Merlin 200,000 Mile Shops

 Merlin 2

With innovative tech and by working closely with its partners,

Merlin 200,000 Mile Shops aims to double its growth.

By Bianca Herron

Forty-two years ago, Merlin 200,000 Mile Shops was founded as Merlin’s Muffler & Brake. The St. Charles, Ill.-based company changed its name in 2006 because it saw vehicles were made to last longer, and there was an opportunity to help customers enjoy the full life of their vehicles. The automotive industry had shifted to higher technology engines and stainless steel exhaust products, meaning vehicles were made to last far beyond their initial warranty period. 

 

“Merlin wanted to be the automotive maintenance and repair provider to help the average driver on their journey to 200,000 miles and that’s where Merlin’s focus was directed,” General Manager Ray Munoz says.

“When I was younger, I remember seeing cars broke down on the interstate every few miles,” Munoz recalls. “You don’t see that anymore. I Merlins Fact Boxthink that’s because technology made it possible for cars to run more efficiently and car manufacturers have improved the quality of products it’s selling the American consumer.”

Today, Merlin is a premier automotive repair and maintenance franchise dedicated to helping drivers enjoy the full life of their vehicle, ultimately providing “incredible value” to customers, Munoz notes.

THE DRIVE FOR 200,000, Merlin’s proprietary maintenance program, is an easy and affordable plan that not only covers vehicles through the manufacturer’s warranty period but up to 200,000 miles and beyond,” Munoz says. “THE DRIVE is based on 3,000-mile increments, so it’s simple to understand. It’s presented to customers via a ‘coffee table’ stylebook, unlike traditional maintenance schedules, which are compressed down to a few pages and are hard to read.” 

THE DRIVE has five service packages with highly recommended services at certain mileage points, which can be purchased as add-ons if needed at the time, Munoz notes, adding that this helps keep the price lower than a traditional dealership maintenance package.  “When a customer is on THE DRIVE, all they really need to remember is to come see us every 3,000-miles,” Munoz explains. “Additionally, Merlin’s warranties and programs are wrapped around the 200,000-mile proposition to inform customers that Merlin Shops are ready to service their vehicle for the long haul.”  

Helping customers enjoy the full life of their vehicles and postponing another round of car payments is “absolutely always” top of mind for Merlin Shops, Munoz says.   “We say, ‘life is better without car payments,’” he says. “Plus, when it does come time for the repair of brakes, suspension, or tire replacement we want to be the service provider of choice. It’s a natural fit if customers already come to us for maintenance and have a good rapport with Merlin.”

Key Advantages

Merlin has 36 shops employing approximately 200 people. The shops are located in three states, with the majority in Chicagoland, two in Wisconsin and one in Georgia. Merlin also has a freestanding training facility located in Geneva, Ill.

“Merlin’s Training Center is set up to resemble a typical Merlin shop environment with a mock waiting room, two-bay garage with state-of-the-art Hunter equipment, a classroom and tech service area,” Munoz says. “We believe very strongly in and focus much effort on training by offering up to 50 technical and management classes provided at no charge to franchisees and technicians.

“Additionally, there are approximately 125 e-training courses available for Merlin technicians and franchisees to take year-round 24/7,” he adds. “E-training courses are perfect to get new employees up to speed, or to sharpen the skills of current staff. They effectively bridge the gap until the employee can attend classes at the Merlin Training Center and have the advantage of combined knowledge.”

When recruiting franchisees, Merlin looks for individuals with a “retail mindset.” “They have to have a servant mentality,” Munoz explains. “So, first and foremost, we are looking for people who thrive on customer connection, customer interaction, and customer relationships. The second thing we look for is an individual’s willingness to follow a franchise system, adopt Merlin’s sales procedures and effectively use the tools and programs provided to them.

“Merlin’s one-stop service approach combined with the 200,000 Mile Proposition affords franchise owners a significant edge over and sets us apart from other automotive chains,” he continues.

For those who decide to become part of the company’s franchise family, Munoz notes Merlin provides franchisees with three key advantages. “The first key advantage is Merlin’s Operations support,” he says. “The operations team is dedicated to assisting franchisee employment best practices to implement Merlin’s sales process and Signature Programs, resulting in a shop with healthy vital statistics and sales volume. Because we are centrally located in the Chicago area, depending on a franchisee’s location, field representatives can visit stores every week. For other locations it’s every three to six weeks. The operations team will assist and counsel shop owners on system essentials such as sales techniques, product procurement and installation, as well as marketing and communication.”             

“The second key advantage is Merlin’s branding and positioning in the market place,” Munoz says. “The Merlin 200,000 Miles Shop name is a loud testimonial to the 200,000 Mile Proposition, which is the foundation for Merlin’s associated programs, such as the 200,000 Muffler, Brake and Tire Warranties, the DRIVE FOR 200,000 MILE maintenance and ALLIANCE rewards program. 

“So the way we market is very effective,” Munoz continues.  “We know that not all customers react to the same advertising vehicles, so we employ a multi-touchpoint approach when going to market. “

The third key advantage is technology and how Merlin communicates with its shop teams and customers. “The recent introduction of the Merlin intranet has proved to be a valuable tool for shops to help them complete their day-to-day business,” Munoz says. “It contains all the manuals, current communication and promotions, and vendor links to help run business more efficiently and effectively.”

Years ago, Merlin’s message was delivered via radio advertising. However, with the explosion of the Internet and technology, Merlin has embraced reaching customers digitally, notes Marketing Director Penny McDowell. “Digital products have assisted us to deliver advertising, which allows us to engage a more targeted audience around our shop locations,” McDowell says. “Our website, merlins.com, is user-friendly and has links to help customers find shops, make appointments, and shop for and order tires. Each Merlin shop has its own landing page with shop-specific coupons, maps and directions, along with customer reviews.

“This also helps us land the target customer to the correct location,” she continues.  “For example if the person we are reaching lives in or near Aurora, Ill., we’ll send them to the local franchisees’ website making the end-user experience more immediate so that they find what they are seeking.”

Customer communication and comfort is vital, McDowell adds, which is why Merlin is currently updating its waiting rooms with a new color scheme and digital screens that feature AutoNetTV lobby programming. “AutoNetTV provides informative news and feature stories, along with educational automotive content that helps customers understand the complex systems on their vehicles and the importance of their maintenance,” she says.

Valuing Partnerships

Merlin’s views its vendors as partners, and works closely with them to maximize programs that are advantageous to franchisees. “Merlin’s key parts suppliers include U.S. AutoForce and Advance AutoParts,” Munoz says. “Loyalty and communication also play critical roles in the company’s relationships with its partners,” Munoz notes. “We’ve been working with U.S. AutoForce for 20-plus years, and I have been with the company for 15 years. We understand that our partners are in business to make money, too, and we have a mutual respect for one another. For example, they’ll work with us to provide cost-effective pricing, so it’s a good give-and-take relationship.”

Merlin’s partners not only help support its operation logistics, but also help impact the community. “For the past 26 years, Merlin shops have conducted Snug Hugs for Kids, our winter clothing drive,” Munoz says. “Each year, our shops collect tons of donated clothing from their communities, and remote collection events are conducted by our sports team and radio station partners. Recently, a fundraising component, The Red Mitten Campaign, was added to the drive. Customers can donate at least one dollar, write their name on a paper red mitten and hang it in the Merlin shop. 

“All clothing and monetary donations benefit Merlin’s nonprofit charity partner, Children’s Home + Aid,” Munoz continues. “Our partners are instrumental in picking up overflow clothing from the shops and personally deliver it to a Children’s Home + Aid program center with Merlin shop owners. The partners go above and beyond by matching our in-shop fundraising amounts. In 2016, along with much needed winter clothing, we were able to donate $21,000. Our partners donate their time, their money and their spirit, and we are thankful for them.” 

Looking Ahead

The Merlin 200,000 Miles Shop chain aims to double its number of locations in the next five years. “We will focus in Chicagoland and central Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and possibly Missouri,” Munoz says.

Ultimately, Munoz is “honored” to work with the company’s franchisees. “We have a franchisee Advisory Committee and we work very well together,” he says. “Each member holds the position for two years, and attends quarterly meetings. They are instrumental in providing the corporate team frontline management, and marketing feedback and ideas. 

“Merlin 200,000 Mile Shops look to the future with goals of growth and continued success in the automotive marketplace,” Munoz concludes. “With the recruitment of franchisees who effectively capitalize on the established unique marketing proposition, comprehensive support tools, signature programs and long-term partnerships with vendors and customers, we will hit our goal.”

 

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