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Andrew Davies, vice-president of automotive for Canadian Tire

Michelle Siu

It doesn't smell much like tires and even has a touch of glitz with lit-up shelves, digital screens and a racing car overhead, seemingly suspended from the ceiling.

But Canadian Tire 's auto store of the future, which launches in three cities within the next two weeks, is the iconic retailer's latest attempt to return to its roots by pumping up its auto business with modern twists.

While the retail chain has been able to draw auto aficionados, it has struggled to rev up its business among a broader array of customers – including women – who drive to the stores but don't tend to shop for car-related products and services. Now Canadian Tire's three test auto shops, one of which was unveiled to journalists on Wednesday in Bowmanville, Ont., about an hour east of Toronto, is aimed at bridging that gap.

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"It's geared toward anyone driving a car, which is women also," said Allan MacDonald, senior vice-president of automotive at Canadian Tire. "A lot of male customers don't know much about autos," he added. "The depth of knowledge in the general population is lower" than in the past as cars become more complex and the number of tire sizes exploded from just a few years ago.

Canadian Tire feels an urgency to get more shoppers browsing its auto aisles. A recent customer satisfaction survey showed that tire buyers have the lowest satisfaction ratings among the retailer's shoppers. Even the chief executive officer of Canadian Tire has scoffed at its record in those aisles: "After 88 years, surely we can install a set of tires and a customer can go away happy," Stephen Wetmore said last year.

At the time, the CEO set out his aspiration of boosting tire sales by 4 per cent to 5 per cent annually, compared with an anticipated 1.9-per-cent market growth.

The auto-care business is a cornerstone of Canadian Tire's retailing and "it's totally unacceptable not to have that business ... at peak performance," Mr. Wetmore said in April of 2010.

Today, its auto store of the future – components of which will be rolled out in all its stores over the next two years – is his team's quest to reach peak performance. It borrows a page from the store-design playbook of Shoppers Drug Mart, with lit-up shelves that spotlight a brand of car cleaner that is carried only at Canadian Tire.

Just as Shoppers strives to draw a broad array of customers with roomy aisles and a wide array of products, Canadian Tire's new auto shop is broadening its reach by stocking everything from mobile phones, computer tablets and – soon to arrive for holiday shopping – a smart-phone app device that locks, unlocks, starts a vehicle and finds it in a parking lot.

To persuade consumers that Canadian Tire is thinking of its customers, the new auto shop has drive-in service, which entails an employee greeting the driver and finding out about the car's problems on the spot, rather than the driver having to park and walk into the store. The test store boasts 20 bays for car repairs (compared with an average 10 in the chain's other auto shops), and a garage with sleek stainless-steel counters and drawer units to store tools.

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Canadian Tire is also trying to improve its speed of tire deliveries by shipping tires to stores six days a week, rather than just once a week, to ensure tires are on hand when customers want them.

As well, it relaunched its e-commerce website a month ago, starting with tires, allowing shoppers to make their purchase online and go to the store for installation – and possibly other products at the same time. It's a bid to grab back online tire sales from foreign players that dominate the field. As Mr. Wetmore said recently, "tens of millions of dollars" of those sales are going to out-of-country Web operators – to such an extent that it "frightened us ... Without an employee present in the country, they've managed to grab a significant piece of that business, and we just intend to take it back."

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About the Author
Retailing Reporter

Marina Strauss covers retailing for The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. She follows a wide range of topics in the sector, from the fallout of foreign retailers invading Canada to how a merchant such as the Swedish Ikea gets its mojo. She has probed the rise and fall (and revival efforts) of Loblaw Cos., Hudson's Bay and others. More

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