For the last nine years, demand for light trucks has outpaced demand for passenger cars, according to the Auto Care Association’s 2020 Fact Book. Although sedans are fading into the rearview mirror, the high-performance/ultra-high-performance tire market is still thriving.
Buyer preference for crossovers and smaller SUVs is boosting demand for HP and UHP tires. Consumers expect a good driving experience in these vehicles. Bill Bainbridge says the “fun factor” is especially important to the under-40 crowd.
“I think they are going to CUVs and SUVs for the utility purpose, but they still want a good driving experience,” says Bainbridge, who is vice president of marketing and business development for CJ’s Tire and Automotive. “No one expects those vehicles, particularly CUVs, to carry a lot of weight, so they are built with suspensions that are fun to drive.”
Based in Birdsboro, Pa., CJ’s Tire operates 18 retail stores and five distribution centers in the suburbs and rural areas of central and southeastern Pennsylvania.
From a passenger and light truck tire perspective, about 25% of the dealership’s business is considered UHP, with grand touring, touring and broad line tires making up the rest, according to Bainbridge. “The UHP segment probably grows a little bit every year, and we expect that to continue.”
All-season capability is important to CJ’s Tire customers. “This is definitely an all-season market,” says Bainbridge. “In the high-end, expensive category of ultra-high performance, we sell a few summer tires. But for the most part, even for many of those high-end vehicles, after the OE summer tires are gone away, a lot of those folks are coming over to all-season.”
CJ’s Tire customer have another choice: all-weather UHP tires. “The emerging category that is topical right now is all-weather,” says Bainbridge.Buyers want all-season UHP
Products with all-season capability are helping Norwell, Mass.-based Sullivan Tire Co. Inc. keep pace with the evolving HP/UHP tire market. The company offers 21 brands with HP/UHP products in their portfolios.
The company has 73 Sullivan Tire and Auto Service retail locations in five states, as well as 14 wholesale locations.
Brian Gollub, director of purchasing and distribution, says Sullivan Tire’s retail stores stock and sell far fewer summer HP and UHP products than other dealerships’ stores in warmer parts of the country.
“In our markets, HP customers are looking for performance all-season capabilities with a decent mileage warranty,” says Gollub. “The UHP customer is more focused on performance first, and when replacing tires, wants to equal or exceed the performance capabilities of the OE tire.”
Gollub says Sullivan Tire’s purchasing patterns and stocking solutions have shifted to match consumer vehicle preferences for CUVs, SUVs and pickup trucks.
“As tire manufacturers and marketers bring new products out to feed growing segments, we are quick to bring relevant products into our distribution centers. A good example of a new niche product line would be the Yokohama Geolandar X-CV, which is designed specifically for today’s luxury sport crossovers.”Just about every type of vehicle fits the HP/UHP segment. “From small coupes and sedans to full-size SUVs and pickup trucks and everything in between, each segment has a high-performance component,” says Gollub.
Buyer demographics play a part in the UHP tire sale, too. “We have seen the same make and model of vehicle, driven by different consumers, with very different products installed,” he says. “A lot depends on the customer’s desires, pocketbook and driving habits.”
A niche in KC
Founded in 1993, KC Trends Motorsports LLC in Overland Park, Kan., specializes in custom wheels and tires for cars, trucks and SUVs. The dealership is in Johnson County, whose residents are among the richest in the state.
For owner Chad Dearth, the traditional HP/UHP tire market is “as strong as ever” due to many new performance cars, as well as electric vehicles with UHP tires, introduced in the last two years.
Ferraris and Lamborghinis are popular with his customers, with the McLaren being the latest hot car in the exotic market.
“All those cars require UHP tires, and with our niche being custom wheels, a lot of guys are buying custom wheels and then upsizing from what the factory offers,” he says.
A frequent choice is a 20-, 21- or 22-inch package. “Upsizing to a little bigger diameter has always been popular for us, no matter the make of car,” says Dearth. “It’s fun doing that on a UHP level, where the drivers actually do need the performance to back up the added width of the wheel or diameter.”
His customers’ daily drivers are pickup trucks and mid-size SUVs, but the demographic is changing. “In the past, every man out here had an Escalade, a Denali, a Ford Expedition, or a Lincoln Navigator. Now we’re seeing men driving Porsche SUVs and Mercedes SUVs.”High-performance SUVs come from the factory with summer tires. Their new owners believe that a fun-to-drive SUV that can be driven year-round is a smart purchase until temperatures drop. In some but not all cases, KC Trends is able to offer an all-season UHP tire. “There are some aftermarket options,” says Dearth, but “not as much I’d like to see and not coming out at the OE at all.”
Dearth predicts that the need for all-season UHP tires for performance vehicles will grow, citing recent and soon-to-be released SUVs from Lamborghini, Ferrari and Maserati, as well as electric vehicle makers Tesla and Rivian. “A lot of companies are going to be putting a lot of horsepower into CUVs and SUVs,” he says.
HP tires are also a big part of the dealership’s sales. Warranty, as well as price, are important to HP tire buyers.
“A lot of those customers are used to having ‘normal’ tires. This might be their first time buying a set of custom wheels that are a little larger than what came on the car. They are used to that normal OE-size warranty. That really helps when you are talking to an HP tire buyer.”
UHP customers ‘shop harder’
HP and UHP tire buyers are shoppers who put a lot of research into their buying decisions. Dearth says Instagram is the current marketing focus at KC Trends Motorsports. HP and UHP buyers are the “ones who are sitting at home, really researching (on) Facebook and Instagram.”
The latter social media platform, in particular, “is a big deal as far as online sales and promotions.”
Gollub says Sullivan Tire believes that a higher percentage of HP/UHP tire online sales are taking place through e-commerce than in other tire categories “since a portion of these buyers are enthusiasts who tend to do significant online research.”
The dealership does not offer traditional e-commerce but has an up-to-date web presence with a responsive design, according to Gollub.
“We also have a retail call center that takes inbound consumer calls for tires, consummates sales and schedules appointments, as well as answers e-mails and live chats relating to tire sales. Unlike e-commerce sellers, we offer a one-stage transaction with tires and installation being done by the same entity,” says Gollub.
Bainbridge says CJ’s Tire has found that many of its UHP tire customers are online shoppers who intend to buy their tires “soon.” For them, “soon” can be anywhere from 24 hours to a week’s time.
“When they determine what they want, they are willing to wait for it,” says Bainbridge.
CJ’s Tire recently redesigned its website to tell customers when products will be available.
“On the UHP side, there’s a little more latitude,” says Bainbridge. “Those folks tend to shop a little bit harder and take a little bit longer to find what they want at the price they want to pay and where they want to get it. We’re taking advantage of that with the changes we’ve made on our website.”
Customers can complete an entire transaction, including payment, on the company’s site.CJ’s Tire was able to boost its online sales capabilities because its suppliers are very reliable. “We’re able to get more sales without having to pump up our inventory by allowing customers to see a wider range of products that are available through us from our secondary suppliers,” says Bainbridge.
While UHP tire buyers are willing to wait for their purchase, they expect a competitive price. Bainbridge says the new website offers a user-friendly experience that shows shoppers that CJ’s Tire is competitive in the local market, as well as with online pricing.
Beyond its online presence and pricing, CJ’s Tire works to capture UHP business by ensuring good in-store and phone experiences. “We’re spending a lot of effort to make sure our sales associates understand applications and can differentiate between brands and levels of performance, which ultimately affects price.”
Once a purchase is made, the dealership follows up to make sure buyers are happy with their purchases and are talking about CJ’s Tire in positive ways on social media.
“We remind our associates that a UHP buyer is a customer only as long as they are in our building and exchanging money for products and services. The moment they get back into their car, they are a shopper again, and we have to look at them that way.” ■