Driver advocacy organization AAA Mid-Atlantic, known for its roadside assistance and insurance and travel services, is moving headlong into a new market in Maryland: automotive repair and maintenance.
"It's a major retooling of our retail structure," said Bernhard M. Koch, the group's president and CEO, at the official opening of the group's newest retail shop and mechanic's garage in Columbia on Friday.
While AAA will continue to give its seal of approval to independent auto repair shops through its "approved automotive repair network," which includes about 80 shops in Maryland, its own entrance into the market has been expanding at a steady clip in recent years.
The new shop and garage is AAA's sixth to open in Maryland in the past couple of years, part of a push to add mechanic services to 40 of the organization's 60 retail locations in the region — including as many as 15 in Maryland — by 2018, Koch said.
The AAA garages are open to all customers, but Koch said the majority of business has come from the group's 800,000-plus members in the state. The idea behind the garages, he said, is to give members more bang for their membership buck.
While members might use their AAA membership for roadside assistance about once a year and for help making travel arrangements for big trips, they can use the group's auto repair services — at a discounted rate compared to nonmembers — multiple times a year, Koch said.
"We want to build the value proposition on a more frequent basis," he said.
In developing the business, AAA is counting on its reputation as one of "the most trusted brands in the United States," Koch said, as customers often wonder whether private mechanics are taking advantage of their dearth of knowledge under the hood.
So far, data have shown members who have used the group's repair services have been more likely to renew their AAA membership, he said.
At the event Friday, customers moved through the retail section of the new facility as mechanics worked on several vehicles in the garage, visible through several broad windows.
Phillip Liggins, 50, of Ellicott City, had come after seeing a Facebook post by AAA advertising "free windshield chip repairs" at the opening event.
Liggins said he had thought of AAA only as a roadside assistance company and never considered becoming a member because he gets similar services through his insurance.
But seeing the full auto repair shop Friday got him thinking, he said.
"I'm learning about the other services they have," he said, "so who knows?"