A customer walks into your store, hands you a credit card and says, “This is what I want for my vehicle. Just run the card and we’ll discuss the price later.”
Craig Dobrin, vice president of operations at Marietta, Ga.-based Butler Tires & Wheels, says this type of interaction has become a regular occurrence at the four-location dealership.
In fact, the company’s custom wheel sales have climbed 15% to 20% since the COVID-19 pandemic started – an unexpected amount.
Needs vs. wants
“We deal with two very distinct ultra-high performance (UHP) markets,” says Dobrin. He divides them into two categories: “needs” and “wants.”
“‘Needs’ include the mostly European vehicles that we normally service. The owners of those vehicles are going to come in and buy a premium UHP replacement tire if UHP tires are already on their cars. That hasn’t slowed down.
"The ‘wants’ side is made up of people who come in for a custom wheel package with a plus-one, plus-two, plus-three or plus-four fitment.”
A customer in the latter category recently dropped more than “five figures” on a UHP tire/custom wheel package at Butler’s store in Atlanta.
“That’s four tires and four wheels only,” says Dani Freedman, the dealership’s vice president of marketing.
“Certain customers simply didn’t feel the impact of the crash of the economy” the followed in the wake of COVID-19, according to Freedman. "That’s the segment we’re seeing – those customers who could afford to make it through regardless of how long the lockdown lasted. They were able to go through the pandemic in an economically strong position, whereas I think customers in the entry- to mid-level segments went into cash conservation mode.”
Stay-at-home orders played a role, as well.
“Many of our high-end customers were sitting at home, knocking out a couple of projects,” says Dobrin. “A lot brought in their Ford F-150s for lift kits and a new set of tires and wheels. It was almost something for them to do. They would drop $4,000 or $5,000 like you and I would buy a hamburger.
"Customers who had been kicking the tires for several months finally said, ‘I’m ready. Let’s do this.’”
“There was a touchy period for a short while where you wondered if these customers were going to start hoarding their money,” says Freedman. “But a lot of them didn’t skip a beat – and neither did our stores.”
Record year expected
After COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders were enacted in the state of Georgia, Butler’s management team quickly drew up a game plan to ensure the well-being of customers and employees.
“We had a strategy from the very first day,” says Freedman. “As we reached certain milestones, we implemented different phases – making sure our customers knew what we were doing. That built confidence that they could still do business with us. People felt protected.”
Dobrin believes that some customers might have initially been cautious, “but we were forthright across social media, at the store level and on the phone. They knew we were doing everything we could to protect them.”
Both Dobrin and Freedman expect high-end UHP tire and wheel sales to increase through the rest of the year.
“We were waiting for the curve to flatten, for lack of a better term – but it’s not going to,” says Freedman. “I don’t see our UHP and wheel sales slowing down at all. In fact, we’re pretty confident we might have a record year, especially in wheel sales.”