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Understanding the 'tuner' mindset: Looks are hot, brands are lukewarm. And don't underestimate word-of-mouth or the Internet

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Understanding the 'tuner' mindset: Looks are hot, brands are lukewarm. And don't underestimate word-of-mouth or the Internet

If you're interested in getting a piece of the specialty import or "tuner" car business, you might want to brush up on what the competition is doing, because they may be more in-tune with this segment than you think.

In a recent visit to an import car show at Quaker City Raceway near Salem, Ohio -- in the Heartland, mind you, not California -- we picked the brains of 19 tuner car owners about how and why they bought the tires they did. Their responses to our questions should be nothing short of a wake-up call to you.

The informal survey revealed that non-traditional sources seem to be getting their fair share of tuner business. Only one of them thought he bought his tires from an independent tire dealer.

What's going on here? "We're fighting with the Internet and all the mail-order houses," said Tom Cadotte, marketing manager of performance tires and wheels for Flynn's Tire & Auto Service in Hermitage, Pa. "An owner of a Honda Civic or Mitsubishi Eclipse will go on-line and order Nitto's or Falken's, and it's tough to compete with them that way."

Cadotte was conducting his own field research at Quaker City Raceway. He was showing the company's 2002 Volkswagen GTI, shod with 225/40R18 Nankangs, and taking a look at his market and the competition.

"Right now, that's the only way we can compete," Cadotte said. "You take a look at all of these tuner cars and they're sporting Asian tires made in Taiwan. Then they're ordering them through the Internet or by mail."

Cadotte knows the market from both sides of the fence. Before joining Flynn's Tire, he spent 34 years with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

"This (tuner car market) is growing every day, and we at Flynn are certainly pursuing this business."

The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) estimates that the tuner market today is worth in excess of $1.5 billion.

Cadotte's vehicle and tires were the exceptions at Quaker City. Among the other 18 owners surveyed, there were eight Hondas and five Chryslers. Three drove a Mitsubishi model. The other two owned Toyota and General Motors vehicles, respectively.

The number of tiremakers was even more diverse. The most popular brands were Nitto (five) and Falken (four), followed by BFGoodrich, Kumho and Yokohama with two each. The last four cars had Federal, Dunlop, Toyo and Nankang tires, respectively.

'I didn't want to wait'

But why were the car owners staying away from tire dealers and company-owned stores when buying their tires? Some of the reasons may surprise you.

Price certainly was a consideration, but speed of delivery, ease of ordering, availability and package deals were the most common reasons. Brand was not a major issue.

Chris Tolley, a 31-year-old lawn care specialist from Beloit, Ohio, ordered the tires for his 1997 Dodge Neon through Summit Racing in Tallmadge, Ohio.

"They had what I wanted, and the price was right," Tolley said. "I didn't want to wait to order them. I wanted something that looked good on my car and wasn't really expensive. As far as I'm concerned, the tires can make or break the looks of a car."

Tolley paid about $800 for a set of Yokohama 195/60R15s. He added that Summit always has plenty of tires in stock.

Another owner who bought tires from a specialty shop was Brian Rodgers, 29, of Pittsburgh. He relied on a friend for advice, and spent $600 for Falken's, size 215/35R18. "I bought them at Speed of Sound," he said. "A buddy runs the shop, and got me a good deal."

He said he has spent $3,500 in the last six months, and estimates that he has spent a total of nearly $15,000 since he bought his 1999 Honda Civic new.

Why Falken's? "They have a more rounded edge than the Nitto's, and I would have had to cut more out of the wheel well for the Nitto's to fit."

Another owner took a different approach to his Nitto tire purchase. Don McManis, 25, of New Castle, Pa., bought a set of 205/45R15 Nitto's for his 2000 Honda Civic Si through mail order.

"I did most of my researching on the Internet, and found out it was cheaper and quicker to buy them by mail rather than through a local store," McManis said. "I got Nitto's because they had better hook-up (less tire spin) than any other tire at the price I wanted."

McManis said he paid less than $500 for a new set.

A Lake Milton, Ohio, resident took a different route to his Nitto tire purchase. "I ordered my tires right out of Super Streeter magazine," said 22-year-old Ryan Gray.

Gray paid considerably less, $50 each, for a set of Nitto's, (size 205/50R15) for his 1997 Acura Integra. "I heard good things about them from my friends," Gray said. "I checked on the Internet and then through a bunch of magazines and then made my decision."

While only four owners ordered directly through the Internet, most of the 21 owners used the medium for research.

"There are very few performance shops in Pittsburgh," said 26-year-old Brian Duffy about his hometown. "So my options were limited right from the start. I searched on the Internet and found out that mail order was cheaper."

For his 1993 Honda Civic Si, Duffy bought Toyo FZ4s, size 20540R17, for $100 each from Auto Option Salon in California.

A Wayne County, Ohio, resident also researched his tires through the Internet, then stayed with that medium.

"A friend of mine recommended The Wheel Broker (an Internet-based wholesale business)," said Jeff Wey of Wooster, Ohio, and at age 39 an anomaly in the market. "I looked all over the Internet, eBay and a few dealers, but they (The Wheel Broker) were the only ones who had the size and could get it to me within 24 hours."

Wey paid $109 each for a set of 21540R17 Nitto's. "I know that's not a common size," he said, "and everyone else said that they could order the tires, but it would take a few weeks to deliver them. I blew a tire on a Tuesday, and I had the replacement the next day and mounted it on Thursday."

There was no guesswork -- or doubt -- where Angelo Gillono of Massillon, Ohio, was going to buy his tires.

The 25-year-old went to his dad, a wholesaler, who owns The Wheel Broker. For the record, Gillono put Yokohama Paradas on his 1995 Chrysler Cirrus Lxi.

With a good inventory of tires to select from, why did he choose Yokohama's? "I liked their rim protector," he said. "They have good brand quality and the style fit the car. The outside is stiffer and the compound on the inside of the tire is softer. I like that combination."

He paid $160 per tire. "But dad offered a better package with Giovanna Kugi wheels, and that's what a lot of us look at when we upgrade our cars," Gillono said.

$563.80 per set

Gillono notwithstanding, Wey was more typical of the 19 owners. Seven purchased their tires through the Internet or via mail order. Seven also went through racing or specialty shops. Five owners bought their tires through a variety of sources such as friends, family or even a magazine ad.

The 19 owners paid handsomely to trick-up their vehicles. They paid an average of $563.80 for a set of tires, ranging from a low of $200 for a set to a high of $1,200.

Tires accounted for about 9% of the owners' total estimated cost associated with tuning their cars. The expenditures exceeded $100,000, an average of $4,814 per vehicle. On the low side, an owner spent $1,500 for the car makeover; on the high side, one owner spent an estimated $18,000 for his hobby.

The big spender was 21-year-old Brad Ferringer of Clarion, Pa., who said he spent five times his original investment in his 1995 Dodge Neon SOHC (single overhead cam).

"I bought it from a friend," Ferringer said. "Obviously, it needed some body work, but the looks and the paint job were number one in my book. The tires were not that important to me.

"Looks mean a lot, and I have a lot of young kids asking me a lot of questions about what I did to make the car look real cool."

Ferringer was the only owner to admit that the tires were not as much of a focus as the wheels were in his restoration project. Many of the other owners purchased tire/wheel packages, which may explain why they did not know the brand or size without bending down and checking them out.

Joe Leist, a 17-year-old student from Pittsburgh, not only knew he had 17-inch Kumho's on his 1997 Acura Integra, but also what his next set of tires would be. "When these wear out, I'm going to buy Toyo T-1 Proxis. I'm leaning toward them because I read where they were good in the rain, and tires and traction are very important to me. I don't want to be sliding around while I'm driving."

Interestingly, Leist said he was still looking for a tire dealer who could assist him in his quest.

A high school senior from Akron, Ohio, 17-year-old Mike Homan, purchased Falken tires (21540R18) for his 1998 Mitsubishi Eclipse RS from A&R Tire in Akron. "I checked on the Internet and I read a bunch of reviews, but I know a guy who works at A&R, and he said he could get me a deal," said Homan. He paid $140 a tire for the set.

One of the two females, Elanor Elliott of Deerfield, Ohio, searched the Internet, too, but decided to stay local for tires for her 2001 Toyota Celica GTS.

"I got a good deal for them at an aftermarket shop just outside of Boardman," she said. "I was searching for good-looking tires, but I wanted a package deal with the rims. It was the best deal I could get."

She purchased size 205/45R17 Federal's, and paid $1,300 for the entire tire-wheel package.

Looking good

Just like in the real estate market, the guiding principles of the automotive "tuner" market appear to begin with three "L's" -- looks, looks and looks!

A Pittsburgh resident, Chris Johnson, bought his tires from Speed of Sound, and had one focus. "I paid $165 each for a set of (225/35R19) Falken's, but I didn't worry about the price since I work there," he said.

"I was concerned about looks -- a real aggressive-looking tread. I was going for looks and not the tread wear. Looks are number one to me."

John Clinton II, 23, of Girard, Ohio, has a 2001 Mitsubishi Eclipse and runs it on BFGoodrich G-Force tires. He paid $1,200 for his tires, but bought them from a vendor of neon lights.

"I am absolutely sold on looks," said Clinton. "I've dealt with Hot Wires (a Youngstown, Ohio, neon light shop), and I was talking to them one day about tires and they said they could get them for me. I went to a couple of other places, but in the end, I stuck to Hot Wires because of the personal relationship that I have built up with them.

"I didn't care that much about price," Clinton said. "I'm a loyal customer and they've always treated me well with the neon's. Besides, I'm not into tuners for racing. The guys over there (he pointed toward the drag strip) care about 'fast.' I'm in it for the way my car looks.

"All I care about is that I'm prettier than you."

Hank Inman is a free-lance writer based in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

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