Building 'street cred' one tuner at a time: Dealers reach out to tuner enthusiasts by sponsoring or staging car shows
On paper, Edmonton, Alberta, and Mentor, Ohio, seem about as far away from the tuner scene as you can get. After all, how many tricked-out cars, sport pickups and SUVs do you really expect to see whizzing around a stately city in the middle of the Canadian plains, or a small, suburban town on the shore of Lake Erie some 30 miles east of Cleveland?
The answer is "plenty," according to Doug Buhler, president of The Tire Warehouse Inc., a four-store dealership based in Edmonton, and Jim Enger, owner of Enger Auto Service & Tire, a multi-location company based in Euclid, Ohio. Both dealers are reaching out to tuner customers via car shows, but in different ways.
Five years ago, there wasn't much of a tuner presence in Edmonton, says Buhler. But the city has since developed into a tuner hub with a vibrant population of young import car enthusiasts. The Tire Warehouse has managed to corner a sizeable chunk of this market by positioning itself as Edmonton's tuner expert.
While some tire dealerships use direct mail, television advertising, Web sites and other methods to reach tuner buyers, Buhler and his team take their message right to consumers by sponsoring and taking part in as many car shows as possible.
The strategy requires a great deal of time, planning, and in some cases money, but the goodwill - and subsequent sales - it generates are more than worth the effort, according to Buhler.
"We'd always been in the wheel business," says Buhler, whose mother, Nettie Harris, and her husband, Wayne Harris, founded The Tire Warehouse 26 years ago. "We used to be a wheel distributor at one time. But in the early '90s, we got a little burned (out) on it."
In time, Buhler regained his enthusiasm for custom wheels after attending several trade shows in the United States. ("Dressing up a vehicle has always been near and dear to my heart.")
He and the Harrises decided to jump back into selling tire and custom wheel packages, but with a twist. "We decided the best way to reach that market was not through conventional advertising but through active participation at the grassroots level."
The dealership began to establish itself as a "go-to" place for performance tires and flashy rims.
Its reputation spread, and The Tire Warehouse was asked to sponsor Powerama, the biggest car show in Edmonton. Traditionally a showcase for muscle cars and street rods, the event was picking up an influx of modified sport compacts, according to Buhler.
"What started off as a small sponsorship that was negotiated in one afternoon (has evolved) into a long-term deal. Powerama is now a major, major automotive event in our province."
Since then, The Tire Warehouse has gone on to sponsor several other car shows in and around Edmonton. The dealership is the title sponsor of Edmonton's Dropsickle Show, which is geared toward wild-looking tuner cars and light trucks, and the Tire Warehouse Sport Compact Challenge.
It also remains the title sponsor of Powerama, which draws more than 45,000 people each year. "That's a lot of exposure."
Buhler jealously guards his company's title sponsorship of these shows. The Tire Warehouse does not like to share sponsorship with other companies. "It just seems logical to own the event."
Powerama is an exception, he says. "With a show that big, obviously they need a lot of commercial sponsorship. But at the very least we will have category exclusivity."
Style plus substance
Buhler admits that money must be put up in order to secure title sponsorship at big tuner events. (He declined to reveal what The Tire Warehouse spends in that regard.)
"It's like naming hockey arenas. There's money involved, but it's money well spent because these shows are marketed directly to our target demographic.
"There are a lot of shows and they're not all good. But when you can get associated and involved with a good show, you're part of something that will have a direct relation to your everyday business. The word-of-mouth they generate is phenomenal. Monday morning our phones are ringing off the hook."
Results would probably be different if The Tire Warehouse approached these shows passively, says Buhler. "We don't just sponsor, though. We're on the ground with people and vehicles."
The Tire Warehouse trots at least one tuned vehicle out to every show. The dealership has invested almost $250,000 in buying and modifying show vehicles within the last half-decade.
"We had a Grand Prix; that was our first one. Unfortunately it got written off in a big car accident. We then went to a Cadillac Escalade. Then we bought an Acura RSX, and we just did a 2005 Hummer H2.
"Once (this year's) Powerama was over, we sold the Escalade and RSX, so we're down to one vehicle. We get a lot of investment back when we sell our vehicles. We turn them over quickly so they don't lose their value."
The idea is to keep a fresh car in the mix each year. "We do something different to each vehicle. We might change wheels, we might do something internally." Buhler and his staff recently installed several DVD screens in the Hummer.
"You're competing with some awfully good vehicles at these shows. You need something that's on par if you want to be remembered."
Another key to success at tuner shows is having employees who are plugged into the scene on-hand, he says. "We're blessed with having very knowledgeable, motivated people working for us. They can walk the walk and talk the talk with these customers."
The Tire Warehouse decks out its employees who work tuner shows in unique apparel "so they don't look like they're standing behind the sales counter."
It isn't cheap. This year, the dealership bought more than 20 special shirts at $100 a pop. "Our guys love them. Everybody wants one. They fight over these shirts! But the shirts are only for those guys who take time out of their weekends to work the shows."
Building a good rep
The Tire Warehouse doesn't stop there. "We've created a SEMA Show-quality booth. We do wheel displays and tire displays. We hang banners from the rafters.
"We do a lot of giveaways. Falken Tire Corp. gave us a lot of promotional products. BFGoodrich has been very good to us."
Trinkets are easier to hand out than articles of clothing like hats, shirts and jackets, says Buhler. "At some of these (events) there will be such a crush of people. You just can't give 40,000 shirts away."
One thing The Tire Warehouse doesn't do at tuner shows is actively sell tires and wheels. "We're selling our name, our image, the 'wow' factor, but we don't sell any product."
Show attendees who want to buy from the dealership are invited to its stores. "We also do a major off-site tuner sale in conjunction with a local stereo company, where all we do is sell. We rent a very large facility and that's our shop for the weekend."
However, Buhler and his crew actively promote specials "that people can take advantage of the week after the show. In the past we've done pre-printed glossy coupons." Last year, the company began offering specials through its Web site, www.thetirewarehouse.com. The site links to a separate site that has been designed specifically for tuner customers. "It's still The Tire Warehouse but it has a different look and feel."
Big shows like Powerama involve several months of planning, according to Buhler. "You have to make sure you'll have the right products there. You have to schedule your staff, though you have to pay these guys whether they're at the shop or a show so there's really no additional money you have to spend (on payroll)."
Sponsorship contracts for small and mid-size shows usually go year-to-year, he says. Bigger shows use multi-year contracts. In most cases, The Tire Warehouse's sponsorship simply rolls over automatically.
"A good tuner show will command a lot of anticipation and excitement. Before Powerama, I'll have people phoning me and wanting to register their cars. I tell them, 'We're the sponsor of the event! We're not putting the event on,'" he says with a laugh.
"They call it 'street cred.' That's what we're shooting for."
Jim Enger built a great deal of "street cred" this past August at his dealership's first-ever tuner show. The event was held at one of Enger's latest acquisitions, a former Lou's Tire Mart shop that is situated on the side of a long commercial strip that cuts through Mentor.
"I had no idea they were into the tuner thing," says tuner enthusiast Nick Grande, who took his Mazda RX7 to the show.
Grande, 17, paid $1,800 for the car and has put $1,000 into it in the form of new plugs, wires and two tires and wheels to replace a couple that he ruined while drifting around a parking lot with his friends. "I'll definitely come back here."
"I didn't know this store was here," says Ken Lewis, another attendee. Lewis, 24, drives a 1987 Honda CRX. He buys his tires from The Tire Rack. He was surprised to learn that Enger is a certified Tire Rack installer.
Enger, who started aggressively pursuing the tuner market last year, says more and more kids in northeast Ohio are starting to "do what we used to do with our muscle cars back in the '70s and '80s. It's fantastic!"
When Enger decided to sell tuner tires and wheels, he bought new equipment, including an alignment system and a Corghi Artiglio Master mounting machine, which can handle tire and wheel packages of up to 28 inches.
"It's not uncommon to sell 22s now, where five years ago, if you sold a 20-inch that was stretching it."
Tire mounters designed to handle large diameter configurations "run about twice as much as a standard machine... but it wasn't that big of a deal. We always update with the finest equipment we can buy."
With a little help...
Enger operates in Cleveland's eastern suburbs. He's far enough away from the city that serious competitors are few and far between.
His top-selling tuner brands are Dunlop, Kumho and Nitto. Early in the summer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which owns Dunlop, approached him about hosting a tuner show. The Akron, Ohio-based tiremaker wanted a dealership that knew the tuner market.
"We're flexible and stay on top of trends. We have the customer base and the enthusiasm, (which) comes from our employees."
Enger employs several "tuner specialists. They're younger guys and girls. One has an air suspension in her pickup truck. They're into the performance end of it. They just love it."
The size of his Mentor store was another draw. "We sit on about three acres here. It's a very large facility and we have a big warehouse with all the products in stock.
"We keep about 60 of the hottest wheels in stock. Customers want different off-sets, colors, styles - there are so many wheels out there." He also keeps about 5,000 tires at the shop.
Goodyear came to Enger with a basic plan for the show. "They've done this in other cities so they pretty much had a formula for it, where they bring in their tents, their people." Goodyear also sponsored a grill for hot dogs and hamburgers and hired a DJ for the event.
"They have their set structure. They had a presentation on what to expect, what they were going to handle."
Enger and his staff went above and beyond by going to car shows in the greater Cleveland area and publicizing their own event. Enger also ran ads in the local newspaper on the final three days leading up to the show, which was held on a Saturday. The day of the show, he advertised tire and wheel discounts for people who came out.
Goodyear told him he could expect about 100 attendees. By noon - only two hours into the show - more than 300 people had shown up.
Tuner enthusiasts were allowed to display their cars for free. Enger wrote down many of their names and contact information so he can stay in touch with them.
The Mentor location sold more than 250 tires that day; on a normal day, it moves about 40 or so. "I've never sold that many at a single location."
'Sales will come'
The timing of Enger's show couldn't have been better. One week later, Hot Import Nights held an event at the IX Center, a cavernous auditorium on the other side of Cleveland.
Enger shared booth space with Dunlop and his distributor, Alliance, Ohio-based Terry's Tire Town. He brought some of his tuner specialists along to talk cars, tires and wheels with browsers.
"We don't try to sell at Hot Import Nights, but we hand out business cards and flyers and talk to (people) about tires. It's not always about selling. It's about letting them know you're out there. We want people to enjoy the day. The sales will come later."
Sell accessories, expertise, says Buhler: And keep an eye on the high-end crowd
Selling tuner accessories can be highly profitable - if you know what you're doing, says Doug Buhler, president of The Tire Warehouse Inc. in Edmonton, Alberta. "We do suspensions and brake upgrades. We got into visual accessories like lights and body kits last year.
"You need to pick what you're good at and develop a reputation in that area. If you can do something really well... that will be a big step in boosting your store's performance. But if you try to do it all and don't do part of it well, it can destroy what you're really good at."
And if you have a good thing going with tires, wheels and accessories, don't limit yourself to tuners, he says. "Our economy in Edmonton is doing very well. We're seeing a lot of middle-aged people with discretionary income, and they're choosing to spend that income on their vehicles.
"The guy who is buying a $100,000 Mercedes is not going to blink at a $4,000 chrome wheel package. He just wants to know if it's going to look good and fit right and if we'll stand behind it if there's a problem."