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The Power of Appearance

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In today’s rapidly evolving collision repair industry, first impressions are everything.

If your shop doesn’t sit well visually with customers or insurers, you could lose ground in a hurry.

Ann Salazar, associate member of the American Institute of Architects and president of Avant Garde Interiors, talked with FenderBender’s Jake Weyer about changing expectations for shop appearance and the latest design trends.

How important is shop appearance, both inside and out, in the collision repair industry today? Why is it important?

Shop appearance is very important, more than ever, and more so in denser populations where there is more competition. As much as I’d love to say, “Don’t judge a book by the cover,” in this ever-changing, fast-paced society, first impression may be all we have to grab someone’s attention and draw them in the door. Once you have that, then you can show them what else you have to offer. Advertisements showing that you offer great service is not enough these days. A shop needs to get customers’ attention first, so that they can receive great service and go brag about it to their friends.

Today I’m seeing a tremendous growth in dealer body shops, franchises, and consolidated groups of shops. These big commercial businesses devote money to branding, where all their locations share the same professional image. They share the same website, signage design and building colors. They build to impress and project the professional image.

Branding aims for a recognizable image people can associate with. Businesses across the country use branding through repetition of design to give them a bigger presence. They understand that potential customers experience branding from the shoes they wear to the coffee they drink. Why not do the same for body shops? In this economy, it is more important than ever for a shop to recognize this and strive to project similar images of confidence and professionalism, to leave a lasting impression that will stand above their competitors. A shop’s appearance needs to make a statement that says, “We are great at what we do and we are here to stay.”

Have expectations for shop appearance changed over time? How? Are they still changing?

Yes, expectations have changed because the customers who bring their vehicles into shops have changed. People my parents’ age come from a time where there is typically one breadwinner, one car owner, one driver in the family. Typically that would be the man of the house and as such, they would be the typical customer who would bring their vehicles in for estimates.

Over the past 40 years, we have witnessed various movements toward equality for women and people of diverse backgrounds. More people are allowed to obtain higher education levels and hold jobs that would afford more vehicle owners on the road. Hence while the demand grew, so did the number of shops.

As such, expectations for shop appearance changed as businesses became more competitive. Nowadays, as the more technology-savvy younger generations come to driving age, it will become more and more apparent that expectations have changed. We have grown to be an Internet-dependent society. Technology is developed everyday to help us navigate around town and around our neighborhood. Just look at the number of apps we have available at our fingertips to download to our smart phones.

In this information age, we can look up anything. Whether a shop has a website or not, we can just type in a few keywords, and quickly find a list of collision centers in our town on a map, and view the storefront of a shop. We can read reviews just as easily. Sure reputation is still important, but more and more people are now shopping online for the best place to go. Some shops even have websites with galleries consisting of 360-degree tours of shop space, such as you’d see when searching for hotels. With tools like that, you bet expectations of shop appearance will be a key element. If you get them interested enough to come through your door, the rest is up to you to keep them there until they sign the work order.

Are there any popular trends in shop design today? Things shops regularly ask you about or that you recommend?

The No. 1 reason projects come through our office for existing or new construction is still the question of how best to lay out the shop to maximize production efficiency within the space they have or want to build. If it is new construction, we need to find out where to place the building for overall vehicle flow around the property by customers and employees. People are careful with not growing too fast. So some of the requests would be to design for future expansion in phases.

In California, waterborne paint is required. Shop owners want to find out the best layout for new equipment. If the shop is going green, and the state is not mandating the switch, their marketing campaign would be all over it to show that they are environmentally responsible.

Every project has different design requirements and design restrictions, so I’d have to determine the best approach in order to meet our client’s expectations and then aim beyond that. I achieve this by paying attention to building and design trade magazines and discussion groups in the industry for the latest trends, as well as attending seminars on case studies and building code changes so that I stay informed. Here are a few ideas:

• An indoor or canopied estimating and delivery area sheltered from the elements.

• A desk area for insurance adjusters. Even though most adjusters could work from their own cars, the doesn’t mean they would not appreciate a dedicated desk where they can plug in their laptop and work indoors, away from the elements outside. Since most customers ask their insurance rep for recommendations, providing this courtesy, which doesn’t take up much space, could help your shop stand out from your competitors and potentially bring you more DRP business.

• For shops specializing in high-end luxury vehicles, aluminum repair areas may be required and are often requested.

• For the “wow” factor, having a window from the customer area into an area you are proud to show off can make a big impact. One example would be a window into the cool down/de-mask area, into a clean and uncluttered shop space, or into a dedicated re-assembly or delivery area.

• A coffee/refreshment bar in the customer lounge with a TV and Internet stations.

• A clean, spa-like feeling in the customer areas, including restrooms.

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