Discount Tire tunes IT to reinvent customer experience

Cracking the code for fast, reliable automotive service requires vision — especially in an era in which customers expect flexible, convenient experiences delivered on their terms.

For US tire retail chain Discount Tire inspiration for reinventing its retail automotive experience would come from familiar territory: the less than 20 seconds it takes a NASCAR pit crew to complete a pit stop. Think, a race car pulls into its pit, a crew chief calls out the work to be done, and a team of technicians tune the car to re-enter the race in a fraction of a minute, complete with four new tires, a full tank of gas, and a clean windshield.

But executing such a vision at scale to serve the customers of 1,100-plus retail locations would mean overhauling Discount Tire’s IT operations to take full advantage of the latest digital technologies, including automation and IoT. For CIO Gary Desai, future-proofing a frictionless experience for the on-the-go driver would be the key to ushering Discount Tire’s reputation as a people-first business into the digital era. 

The Pit Pass transformation

To operate efficiently in major urban areas, where real estate comes at a premium, Discount Tire would have to minimize both parking lot size and the number of SKUs it carries on any given day. Adopting a just-in-time delivery system could help accomplish that goal, but it would require a way to better anticipate customers’ needs.

Chief Experience Officer Tom Williams, who has spent nearly four decades with Discount Tire helping to improve the employee and the customer experience, understood that the efficiency of NASCAR mechanics is largely due to preparation. When a race car pits, crew members know exactly what they must do and step up to the car with the exact right tools in hand. In contrast, tire-change stores can take up to 30 minutes discerning the scope of work, checking inventory, and securing resources. And that’s when the right tires are in stock. Often, customers must return days later, after the store has procured those tires. 

Discount Tire’s solution? The Pit Pass concept, which would alleviate guesswork by incorporating a customer journey in which customer data could be collected ahead of their appointment with the goal of having them in and out in 20 minutes. The project was recently awarded a CIO US 100 Award for innovation and IT leadership.

Williams and Desai went to work bringing the concept to life, assembling a network of important industry and technology partners, including IBM Garage. To pull off the complex blend of informational and operational technologies (IT/OT) necessary for the transformation’s success, Williams and Desai assembled a cross-functional team that included associates from Discount Tire stores and business executives to help articulate the vision and represent the “voice of the employee and customer,” Williams says. 

The core group also drew heavily from Discount Tire’s supply chain, omni, risk, and product teams, which were essential to mobilizing the just in-time delivery model. They would determine how to handle deliveries — now far more frequent — and how to notify customers when tires became available for install. They would also recalibrate shop-floor gauges when new tire SKUs arrived and dispose of used tires. 

Finally, the leadership team enlisted a large systems integrator and a handful of niche vendors to address technology skill gaps, including working with scanners, cameras, and self-serve kiosks, as well as all the cabling, integrations, and other things needed to harmonize them.

In addition to drawing inspiration from NASCAR, Discount Tire took cues from the retail and restaurant industries, including ideas on how to display wait-times from the booking experience at salons and the use of handheld devices to provide the right data at the right time from top fast-food operators.

Winning culture

In many organizations, the same IT group handles both operations and innovation responsibilities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily ideal, either. Innovation’s value comes in part from its ability to enable companies to survive — and thrive — in the long run. Yet it’s rarely urgent, or at least it rarely feels so, and thus tends to give way to operational tasks that, while urgent in the near term, are less valuable in the long run. 

To facilitate the transformation, Desai separated innovation from ops and created a dedicated Pit Pass team that could concentrate on the project uninterrupted. “We had the system integrator, equipment manufacturers, and our own team all rolled into one dedicated camp for 18 months,” he says, adding that the team’s singular focus drove progress on the complex technical architecture. 

The principal objection to separating ops from innovation is often that doing so will re-erect silos within IT, especially if one side becomes the “cool kids’ table.”

“The split didn’t hurt our culture,” Desai says. This owed in part to the array of other innovation opportunities available to employees, he says, and to the company’s belief that many IT employees do, in fact, prefer to work in operations.   

What could have hurt Discount Tire’s culture was outsized expectations, especially for a transformation of this magnitude.

“When you’re doing something for the first time, especially with this many new technologies and integrations, it’s nearly impossible to estimate the initiative,” Desai says, a fact that underscores the importance of managing expectations and establishing a culture willing to embrace a test-and-learn mindset, he adds.   

Moreover, with pure innovation projects, total costs are very hard to predict, says Desai, who advises CIOs to prepare their leadership team for the twists and turns involved in pursuing any innovative concept. In the case of Discount Tire, the leadership team truly walked the innovation talk: They were patient, invested for the long term, and acknowledged the reality that everything won’t go as planned, he says.   

InOctober 2022, Discount Tire opened its first Pit Pass concept store near Atlanta, Georgia,Key accomplishments include a much smaller retail footprint, shorter in-store lead times, and positive employee and customer feedback.

With Pit Pass, customers can schedule appointments through the Discount Tire website and use Treadwell Tire Guide to find the right tires for them based on how and where they drive. Customers can also share key information and pay prior to their visit to create a more efficient experience. They can also view wait times at nearby stores, pick where they want their car serviced, and follow their position in a digital queue. When they arrive, drivers don’t have to park, go inside, and explain their issue; instead they stay in their car while the Discount Tire Pit Crew services the vehicle.  

For Desai, Discount’s leadership and culture were instrumental in pulling this off. For many organizations, that may not be the case. If so, remember not to neglect the part of your business that earned you the trust and capacity to experiment in the first place. After all, as Discount Tire’s Pit Pass transformation shows, reinventing your business model takes more than just vision. It requires building a robust partnership ecosystem, organizing cross-functional teams focused on the initiative at hand, and clearly managing expectations with leadership and key stakeholders.  

Automotive Industry, CIO 100, Digital Transformation