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Improve Your Curb Appeal

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The iconic neon sign that hangs above the Charlie Graham Body and Service shop in Omaha, Neb., shows the services available: A crumpled wreck of a car is transformed into a refurbished beauty. Only trouble was, the sign itself was starting to look too much like a run-down wreck.

After hanging in the Omaha wind, rain, sun and sleet for 40 years, making customers exclaim and neighbors chuckle, the sign deserved a make-over, decided Jim Champion, Charlie Graham’s owner. The neon still worked, so in December, in front of a few cameras and some local media, Champion and his crew watched as workers from Neon Products Co. Inc. gently guided the sign down and took it in to the shop to disassemble, restore and repaint it.

One month and several thousand dollars later, the beloved sign is back, brighter and more vibrant than ever. Champion says the makeover was worth every penny since customers commented on the sign so frequently. “We got comments almost daily,” says Champion, who spent almost $8,000 on the sign’s renovation. “It’s part of the history of this area of the city. We felt we should restore it.”

Collision repair businesses are not known for the aesthetics of the outside of their shops. Customers and neighbors are more likely to think of concrete block buildings and grease-stained driveways than they are to envision manicured lawns and shiny signage. But the competition is fierce out there, and marketing yourself is important, even when budgets are tight.

Nothing gives a stronger first impression than the visual aesthetics of your shop, says Lauren Rosenberg, owner of LRPR Lauren Rosenberg Public Relations in Santa Monica, Calif.
“It’s all about image,” says Rosenberg, who works with the automotive industry. “Everybody expects a body shop to look grungy. It’s a garage. So it’s the one that stands apart that’s going to bring the customers in.”

LOTS OF OPTIONS

When Vartan Jerian Jr., vice president of H & V Collision Centers Inc. in Troy, N.Y., bought his company’s second location in Queensbury, he knew it was going to require some investment to keep up the property. The new shop sits on four acres of land, and while the previous owner had done a pretty good job of keeping up with the mowing himself, Jerian had a grander vision for the property.

“We planted flowers and shrubbery and trees, and we’re planning more improvements and landscaping,” says Jerian of the new shop, which is situated near a lot of dealerships—and potential customers.

The investment has already paid off: The shop won an award from the local Chamber of Commerce for most improved landscape design. It’s also part of the reason, Jerian believes, that the shop has beat the former owner’s best-ever sales month every month since it came under H & V ownership in the early spring of 2008.

“[The landscaping] is a form of advertising,” Jerian says, and one that he thinks conveys a commitment to caring for the planet, which goes along with the company’s efforts to be more environmentally conscientious by using waterborne paints.

When the shop had just one location, in Troy, Jerian and his colleagues took care of the landscape design and maintenance themselves. But as the company has grown, the workload has gotten to be too much for them. They now contract with two commercial landscape companies at their two locations. He acknowledges that it’s more expensive that way—H & V budgets $10,000 to $15,000 a year for grounds upkeep at each location—but he says the expense is worth it.

“We get comments all the time” about the landscaping, Jerian says. In fact, “people used to ask us if we’d come over and build them a retaining wall,” he says with a laugh, joking about whether he might even be missing out on a side business opportunity in the landscaping industry.

All joking aside, there are lots of different ways a body shop can beautify itself without spending as much money as H & V does, Jerian says. Your shop’s appearance can be improved by simply planting a few flowers or trees, or adding some mulch or stone to a property. Buying these things in bulk decreases the expense further still.

The parking lot can offer another less-expensive opportunity to improve the look of things outdoors. H & V spends just $2,000 a year seal-coating and repainting the lines of the 70 spots in the parking lot. Those spots are an important part of H & V’s business planning, having been positioned just so in order to maximize traffic flow among customers dropping off vehicles, cars waiting to be retrieved, and staff parking.

H & V also goes all out for Christmas with lights and decorations, right when the snow starts and people bring their cars in with the fender benders that always accompany the transition to driving in inclement weather. Customers seem to appreciate the festive feel, he says: “Anything you can do to ease the stress level.”

COMMUNITY SPIRIT

Part of what drove Champion of the Charlie Graham body shop to renovate the sign was support for the community. The neighborhood his shop is in, the Midtown section of Omaha, was undergoing a revitalization project called Destination Midtown. The shop is located at the front end of Midtown, the part of town that is home to such large employers as Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. And with 50,000 cars per day driving past his shop into Midtown, Champion knows his business represents more than just his body shop; it’s essentially a gateway into the Midtown area.

“People who drive nice cars are visual people, and nothing speaks more to your ability to make their car beautiful again than what your shop looks like.”
—Lauren Rosenberg, owner,
LRPR Lauren Rosenberg Public Relations

“If your sign is run down, it gives people the impression that the area is run down,” says Champion, who is active in the Midtown business community. “We want people to think, ‘Hey, this is the place to be.’ So our sign isn’t just advertising for us, it’s even bigger and broader than that. It’s about showing that this is a cool and vibrant area.”

Keeping on good terms with the community and surrounding neighborhood takes many different forms. One of the most important aspects of building strong business relationships within the community is maintaining an outward appearance that respects the efforts of the business owners and homeowners around you, Rosenberg says. “Anything that enhances the neighborhood is going to be welcomed” by city councils—and oftentimes, that’s the same body that makes the zoning decisions that can affect your future expansion or renovation plans. Helping the community, then, is ultimately the same as helping yourself.

Some communities have programs to encourage business owners to beautify the exterior of their businesses, says Champion. His Midtown area of Omaha has a grant program that will buy large, outdoor planters for businesses if they agree to maintain the foliage in them.

“It really is good to see the colorful flowers,” says Champion, who has trees and potted plants in front of his shop. “It tells people you care about the neighborhood. It just makes people feel good.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

Most body shops operate on a pretty tight budget, and when it comes to a decision about whether to buy a new paint booth or landscape the front lawn, it’s hard to argue for the latter.

“Those are tough questions,” Champion admits. “Obviously, equipment purchases are important to productivity, and the exterior is looked at as a secondary concern. I think as business owners, we’re all guilty of forgetting about the exterior because we’re so focused on our business. But that’s what brings people in.”

At its heart, beautifying the exterior of your shop is a marketing strategy, and marketing is often the first thing to go when budgets get tight. However, it’s important—maybe more important than ever—to prioritize marketing when sales are down. After all, the only way to increase revenue is to get more business, Rosenberg says, and that means drawing in new customers with their all-important first impressions.

“People who drive nice cars are visual people, and nothing speaks more to your ability to make their car beautiful again than what your shop looks like,” Rosenberg says. “[An attractive aesthetic] will absolutely increase your bottom line because it’ll set you apart from the sea of body shops out there. People want to be impressed.”

When trying to decide whether the next investment should go inside or outside the shop, it might pay to reflect on the purpose of a collision repair shop: to make a car’s exterior beautiful again. “If you have a beautiful car, you take pride in your expensive purchase,” Rosenberg says. “You want to drive into a shop that appreciates your car as much as you do.” And surely, how much you appear to care about your shop suggests something about how much you’ll care about every customer’s car.

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