I’m passionate about the vehicles I drive and so are millions of other vehicle owners. I’m not just passionate about my cars on the weekends, I’m passionate every day. I get a certain feeling when I walk toward my Camaro SS or Trailblazer SS. I’ve styled and tuned them to fit my likes and my driving style.
They both have performance-enhancing parts producing measurable additional horsepower and, of course, suspension upgrades for an improved stance. In 45 years of driving, I’ve never ever owned a vehicle that wasn’t equipped with aftermarket tires and wheels. I’m an “enthusiast.”
I’m not a technician. I don’t race or build cars or take my truck off-roading on the weekends. I don’t do some of the things that you might associate with an enthusiast, but I love my car and my truck. I love driving my vehicles. My wife and I enjoy car shows. We attend racing events. Like millions of vehicle owners, we enjoy a wide range of vehicles, and we especially enjoy our own.
In this article, I’m going to look at how you can spot an enthusiast, why enthusiasts are important to your business, and, most importantly, how to participate in new trends that will attract this lucrative demographic to your stores.
For good measure, a couple of successful Southern California retail tire and wheel stores will offer some solid advice. Everyone knows I’m the Counter Intelligence guy, so it’s natural for me to outline the importance of knowledgeable sales staff and proper product presentations.
If there is a primary compelling reason to cater to enthusiasts, it’s that they are happy to spend more on their vehicles. Secondly, and no less important, they influence the purchases of others. In others words, enthusiasts themselves are better customers, and as you earn their trust, they’ll reward you with referrals by sending you family and friends.How to spot an enthusiast
How do you spot an enthusiast? It’s not always easy, but there are some clues. If he or she is wearing a shirt like Elmer and Juliana (pictured), you can be sure they are enthusiasts.
As I spoke to this hilarious couple at a car show in February, they were both bragging about their most expensive speeding tickets. Elmer, 78, from Indiana explained to me in great detail about his glorious drag racing days. Juliana had the most interesting high-speed-ticket story and by far the most expensive.
Elmer and Juliana are typical of older enthusiasts sharing old stories of bygone days. However, they both own multiple vehicles. Here’s an important “best practice.” Make sure you and your salespeople give these enthusiasts all the time they need to tell you their story(ies). The bond you’ll form with them will result in very profitable sales.
Without a doubt, automotive enthusiasts are a special breed. The young man pictured standing next to his Mustang is my friend and fellow enthusiast, Joe Findeis. In 1975 when I met Joe, he was 21 and a big Ford fan, and I a Chevy guy. Under the heading of Spotting an Enthusiast, note Joe’s “car guy” attire: denim Levi’s, white T-shirt and casual shoes. Me, on the other hand: Camaro jacket, denim blue jeans, and $125 athletic shoes. Joe and I have always peacefully coexisted as Ford versus Chevy guys, but to be honest, I’ve always thought Chevy guys are cooler and better dressers.Joe and I have only drag raced once; Joe doesn’t like talking about it. The point is, Joe and I are enthusiasts, and like so many, we’re lifetime enthusiasts, and we make great life-time customers. Joe has been using the same engine builder for 35 years.
Enthusiasts range in age from under 18 to over 80, and every generation has had its own special nuances. The original low riders still cruise. The original hot rodders still like fast and loud. The famous Cragar S/S wheel still sells. There are still Van clubs. ’32 Ford Roadsters are still hot as, of course, the ever-popular Tri-Five Chevys from 1955, ’56 and ’57.
Tuner cars from the fast and furious era still roam the street. American muscle cars such Camaro, Mustang and Challengers are more popular than ever, both old and new, and the current sales craze of pickups like F-150’s, Silverado’s, Ram’s, and Tundra’s are off the charts.
But, don’t assume that because someone drives a Prius, they are not an enthusiast. Some of the staunchest defenders of their vehicle selection I’ve ever met are Prius owners. Nick Roghair, owner of The Tire Store in Lancaster, Calif., says he and his team of tire and wheel specialists feel that on any given day, up to 20% of his customers are enthusiasts, especially if you consider trucks.
Don’t assume customers are not enthusiasts; ask first, then stand on the gas.
New trends spell ever expanding niches
What do enthusiasts drive today? The answer is anything and everything. It’s important for you to pick up the cues that they are sending out.
They express their individuality through the vehicle(s) they drive. Some want speed, style, color, lowered, lifted, painted, rusted, patinaed, low-pro, loud, different, sic, unique, mud-rims, accessories. The answer is, yes, they want to pick and purchase from a wide variety of wheels and tires for an ever-increasing number of vehicle types being offered by today’s global vehicle manufacturers.
If I were a tire dealer today, I’d attempt to be known as the truck, Jeep and CUV/SUV expert in my area. You need to be strategic in assessing your market, your competition, and your opportunities based on vehicle registrations.
Let’s talk about a couple of key emerging opportunities: tents on a Jeep and lifted Subaru’s. I can almost see the perplexed look on your face. Tents on a Jeep and lifted Subaru’s?
Jeeps have a seemingly endless appeal to outdoor enthusiasts. The rugged nature of a Jeep JK and the new Wrangler JL offer tire dealers opportunities to upgrade the tire and wheel package and key suspension upgrades.
A new emerging trend is enhancing the off-road capabilities of certain Subaru models. Five years ago, this was a niche; a small group of young enthusiasts with a passion and commitment to the outdoors and the accompanying lifestyle. The driving force seems to be a comfortable and more economical alternative to the Jeep JK experience. This trend is gaining in popularity as new suppliers offer new products to this targeted market.
Why does a tent on a Jeep and the raised Subaru matter to a tire dealer? Because every outdoor enthusiast is keenly aware of the importance of the right tire and wheel setup. The wider wheel is necessary to accommodate the wider tire. Does that sound familiar? The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Secondly, it matters because Jeep owners know other Jeep owners, and this will have a positive impact on word-of-mouth advertising which will increase store traffic based on referrals. By the way, when I use the term word-of-mouth, I’m also referring to social media postings by satisfied customers.
Don’t forget that a certain percentage of Jeep owners buy five wheels and five tires when they decide to upgrade. Like Jeep owners, Subaru owners are a tight-knit group. These owners are fiercely loyal to the Subaru culture, and they do a lot of online research before making their purchases. Subaru owners use forums and trust the advice given by other owners.
If you get one owner, you’re likely to get more.
The Jeep and Subaru culture are just two examples of hundreds of categories and niches that have evolved into full-blown markets. Pick a target and go for it.Knowledge and presentation
As brick and mortar retailing continues its metamorphosis from a sales-and-service-based, pick-up/cash-and-carry center to its new role of knowledge-based, experience-based fulfillment and specialty service center, it’s become painfully evident that if a retailer is not delivering on customer expectations, then it will be faced with fast-approaching and hard-hitting realities including potential extinction.
Recent studies have shown that consumers are expecting more from brick and mortar locations. High on the list is helpful, knowledgeable and non-pushy assistance. There is no guarantee that you’ll earn the sale, but I’ll guarantee this, if you’re not knowledgeable or helpful, and are not offering a professional presentation of products and services, enthusiasts will take their money and go elsewhere.
Enthusiasts by nature are more opinionated than many consumers because of their passion in their areas of interest. As always, when dealing with an enthusiast, a dealer must make compelling knowledge-based recommendations (KBRs). Automotive enthusiasts since the beginning are very opinionated. They have a standing and unchanging dislike for counter sales staff who pretend to be authorities when, in fact, they lack current up-to-date information.
Enthusiasts have an innate dislike for posers. To assist counter sales staff with more selling information, it may be wise to consider digital solutions in the form of kiosks that are connected to the internet for a more seamless presentation.I say “seamless,” but there are obstacles to interfacing with digital devices as a sales person makes presentations in real time. There is a time coming when a kiosk will be essential to presenting products in both educating and answering consumer questions.
Be sure to talk with your suppliers to see what type of digital sales materials they may have to help you. Don’t be bashful, ask to see what they have, and then pick out those things that make the most sense for your operation.
Let me suggest an exchange between a counter intelligent sales person and a Jeep owner. The Jeep owner arrives at your location. She has 16-inch OE wheels on her 2017 Jeep Wrangler Sport with the 16-inch optional tire. She’s interested in new tires — five, of course, but is not sure about investing in wheels at this time. She has P245/75R16 white-letter tires. She has a tent on top and some accessories mounted on the outside of her vehicle.
You ask an open-ended, fact-finding question, “Would you be interested in a tire that is slightly larger and can carry more of a load?” If she indicates she’s open to hearing your recommendation, you can offer her a LT265/75R16 which is 31.6-inch tall versus the OE 30.5-inch. Your KBR sounds like this, “I have a tire that’s a little more than 1 inch taller and almost 1 inch wider,” pausing briefly to let that sink in and then continuing, “with over an additional 1,000 pounds of carrying capacity.”
At this point be sure to point out all the positives about your recommendation, and be up-front if there’s anything that she will find different about the vehicle if she goes ahead with the purchase. Remember, no surprises. You’ll be earning valuable trust and winning additional sales. Enthusiasts actually know more about their vehicles and tend to be more opinionated, so be ready to answer a question, such as, “Won’t the taller tires change my speedometer read-out?”
To win their business you must have a strong working knowledge. Say it right! Display it right!Be aware that some enthusiasts will only purchase name brands that they view as “leaders” in the market, but most will select brands that you recommend and can sell for less. In selecting your product offerings, it’s important to build a brand portfolio that meets the needs of both types of enthusiasts, name-brand buyers and cost-sensitive customers.
In every vehicle category (Jeeps, trucks, muscle cars) there are companies that specialize. They offer products with a variety of fitments, cutting-edge styles, and a freshness that separates them from their competitors.
To make my point, let’s focus on the hot leveled-and-lifted, off-road pickup truck and Jeep market. There are a number of brands that you need to sell to be seriously considered a serious player for these customers.
At last year’s Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Show in Las Vegas, a number of leading aftermarket wheel companies introduced a wide variety of new and exciting off-road styles. One brand unveiled 32 new styles in the off-road category alone. In addition to the new styles was a variety of new textured finishes and interesting combinations of color.
My advice is that you make sure you have access to a very wide variety of wheel lines. Since styles and names come and go very frequently, you want to make sure you have the flexibility to cover all segments of the market. The right mix of products can accelerate your success and ensure repeat business. The right mix matters!
Getting started; aim for the sweet spot
I recommend focusing on trucks and Jeeps at your dealership. The reasons are simple, trucks are extremely hot sellers (translated this means there are a lot of them in your market) and always have been. Truck owners are enthusiastic about their vehicles, and they spend more per vehicle on upgrades than do passenger car owners. Trucks are hot all across the country, coast-to-coast and border-to-border. America loves trucks.
Secondly is the Jeep market. Jeep owners are very loyal, and Jeeps are the number one most accessorized vehicle in the U.S.
Another reason is the vast amount of products that truck and Jeep owners can buy that can be installed at your tire dealership in your service bays. A tire dealer that is interested in serving the truck and Jeep categories must understand suspension dynamics and body clearances. Replacing original equipment tires is one thing, but with truck and Jeep enthusiasts, there is leveled, lifted, crazy-lifted and insane-lifted. This requires professionalism at the sales counter and in the service bays.
Once again, lean on your equipment suppliers for training help. There are many places you can go to make sure your technicians are properly trained for doing this type of work. I encourage you to take advantage of this.
MORE is MORE
The enthusiast aftermarket continues to grow and diversify. A quick review of a few key facts helps to reveal the width and the depth of the opportunities. The first, and perhaps the most important, is the size of the participation.
Pre-baby boomers started the hot rod car craze, and it accelerated with the baby boomer generation (no pun intended). With each succeeding generation came a new diverse interpretation of hot-rodding, customization and individualization.
Today’s enthusiast target market is the largest in history and growing! Many of the original hot rodders are alive today and just as engaged as ever. My generation, the baby boomers, had an exponential effect on the size and scope of the participants, and each succeeding generation has done likewise.
The interest in individualizing vehicles is as strong now as it ever has been despite decades old predictions that smaller fuel-efficient cars would kill the growth, that new fuel emission standards would kill the growth, and that the price of gas would have adverse effects. In the 1970s, an era that produced some of the worst-performing cars of all time, enthusiasts still individualized their cars with custom wheels and tires. I guess it’s just in our blood.
Do you really think that just because a car or truck is powered by an electric motor instead of a gasoline or diesel engine, the owner isn’t an enthusiast? Need I mention the growing popularity of Formula E?
Regardless of the passage of time and countless naysayers, the facts are the facts. The market and the opportunities are measurably larger now than ever with more reasons to focus and participate. To put it in simple terms, old guys and gals are enthusiasts, young folks are enthusiasts, and every age group in between. The target audience and participation are at an all-time high. It boils down to simple numbers.
The second rudimentary fact is the diversification of automobiles themselves and how vehicle owners choose to use their vehicles, whether small, medium, large or extra-large. The way that vehicles are used today is almost as diverse as the people who drive them. Today’s muscle cars have more muscle than ever. Today’s pickups carry more weight and haul more stuff for more reasons than ever. This all spells opportunity for the tire store(s) that cater to enthusiasts. It would be foolish for me to attempt to name all the enthusiast categories but to list a few may be helpful. Besides the obvious 4-wheel drive craze and the explosion of leveled and lifted trucks, there are the rock bouncers and rock crawlers, the off-grid crowd and hunting enthusiasts who rely heavily on their vehicles to carry gear and supplies. The ATV and side-by-side market has been exploding.
There are the weekend warriors at airstrips, road courses and drag strips all around the country. And just so I don’t forget to mention this, in many cases they use tow-vehicles and haulers to get to the tracks, and these vehicles all have tires.I’ve been around a long time now, and I’ve heard a bunch of naysayers along the way.
I remember when the Corvette came with a 16-inch tire, 255/50R16, a number of us stood around in wonder and asked, “How big can they go?” Well, that question was answered a long time ago and has been asked and re-answered time and again.
The point is, with every change along the way the independent tire dealer has adapted and met the challenge. I’m optimistic for the opportunity of independent tire dealers to capture this valuable customer segment as long as you approach it correctly.
Personally, I’m tired of hearing about Amazon. They are now selling groceries, pharmaceuticals and women’s clothing. What do they know about off-sets, deep lips, low profiles, load-carrying capacity and a “sic stance”? Please!
Naturally, tires, wheels and suspension come to mind as a way to benefit from the growing opportunity; however, let me toss out another idea to chew on: If a car dealer can sell a bed liner, can a tire dealer sell a roof rack, and vice versa? Something to think about.
Leaders lead and winners win!!
Advice from Winners
In Southern California, there are two regionally famous retailers that have expertly serviced enthusiasts for decades. In LA County, it’s Performance Plus located in the city of Long Beach, led by owner Hank Feldman and his son Dennis.
In Orange County in the City of Orange, it’s Wheel Warehouse, owned by Chris Granger and managed by Mike Yablonka. Both companies were willing to share some excellent advice for selling to the enthusiast customer.Chris and Mike say first and foremost have an interesting and inviting website. Their website can be seen at this link: https://wheelwarehouse.com/ while Performance Plus’ website can be located here: https://www.performanceplustire.com/.
Mike says, “It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the types of enthusiast vehicles, so we focus on being “the spot” in Orange County where enthusiasts know that we know our stuff and their vehicles.”
Chris reminds us, “There was a day when the target market was narrower and Wheel Warehouse could be proactive and stock what customers wanted. Today you must be reactive to the broader needs of enthusiasts and have strong working relationships with select vendors to supply the types of products to meet the ever-changing wants and needs of today’s enthusiast.”
Chris and Mike both agree that another vital key to a successful enthusiast-focused business is a knowledgeable staff both inside the showroom and in the service bays. The Wheel Warehouse team employs a number of employees with decades of service.Other distinguishing features of the Wheel Warehouse that help make it “the spot” is the completely custom-made fixtures. The wheel displays are all hand-cut and welded and the tire display features cutaways with unique mounting hardware. As if that’s not enough, the customer sales counter is hand-crafted out of rolled steel and the sales associates’ sales desks are created from the same materials as the wheel display racks.
With more than 350 wheels on display, Wheel Warehouse also utilizes a touch screen kiosk with thousands of additional wheels and vehicle images that customers can view. The combination of experienced sales and installation staff along with the curated showroom makes Wheel Warehouse “the spot” to buy wheels, tires and suspensions.Performance Plus has one of the largest selections of wheels on display in Southern California. Hank believes that many customers want to see and touch wheels before they buy.
Hank is a big believer in hiring enthusiasts. He says, “The key to attracting enthusiasts is hiring and training enthusiasts; you’ve got to have a knowledgeable staff.”
Performance Plus has organized their “wheel walls” in a very specific way. “If you want to appeal to enthusiasts, you have to have trained staff and the right products on display,” says Hank. “The primary reason to engage enthusiasts is their loyalty as lifetime customers.”Hank and his team know the importance of meeting enthusiasts at events. The Performance Plus team is on the road almost weekly throughout the year attending car shows and events both locally in Southern California and across the United States.
They don’t cut corners either, their rigs that are set up at these events are equipped with rolling displays and as you might guess, plenty of the latest and hottest wheels and tires.Performance Plus is all in when it comes to servicing enthusiasts.
Hank says, “You gotta go to the events and work the shows, everywhere.”
Early History of Tires and Wheels
Driven by the need for speed and customization, the entire automotive specialty-equipment industry, founded in garages and on driveways, has grown to over a $41 billion industry annually, according to SEMA’s 2017 Market Report.
The same report was forecasting 2017 retail sales of $9.35 billion for wheels, tires and suspensions. The key here is that SEMA defines these consumers as “individuals who... bought parts for their passenger vehicle to alter the appearance, performance, handling or function of the vehicle.” So, we’re not talking about non-enthusiasts who have speed-rated tires on their vehicles, we’re talking about enthusiasts accounting for this sales volume.In the early days of hot-rodding, it was about men and machines. Historically, man is seldom satisfied with the status quo, endlessly seeking improvements both large and small. The early years of the car culture was no different.
Driven by the desire to drive customized or personalized vehicles, young men in Southern California, where the hot-rod culture started, began modifying their cars to meet their personal preferences. One of the key driving forces behind the hot-rod culture was the desire to go faster, to “soup up” their cars. This lead to street racing which later became drag racing.
Street racing is inherently dangerous so concerned hot rodders soon organized events at abandoned air strips for racing purposes. Drag strips began popping up all over Southern California and across the country. Sanctioning bodies were established where rules for racing were written, vehicle classifications were established, and a whole new cultural lifestyle was born.As horsepower grew, speeds grew; then competition grew, and the intensity to win grew. This insatiable need-for-speed driven by ever increasing horsepower required wider tires, known then as “cheater slicks,” and, of course, wider wheels. In the early 1950s, the custom wheel industry was born to support the needs of racers and soon evolved into wheels for street vehicles.
Of course, street vehicle owners had different needs and wanted a different look for their particular vehicles. Soon there were hot rodders, racers and low riders, each with their own interpretation, and the trend continues to this day. The same passion that fueled the need-for-speed in the early days is alive and well today. The same creativity that drove the early pioneers of our industry has grown and grown and subdivided many, many times leading us to our current opportunities, serving the ever-expanding needs and desires of the enthusiast.