Rock, mud, sand and beyond... Dealers build profits by guiding customers to the right off-road light truck tire

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Rock, mud, sand and beyond... Dealers build profits by guiding customers to the right off-road light truck tire

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, more than 1,800 Jeep owners flock to Moab, Utah -- a small town some 250 miles south of Salt Lake City -- every spring for the annual Red Rock Four-Wheel-Drive Jeep Safari. The week-long event attracts some of the country's most ardent off-road enthusiasts, who embark on daily expeditions through the countryside on trails strewn with huge rock formations and other obstacles.

The Safari and related activities are a shot in the arm for Moab's economy: Hotels, restaurants and other ancillary businesses benefit from the added tourist income. But the biggest winner each year might very well be Chip Brox, president of Chip's Grand Tire Co., a small, single-location dealership that specializes in off-road light truck tires.

Rockin' and rollin'

Brox, who has been selling tires in Moab for more than 30 years, is the town's recognized "go-to" guy for the products. He normally sells about 1,500 off-road light truck units a year, but his sales spike 30% around Safari-time. "The month leading up to the event is our best of the year for light truck business," says the talkative dealer. "People start coming to Moab two or three weeks before it starts." Some customers drive in from as far away as Florida and Vermont for the event -- and to buy tires specifically from Brox!

The Safari's trails are ranked in order of difficulty, and drivers are encouraged to select a path that corresponds to their skill level. Novice or veteran, "it's inevitable that someone is going to have a (tire) problem." It isn't unusual to see a number of Jeeps limping back to town with flat tires after a long day on the trail, according to Brox. Half of them usually ask for a repair, depending on the severity of the tire's injury. The rest opt for replacement. "During the week, we probably sell as many individual tires -- one at a time or two at a time -- as we would full sets."

Brox, who describes himself as "gum-dipped BFGoodrich," retails the BFG All-Terrain T/A KO off-road light truck tire for $160 apiece. A full set to fit a standard Jeep -- with an alignment thrown in -- runs about $730. "That's a competitive price. I have to shop a lot of people to determine it. If you're not competitive, four-wheel drivers will drive somewhere else for tires or pay the freight to have the tires shipped to them. You need to have the right pricing."

Moab's remote location gives Brox an inherent advantage. The nearest Sam's Club is 125 miles away. And the other tire retailers in town -- a Big O store and another independent -- aren't as focused on the off-road segment, he claims.

Brox knows what works best on the region's rocky terrain. "You still see some bias-ply stuff but the average Jeep guy uses radials. It will be a 60/40 split between an all-terrain tread design and a heavy lug, mud-type tire. Both tread designs do a good job; it's strictly a matter of individual preference."

Given his druthers, Brox steers buyers toward all-terrain treads, because "the more rubber touching Mother Earth, the better the traction." Off-road light truck tires destined for rocky environments should have at least six plies, he says.

Brox -- who owns a 1978 Jeep himself -- capitalizes on his reputation as an off-road expert. He sponsors an annual Jeep ride-and-drive using BFG tires provided by Michelin North America Inc. He also lends "test tires" to customers who want to give them a spin. "They can go out in the rocks and try a set. I've sold a lot of tires due to the response I've gotten from that."

Mud tire mogul

Bobby Sturdivant, president of Midstate Tire Service Inc. in Carthage, Miss., has been selling off-road tires for 30 years. He focuses on mud tires, which are a "huge segment in our market." Sturdivant says that 10% to 15% of the vehicles that come into his single-store location are of the four-wheel-drive variety, "mostly pickup trucks. We get very few SUVs. We have a lot of timber harvesters who go where there are no roads."

He also sells plenty of mud tires to area poultry farmers. But his most enthusiastic mud tire customers are people who enjoy hunting and other outdoor activities. These buyers are motivated by both image and function, according to Sturdivant. "If you have a 265/75R16 and your neighbor has a 285/75R16, that encourages you to move up to that size or bigger." In mud tires, Midstate sells both the Maxxis Buckshot Mudder, which is owned and distributed by the dealership's wholesaler, Batesville, Miss.-based Dunlap & Kyle, and the Kelly Safari. The largest mud tire available at Midstate spans 17 inches in diameter.

"Most people come in with an image of what they want and it's usually something they've seen on their buddy's truck. They are very brand-conscious." Word-of-mouth referrals strongly influence brand selection.

Ironically, Sturdivant estimates less than 5% of his mud tire customers ever take their trucks across muddy terrain. But they still like to know they can go off-road if need be.

Most of his mud tire customers run the products year-round, which can cause problems. Mud tires tend to scallop after several weeks of highway driving due to imbalances left by clumps of mud hidden in wheels, according to the dealer. "Normally, they think there's something wrong with the tire or the vehicle, but nearly every time there will be a six- or eight-ounce clump of mud clinging to one spot."

When actually going off-road and into the mud, drivers need treads with big void areas so the tires will clean themselves out when they roll. "Here we have mostly gummy mud that fills up the tread."

Mud tire construction has come a long way, according to Sturdivant. "And mileage is much, much better than it was years ago." When it comes to pricing, he buys Kelly Safaris directly from Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. "And wholesalers like Dunlap & Kyle give us room to make money." Unfortunately, many buyers regard mud tires as commodity products, a misconception that Sturdivant and his staff are trying to dispel. "If customers could go back 20 years and ride on those old tires, they would appreciate the bargain they're getting."

Big on beaches

"Today's product is so much better than it was five years ago," says Les McLea, president of McLea's Tire & Auto Service, a three-store chain based in Santa Rosa, Calif. "We don't see issues and warranties like we used to and the adjustment rate is way down."

McLea's Tire sells Remington, Cooper, BFGoodrich, Michelin and Yokohama brand off-road light truck tires, as well as other brands. His top sellers in that category are the Remington Mud Brute and the Remington Wide Brute, both offered by SURE Tire Co.

The dealership's other stores are located in Petaluma and Rohner Park, Calif. All of them are situated about 100 yards away from Highway 101, which runs up and down the Pacific Coast. Most of McLea's off-road light truck tire customers never leave pavement, he says. "They are more into the looks of the vehicle than they are off-roading. About half come in and say, 'I want an all-terrain tire.' About 10% say, 'I want a mud tire.' We ask about the rest's driving habits and then go from there. Seventy-five percent of our light truck tire sales are what we recommend."

Some of his customers who do go off-road take their vehicles onto beaches. "People going in the sand need more of an all-terrain tire," says McLea. "If they're really hardcore, they use treads with a more paddle-type design -- something that doesn't dig too deep and stays on the surface."

McLea aims for 35% to 40% gross profit on every off-road light truck tire he sells. He's discovered that second-tier tires often are more profitable because they aren't as widely available as some major label lines.

The off-road segment is more competitive than ever, he says. Seven years ago, McLea's Tire began selling add-on products like lift kits, lowering kits and other aftermarket accessories to supplement its tire income with great success.

"The (vehicle) dealerships are selling tires, the mass merchandisers are selling tires -- you have to be on your 'A' game," says McLea. "You have to be aggressive, proactive and very customer service-oriented."

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