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Aaron Rents Acquires Prime Time Rentals 33 Stores
10-02-07
RTO Online - The rent to own industry's trade website
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Approximately one-half of the stores will be operated as Aaron's Sales & Lease Ownership stores.

Aaron Rents (RNT) has acquired all of Prime Time Rentals 33 stores locations in Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and West Virginia. Approximately one-half of the stores will be operated as Aaron's Sales & Lease Ownership stores. The lease agreements of the other stores will be merged into existing Aaron's stores.

Prime Time is owned by Norm and Barbara Mason. RTO Magazine, the Rent to Own industry's leading print publication - published by RTO Online inc, profiled Prime Time Rentals and Barbara Mason the April, 2006 issue.

Following is RTO Magazine's April, 2006 profile of Barbara Mason and Prime Time Rentals. Download entire issue as an E-Book here.

Once Upon A (Prime) Time…

…In a faraway land called Virginia, there was a lease-purchase company run by a very nice couple named Norm and Barbara. One day, they decided to build a successful telephone company. Then, they created a plan to save the animals. And they all lived happily ever after. The End.

As far as fairy tales go in the Land of Business, this one’s pretty good.

Back in 1980, Dr. Norman D. “Norm” Mason was your typical college philosophy professor. But he was lured from the world of academia to follow his entrepreneurial heart after being inspired by a friend who owned a ColorTyme franchise. Norm was fascinated with the business model and opened his first Prime Time location on Melrose Avenue in Roanoke, Virginia. His only two employees were Lucy and Red – faithful four-legged companions (trust us, this is a relevant detail).

Rental was a relatively new concept at that time around Virginia and the business quickly grew and expanded to other locations. Then, in 1984, Norm decided he needed someone to head up an in-house advertising agency. That decision turned out to be his best ever as he unknowingly welcomed on board his future wife and current Executive Vice President – Barbara Mason.

According to Barbara, “At the time I was head of advertising and sales promotion for a department store chain. It was a bit of a decision to switch from stores with display windows to ones with bars on the windows. I’ll admit, the first time I walked into a store I was naïve. But I educated myself on the industry and from the beginning I worked hard to put fair pricing and practices in place. I wanted to adjust the perception of rental from being an alternative way to shop to being a great way to shop.”

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That great way to shop is now available to customers in 31 different Prime Time locations, predominately in Virginia and North Carolina with one store in Maryland and one in West Virginia. But don’t call them rent-to-own stores.

“Leasing is just a more socially acceptable word. We consider ourselves to be a lease-purchase company and we feel it brings a better demographic to the stores. Our ideal customer will vary by market, but generally is a middle-class person who happens to be over-extended on their credit. They want to have nice furniture and a nice television set and they deserve to have those things. Face it, lots of our customers have more valleys than mountains in their lives and many hear no every single day. We try to change all of that for them.”

Prime Time uses a time-tested method for determining the location of a new store site.

“We like to follow Wal-Mart! Sure we look at the competition and the population of an area, but I believe in letting large companies do the research for you. If Wal-Mart is investing in an area, you know they’ve done comprehensive market studies. Why not take advantage of that and use it as a guide.”

Barbara adds that Prime Time locations employ an average of 7-8 people and are a minimum of 9,000 square-feet in size. Prime Time remodels every two years to keep their store look current with that of larger retailers. Barbara describes the design of the stores as “large, hi-tech spaces with plenty of fixtures”. When questioned about the capital expenditure required to remodel each location every two years, Barbara replies simply, “This is an expensive business, if you’re going to do it right.” And she thoughtfully adds, “Even after putting together these beautiful stores, it’s still a service business.”

One way Prime Time strives to promote its service-based philosophy is with an extended warranty good for up to two years from the time a customer pays off a piece of merchandise.

“We created and now manage our own warranty program and more than 75% of our customers participate.”

Prime Time operates on a monthly payment model. “We collect monthly payments to attract a more quality customer. We don’t want to churn, we want the customer to pay off their agreement. I like to say ‘No churn and burn’.”

According to Barbara, one of her earliest marketing ideas was devising a way to reward customers to become paid-in-full clients. After about a year on the job, Barbara felt it was important to create something she could give to every customer who had paid an agreement in full. She developed her first Gold Card program in 1985. Today, nearly every rental-purchase company offers some form of a “Gold Card” to their paid-in-full customers.

“We still run the program after 20 years, only now we call it our Platinum Plus card.”

Developing new business lines has been a core competency with Prime Time, as evidenced by the success of their NationsLine operation. NationsLine, wholly owned and operated by Prime Time, is what’s known as a CLEC – a Competitive Local Exchange Carrier.

When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed and successfully deregulated the telecommunications industry, Barbara and her husband Norm saw the opportunity to dive into this business partly as a way to offer a new service to customers. They founded NationsLine as a reseller, but soon saw the opportunity to establish a foothold as a facilities-based carrier who leased the local loop directly from the major telephone companies.

Today, NationsLine employs 225 staffers who are headquartered in the same Roanoke facility as the Prime Time corporate headquarters – and that facility includes a 200-seat call center, mainly to support NationsLine. NationsLine is a successful operation providing local, regional and long distance calling services as well as internet services and high-speed DSL. They are currently licensed to provide service in New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Washington D.C., Delaware and Michigan.

Prime Time stores “very, very successfully” sell NationsLine services to customers, says Barbara. And NationsLine products are sold through thousands of agent locations in selected states.

“Because we are more than a reseller, our services and capabilities attractive many agents in the cash services industry and beyond. We have better residuals and an excellent focus on customer service. We have our own switches, our own end offices in Roanoke; it’s all our own equipment.”

Norm and Barbara’s visionary thinking and personal philosophies are evident throughout their sprawling Roanoke facility. Norm is a Vegan and Barbara is a Vegetarian. Therefore, the facility includes not your standard cafeteria but rather a “vegeteria” which provides vegetarian entrees daily to 80 employees as part of their employment package.

“We don’t force (vegetarianism), but it is a philosophy of ours. All of our check envelopes include the statement ‘Save Lives. Go Vegetarian.’. We care deeply about people, mankind and animals.”

Barbara cares so much for her own pets and for those of her employees that many have free rein throughout the facility. “Lucy” (not the same Lucy who opened the store with Norm in 1980) is an 18-year old mixed beagle who suffered spinal damage and lost the use of her hind legs ten years ago. Lucy is a daily fixture in the Prime Time offices, using her front paws to wheel herself through the place on a specially-made platform, bringing smiles and a dose of inspiration to the staffers.

Barbara’s love of animals led her to develop Angels of Assisi (www.angelsofassisi.org), a non-profit organization that began with the mission of operating a mobile veterinary clinic to treat the pets of people who couldn’t otherwise afford to provide their animals with care. The first mobile vet clinic provided spay and neuter services in low-income neighborhoods in Virginia in 2000. The charitable organization, with Barbara serving as a very active Executive Director, has grown in leaps and barks ever since.

According to the charity’s website, more than 33,000 animals have been spayed or neutered through the organization. The charity has grown to include an Adoption Center for unwanted animals that has placed more than 1,250 pets into loving homes since spring of 2003. In addition, the charity branched out to establish Harmony Farm Sanctuary (www.harmonyfarmsanctuary.org), a rescue center to provide shelter care for domesticated farm animals. Currently, the farm provides shelter to more than 150 animals in a bucolic setting in Botetourt County, Virginia.

Despite her many duties on behalf of these charities, Barbara still finds time to serve as head of Prime Time’s in-house advertising agency, the original position she was hired for more than twenty years ago. Currently, the in-house team is made up of 6 staffers and Barbara. Barbara says they create all of the Prime Time marketing materials and commercials themselves. “The only thing we don’t have are the printing presses!”

So what’s on Barbara’s marketing calendar for the upcoming summer months?

“I’m not convinced summer is a dead time for lease-purchase. Sure, it’s a little slower, but I use the time to offer some aggressive pricing and I always take advantage of great discounts on television advertising rates this time of year.”

Barbara firmly believes that a media mix generates the best results, and says Prime Time employs the use of television, radio and some direct mail. She says television works the best and they are able to afford television to support most of their locations. Barbara does express some frustration about the changing ownership rules in radio.

“Radio formats have changed all over the place. Large media companies are buying up more and more stations in a single market and that means it’s harder to find those great, local deals any more. Radio has become very, very fragmented. It can still be effective, but I’ve found we have to buy more stations for it to work.”

Barbara counts the decision to offer telephone service through NationsLine as one of the best she ever made. What decision would she like to take back? “Offering tax preparation services. Those refund anticipation loans are very labor-intensive.”

Barbara has seen the business change over the years, and feels the domination of larger retailers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart has actually helped companies like hers.

“Lots of mom and pop operations are going out of business. Call it experienced intuition, but I feel quite a bit of those customers who frequented a local business gravitate toward a lease-purchase store like Prime Time.”

Barbara says Prime Time has plans to expand within the next five years, growing to 100 locations. She credits long-time employees such as Kendall W. Austin, Prime Time’s Senior Vice-President of Operations, for their success. Austin was hired as the store manager for Prime Time’s second location and has been an important part of the company ever since.

Barbara constantly looks for ways to adapt and sites Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton as an inspiration.

“Just like he looked at the competition and said there has to be a better way, I try to be aware of the competition, to follow trends. The moment you think you know it all, you’re as good as being out of business yourself.”

It looks like the end to this fairy tale has yet to be written, after all.

 

RTO Online is the official channel for Rent-to-Own Industry News and the only independent source of news for the rent-to-own, rental-purchase, lease-purchase trade. RTO Online (Rent to Own Online) represents the choice of the entire RTO Industry for trusted information, as it happens.

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