distance for You," with an eye toward reaching women. A customer can schedule a service appointment and arrange for a driver to pick up the car, take it in for servicing and bring it back afterward.
"For someone who has kids and has to get to work and run a household, if we can step into that part of her schedule and take care of it, then we've made her day," Casey Jenkins says.
Another campaign was dubbed "High Heels and Wheels." Jenkins opened the Honda store's service department for special events. The retailer invited women and families in to see what rotors are supposed to look like and learn why they need to be turned. Tire displays showed the difference between worn tire treads and new tires, and service staffers explained the importance of tire rotation and correct pressure. Vehicles were put on lifts to let the visitors see what goes on during service, as technicians pointed out underbody parts and procedures.
She also participates in meetings at Fort Campbell for a program the Army calls the Family Readiness Group. Family Readiness makes sure that the spouses and dependents of soldiers are taken care of and know where to find community resources they need -- including getting a car serviced.
In February, the group's service departments gave out bouquets of Valentine's flowers to female customers when they picked up their cars.
Ford Motor Co. has taken an interest in the dealership's outreach to women. Casey Jenkins has been asked to speak with several meetings of Ford's dealer body about her campaign.
"What your sex is makes no difference in our dealership," says her father. "But I tell all the people on my sales force, when a family comes in here, the guy might be the mouthpiece, but it's typically the woman who makes the family budget. She's the one who knows what they can spend.
"So if you're going to ignore one of them, you'd be better off to ignore the man and focus on the woman."