Winter tires gain momentum: More performance OE tires translates into increased demand when it snows. But be aware of TPMS protocol
Selling winter tires is both an opportunity and a challenge. Obviously there are profits to be made, but poor choices can prove costly to a tire dealer for a number of reasons.
Constantly improving technology has produced tires that perform better and better on treacherous roads. But it also has made decisions more and more difficult on what to recommend to customers.
For example, no one type of winter tire is best under all road conditions. It depends on the weather in your area, how much and under what conditions the customer drives, and how efficient and skillful road crews are in treating and removing ice and snow on the highways And there's always the issue of cost vs. safety!
A relatively new factor to consider is the risks and costs involved in mounting snow tires in the fall and removing them in the spring on vehicles equipped with a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS).
Some dealers, like Gary Bergman, owner of Meadowcreek Tire and Service in Frisco, Colo., believe this is becoming a serious problem as more and more vehicles equipped with a TPMS hit the road.
Bergman says the monitoring systems are sensitive and easily damaged. They cost up to $120 each. Extra care and expertise are required in handling them.
"There are five or six types of monitors in use, some electronic and some magnetic," says Bergman. And they must be reprogrammed when tires or wheel positions are changed. Proper valve caps must be installed.
He also has found that the monitors must be inspected when the customer leaves the vehicle at the dealership to be sure the monitors are working when the vehicle is brought in. This can avoid any later claims of damage.
Variations in altitude and temperature can change the tire pressure and set off monitoring system warning signals. Since nitrogen is less sensitive to these variations, Bergman fills tires in his Frisco, Vail and Denver, Colo., retail stores with nitrogen instead of air.
Such issues require special training sessions for tire techs and increase the cost of mounting and dismounting all tires. To cover these costs, Bergman's stores have increased the charge for switching to and from winter tires from $50 to $80 each spring and fall.
Jeff Dunn, owner of Dunn's Imports in Madison, Wis., charges $114 each time he mounts or dismounts a set of winter tires. "It takes up to an hour and a half to do it properly and I don't make any money doing it even at that price," he says.
His shop repairs imported cars in addition to selling tires. Many of his customers own rear-wheel-drive European cars such as Mercedes and BMWs. To 90% of them he sells Nokian-made WRs, an all-weather tire with a 50,000-mile tread wear warranty, and recommends they drive on them year-round.
Dunn feels the improvements in many winter tires that have made them quieter, smoother-riding and longer lasting will result in more and more drivers deciding to ride the same tires 12 months a year.
Rick LaMar, general manager of Johnson's Tire Service stores based in Anchorage, Alaska, also drives on his winter tires throughout the year. He says they give him better control driving on wet roads and through standing water on Alaska's damaged and grooved pavement.
Studs or no?
The question dealers need to answer for their customers is, "Which tire choice is best for them most of the time?" Again, it boils down to cost vs. safety.
In the state of Washington, for instance, the studded tire debate has gone on for more than 30 years. In 1971, the state restricted studded tire use to the period between Nov. 1 and March 31. Since then, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has repeatedly proposed eliminating studs altogether or taxing their use by up to $25 per tire or requiring "less damaging" studs.
WSDOT has questioned the value of studded tires versus improved studless winter tires available and has claimed studs do $10 million worth of damage annually to state highways. But all these proposals have either died in committee or been defeated on the floor of the state legislature.
Phil Wick is president of Les Schwab Tire Centers, whose 410 stores throughout the Northwest are the nation's biggest users of studded tires. Schwab stores sell a variety of winter tire brands.
Wick estimates that as many as 70% of Schwab Washington customers east of the Cascade Mountains use winter tires and some three-quarters of those tires are studded. In western Washington, where winters are generally milder, he puts the number at 50% on winter tires, and says perhaps 75% of those tires are studded.
Among all drivers in the state, however, WSDOT estimates winter and studded tire use at a considerably lower figure.
Over the years, studded tire use has been widely prohibited or restricted to bad weather months.
Some states, like Alabama, Florida, Texas and Wyoming, allow only studs that "don't damage the highway." Minnesota and Michigan restrict stud use to vehicles used by rural mail carriers and, in Michigan, by police officers and emergency vehicles. Even Hawaii permits their use on the mountainous roads of Mauna Kea.
According to Modern Tire Dealer statistics, about 11.1 million winter tires were sold in the United States last year -- 9 million replacement units and 2.1 million original equipment units.
Sales of winter replacement tires have been relatively steady during the last 10 years. Last year they claimed 4.4% of the market. In 2005, about 4% of original equipment tires were built for winter driving compared with 5% in 1990, an apparent reflection of auto manufacturers' reliance on improved all-season tires.
Since most tires are studded after they leave the factory, the number of vehicles on the road with studded tires is difficult to determine.
The largest distributor of tire studs in the U.S. is Bruno Wessel Inc. of Mamaroneck, N.Y. President Garry Wessel says recent use of aluminum and light weight steel studs have greatly reduced road damage. He believes their increased safety benefits more than compensate for any damage they may do to the pavement.
"Not a single state has reduced its budget for road repairs after prohibiting the use of tire studs," he points out.
Scandinavian countries such as Finland, Norway and Sweden have long ago concluded that savings in property damage and personal injuries or deaths is worth any increase in road repairs, says Wessel.
What do dealers say?
What do tire dealers in wintry locations say to customers about the importance of winter tires?
Tony Segona, owner of Midtown Tire Inc., a tire distributorship based in Rochester, N.Y., has retail stores in Webster and Canandaigua, N.Y., plus two warehouses.
He sells a variety of brands and estimates about 20% of his customers use winter tires and 5% put in tire studs. He, too, is considering raising the price he charges for mounting and demounting tires by $2 per tire to compensate for the extra cost of training employees to handle tire pressure monitoring systems and for the expense of equipment required and the liability of working around their delicate sensors.
Randy Clark, president of Dunn Tire Corp., a 27-store chain that stretches across snow country from Erie, Pa., to Syracuse, N.Y., says more and more cars are sold with performance tires and this increases the need for winter tires on all four wheels.
He acknowledges the problems caused by a TPMS and says it's necessary to check cars coming in to have snow tires mounted to be sure the tire pressure monitoring sensors are working. Clark also says it makes sense to ask drivers to agree in writing to pay for repair of sensors that don't work.
On the other hand, Clark says dealing with a TPMS puts mass merchants like Wal-Mart at an even greater disadvantage in trying to compete with professional tire dealers.
Brad Haasnoot, who owns the Tire Warehouse store in Hookset, N.H., is a firm believer in the safety advantages of winter tires and says upward of 30% of his customers use them, and more than half of those who do have them studded.
A TPMS is "a pain in the neck" and dealing with the system has caused him to raise the price of mounting snow tires from $11.99 to $15.95 per tire. Talks with dealers in the northern U.S. indicate that tire dealers as well as weather can influence winter tire use.
Mike Fox at Johnson's Tire in Alaska puts 80% to 90% of his customers on winter tires.
Gary Bergman in Colorado sells them to 75% of his clientele and even distributes them in Australia.
"I make money on winter tires," says one dealer who asked not to be quoted. "But I'm not sure the trouble is worth it.
"We store the tires we take off for our customers and that pretty much ensures that they'll come back to us at least twice a year. And I believe winter tires are necessary in most cases.
"What I'm not so sure about is the value of a TPMS. The sensors should at least be standardized. It's just another case of the government taking what may be a good idea and screwing it up."
Whatever the case, winter tires are here to stay. Talks with dealers across the country indicate specializing in them pays off.
Generally, high-end customers are most interested in investing in winter safety.
This opens up opportunities for substantial profits for dealers willing to invest the time and expertise necessary to do the job right.
All-season tires are good, but... Snow brings out the best in winter tires
Nokian Tyres plc claims to have "invented" the winter tire back in 1936. Since then "snow tires" have been introduced through the years with varying degrees of effectiveness. All-season tires came into being 25 to 30 years ago as a compromise to improve performance of then-standard summer tires on wet and snowy roads.
Mud and snow (M&S) tires were another step up, but nobody defined the minimum requirements for a true winter tire until 1999 when the Rubber Manufacturers Association came up with the "Severe Snow Performance" designation and the Mountain/Snowflake design for sidewalls of the tires that qualified.
Many of the drawbacks of early winter tires have been reduced -- some nearly eliminated -- with improvements in compounding and tread design.
Winter tires are still more expensive and less durable than their summer or all-season cousins. They are made of softer rubber with special compounds including such materials as silica to keep them flexible in cold temperatures.
Small slits or sipes on the edges of the tread or tread blocks and, in some cases, air bubbles help to push away slippery moisture and slush from beneath the tires.
Better combinations of belts, beads, chemicals and mixes of synthetic and natural rubber have been developed by tire manufacturers to improve the safety of winter tires.
Still, no single type of tire is best under all conditions.
The need for tire chains has virtually been eliminated except for use on mountain roads where they are required under severe winter conditions.
Nothing beats tire studs on ice or hard-packed snow, but their use has been a serious bone of contention over the years with those who claim studs seriously damage pavement.
Studded tires, however, are not so good on wet pavement, where stud-less tires make better contact with the road and provide a quieter ride. And in milder climates where snowfall is infrequent, all-season tires may be sufficient.
Recently developed "all-weather" tires attempt to bridge the performance gap between all season and winter tires by providing better stability while retaining most advantages of the non-winter tires.Lloyd Stoyer retired as editor of Modern Tire Dealer in 2000. That same year he was inducted into the Tire Industry Association's Hall of Fame. He resides in Canton, Ohio.