Marketing SUV tires in the wake of the recall
Last year's Firestone recall profoundly changed how consumers look at tires. And it also transformed how many independent tire dealers approach their businesses.
Some retailers who are wrestling with the effects of post-recall fallout have switched marketing and sales tactics. Others have decided to stick with their tried-and-true battle plans.
Modern Tire Dealer caught up with several independent tire dealers to find out how they're selling SUV tires during the recall's aftermath.
"It seems like a third of the vehicles coming into our shops are SUVs," says Barry Steinberg, president and CEO of Direct Tire & Auto Service in Watertown, Mass. Toyo, Cooper and Dunlop brand light truck/SUV tires comprise 15% of the four-location dealership's annual sales, which total about 65,000 units.
SUV customers are asking more questions about tire and vehicle safety, he says, "which, for us, is great. We've always focused on safety."
The first step in selling SUV tires to safety-conscious consumers is asking them questions about their driving habits, vehicle performance requirements and other related topics, according to Steinberg. "We try to find out as much as we can, then we go from there."
He keeps his employees up to date on design advancements and vehicle applications with regular training sessions and technical bulletins techs and salespeople have to sign off on after reading. "When people walk into a tire dealership they better get the right advice and service. Why should this be any different than working at a stock brokerage or law office?"
Steinberg also is talking to Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. and Toyo Tire (U.S.A.) Corp. about setting up safety seminars and/or ride-and-drive demonstrations for customers at his outlets this summer.
Barry Fitzgerald, owner of H&F Tire Stores Inc. -- a six-outlet chain based in Lancaster, Pa. -- says 85% of his customers who were driving on ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires when the recall started stayed with Firestone brand products. But there is a perception among some consumers "that every apple in the barrel is rotten."
Education is the only way to fight it, he says. "We'll tell them to rotate, to check their air pressure. If you can get them to take a few minutes to think about tire safety, that makes a big difference."
Most customers will listen, "but some have closed minds." Fitzgerald usually disarms stubborn customers with a quick joke or story. "You have to explain that things happen to tires," he says. To illustrate his point, each H&F shop displays a glass jar that contains items employees have removed from tires over the years.
The biggest downside to the recall for BFS dealers, according to Fitzgerald, "is that we put 6.5 million tires out there for free. These people won't need new tires for two or three years now."
Manufacturers also will have to cut back on making size P235/75R15 units, he says. "It's still a popular size, but they're all over the place."
Pete Agnell, president of Abilene General Tire Co. in Abilene, Texas, expects tiremakers to discount P235/75R15 tires eventually. "In six months, they'll be sitting on piles of them."
Agnell says doubts among his customers about the quality of Firestone SUV tires have carried over to other brands. "It seems that no matter what has caused a tire failure, they assume every brand is faulty."
To alleviate worry, the second-generation dealer -- who sells General and Lee brand products for SUV applications -- follows the basics. He typically gives customers two or three tire recommendations at different price points, depending on their vehicles. "Out in this area, we have lots of dirt and clay country roads, so I'll usually recommend an all-purpose tread design -- something that's not too noisy with some off-road traction capabilities."
Customers who are willing to pay more for higher-quality SUV tires tend to be more safety-conscious than their deal-hunting counterparts, according to Agnell. "Not that there's anything wrong with bargain tires for certain applications."
Mark McAlonan (pictured with his father, Pat McAlonan), owner of Cain's Tire Inc. in San Rafael, Calif., says his $5 million-a-year store's SUV tire sales "took off" during the recall. "I sold 2,200 tires in the first month. We were going crazy!"
Eight months later, the dealership's SUV tire sales have leveled off severely, since most SUV owners who would normally buy tires now have already done so, he says. But he believes demand will increase again. "There are more SUVs on the road than ever. I don't know a family that doesn't have an SUV in their driveway."
Many of McAlonan's customers still believe that Firestone brand SUV tires, and, to a lesser degree, Bridgestone products -- "anything with the word 'stone' in them" -- are unsafe. But he adds that consumer faith in other labels like Michelin, Pirelli and Toyo remains strong.
He sees no reason to change his marketing strategy. "We're running the same, simple ads that emphasize selection, price and safety."
LT and P-metric SUV tires comprise nearly half of Bob Sumerel Tire Co. Inc.'s total retail sales, according to Craig Sumerel, the Erlanger, Ky.-based dealership's Retail Tire Group president. "It's been growing steadily."
Customer concern over the reliability of SUV tires in the 37-retail-store-chain's markets has decreased, he says. "People have found out that the (recalled) Firestone tires were somewhat isolated cases."
The dealership's main marketing goal is increasing tire safety awareness. "We list safety tips in our print advertising and direct mail. We also list them on our Web site."
Sumerel doesn't know how long consumers will focus on safety "but we'll promote it for as long as we can."
"It's our job as retailers to make (tire safety awareness) last," says Chris Mitsos, vice president of Mountain View Tire & Service Inc. in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. "We shouldn't just talk to people when they need new tires; we should talk to them a year before they need tires."
Mountain View operates in two primary markets: Las Vegas, Nev., and the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. SUV tire sales in both regions spiked during the recall and are still healthy several months later, comprising 29% of the 37-store dealership's overall tire sales in Vegas and nearly 27% of its sales in Los Angeles.
In response, Mountain View now leads off with SUV sizes in its print ads, something it never did before "because SUV tires made up a smaller part of our business." And the company, which sells Goodyear and Cordovan brand products, now heavily emphasizes tire reliability when dealing with customers. "You have to strike when the iron's hot," Mitsos says. "Consumers are more in-tune with their tires than ever before."
Jim Shook, owner of Las Cruces, N.M.-based Shook Tire Centers Inc. and a past Tire Association of North America president, sent most customers who rolled into his shop with recalled ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires to nearby Firestone dealerships for changeovers. "We had a few people who came in that wanted tires put on immediately, though."
The recall didn't damage the two-store dealership's business at all, Shook says, so he sees no reason to change his marketing approach. "We've always emphasized safety."
He advises fellow dealers to promote top-quality products when selling tires for SUV applications. "The hardest thing to get your salesmen to do is to push quality because they always want to push price."
Shoddy tires and poor service will drive SUV drivers away every time, according to Shook. "But if you push quality products and service, they'll come back for more."