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Road trip!

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Did you check the spare tire?” I asked the tire dealer. My wife’s 2007 Saturn Vue had undergone a “used vehicle inspection” in preparation for my trip from Akron, Ohio, to Sarasota, Fla., and back, and I was getting ready to pay the bill.

“They should have,” he answered. Not knowing for sure, however, he walked back to the service area to talk to his technicians.

Shortly thereafter, a service tech asked me for the keys in order to check the compact spare tire. It was a little low, and he filled it to 60 psi, as recommended by the service manual.

A common mistake? I hope not. Still, my dealer road trip in late May and early June was off to a less-than-perfect start.

As it turned out, that was the extent of my troubles over the next eight days.
Mechanically, everything else was fine, according to the vehicle invoice. The tech noticed a slight pull to the right, but the scheduled tire rotation fixed that problem. He also topped off the fluids.

Total cost: $22.74.

Exactly 2,665 miles later, I was back home, but only after visiting independent tire dealers in Cincinnati, Ohio; Florence, Ky.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Acworth, Ga.; Sarasota; Conover, N.C.; and Summersville, W.Va. I also visited BJ’s Wholesale Clubs in Akron; Tampa, Fla.; and Mooresville, N.C.

The trip was everything I had hoped it would be. All seven dealers were accommodating despite my surprise visits. They were willing to share their secrets of success and, in some cases, survival in the face of a brutal recession.

They believe in differentiating themselves from the competition. They take advantage of any opportunity, and cater to the customers like never before. Perhaps they have to — of the nine states I passed through, seven had unemployment rates of more than 10% in June, based on data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. In January of this year, only South Carolina had an unemployment rate of more than 10%.

My trip wasn’t all business. I attended a Cincinnati Reds home game at the Great American Ball Park (Reds 6, Houston Astros 1), and ate breakfast at the same place Elvis dined in Sarasota in 1956. I also visited my sister in Georgia and my mother in Florida.

But my journey revolved around the tire dealers. These are their stories.

[PAGEBREAK]Bob Sumerel Tire & Service

The fan base of Bob Sumerel Tire & Service in downtown Cincinnati is located nearby: Proctor & Gamble’s headquarters, Fifth-Third Bank, the Hamilton County Court House.

One of 30 Bob Sumerel Tire retail outlets in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, the store also services “a lot of fleets,” according to John Zimmer, retail operations clerk. Customers Channel 9, an ABC affiliate, and Channel 12, a CBS affiliate, broadcast from within a block or two of the store.

“We’re busy in the morning, with people dropping off (their vehicles) before 9 a.m.,” he said. “We’re busy again from 4 to 6 p.m., when they’re just picking up and checking out.

“Between that, we just work on the cars dropped off. We’re very different from other Bob Sumerel stores.”

Store hours cater to downtown activity, said Zimmer. “We’re open from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. because there is nobody down here after 5 o’clock, except when they come down for the Reds game.”

With 18 stores in the Greater Cincinnati area, Bob Sumerel Tire is a full-fledged member of the community. So is the Cincinnati Reds major league baseball team. The two teamed up for a spring Web coupon promotion featuring free tickets with the purchase of Cooper tires.

The downtown store is located within a mile of the Great American Ball Park, where the Reds play. When I visited the store, they were only one-and-a-half games out of the division lead.

“The company is starting to advertise the promotion now,” said Zimmer, who at the time had redeemed a couple of coupons. “It might be popular now that they are winning.”

Manager John O’Rourke said the proximity of the ball park to the store is not necessarily a draw to his customers. “The majority of my clientele commutes from the suburbs. They work here every day, get in and get out.

“I’ve been working downtown for 11 years, and the vibe you get is ‘give me my keys, ring me out, I’ve got to go.’”

In addition to Cooper, the dealership’s showroom advertised Dean, Yokohama and Michelin tires.

The company Web site listed many more.

(On Nov. 1, AAA Allied Group, an AAA club based in Cincinnati, completed its purchase of Bob Sumerel Tire Co. Inc.’s retail business. The stores will continue to do business as Bob Sumerel Tire & Service.)

[PAGEBREAK]Tire Discounters Inc.

Tire Discounters Inc. is a 57-store chain based in Cincinnati. But it has a significant presence across the Ohio River, which separates Ohio from Kentucky.

Pete Plajer, a nine-year company veteran, is general manager of Store #10, conveniently located on KY 18 in Florence, Ky. He competes against his neighbors along the state highway, car dealers touting Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai and Volkswagen. A Ford dealership also advertises Goodyear tires.

The Chrysler dealership on one side and Dodge dealership on the other are closing, victims of either a) the economy, b) the missteps of their parent company, or c) both.

The car dealers also are customers of Tire Discounters. “We do a lot of alignments for them, not a lot of tires,” said Plajer. “We used to sell them a lot of tires, but with dealerships carrying their own tires, we don’t sell them a lot these days.”

Despite the economic downturn, tire sales are strong, he said.

“We’re probably doing more service business now. People are keeping their cars longer, getting them repaired.”

His customer base is “definitely middle class.” A lot of them work at nearby Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky (CVG) Airport. “We’re right in line with the runway.”

Tire Discounters is known for its out-the-door pricing, which includes everything except a $2.50 environmental and disposal charge per tire. And if you buy a set of four tires, the alignment is free.

The advertised price even includes nitrogen. “We don’t fill tires with anything else,” said Plajer.
Kelly, Michelin and BFGoodrich are the store’s main tire brands. Many others are showcased in the showroom, including American (American Car Care Centers), Capitol, Dunlop, General, Geo-Trac (Tireco), Goodride, Goodyear, Kumho, Milestar (Tireco), Toyo and Uniroyal.

The writing on the wall said it all: “We’re known by the companies we keep.”

[PAGEBREAK]
Free Service Tire & Auto Service

Rick Hanson was looking to buy P195/70R14 tires for his girlfriend’s Toyota Camry, “something that’s a good deal, a good price.”

He is a believer in the independent tire dealer. “I used to work for a tire store,” he said.

Hanson asked John Antrican, assistant manager at the Free Service Tire & Auto Center in Kingsport, Tenn., for Pirelli’s, which he had priced at another tire store. They were out of stock.
Antrican said he could get them for him, but gave him two options. The set of Michelin’s featured an 80,000-mile limited tread wear warranty. They cost $100 apiece.

The set of General’s came with a 70,000-mile warranty. They cost $73 apiece. Hanson favored the General Altimax RTs, and set up an appointment.

“In this day and time, you have to watch what you spend,” he said.

The Kingsport store is one of four Free Service Tire & Auto Centers in upper Tennessee.

“There are two things that come into play when someone buys a tire: price and the attitude of the salesman,” said Manager Matt Adkins. “I believe in that.”

Before he begins any sales pitch, Adkins always starts the conversation out with a series of questions. For example, if the customer is driving a light truck, is he an aggressive driver? Does he ever drive off-road, or is he looking more for a highway tire?

“There are places around here where your car just drives in the mud all day.”

Free Service Tire carries Yokohama, Goodyear, Michelin, General, Pir-elli, Cooper, Bridgestone, Uniroyal, BFGoodrich and Continental brand tires.

In Knoxville proper, there are 37 independent tire dealers, including Blue Skies Car Wash Express Lube & Auto and a National Auto Parts Inc. tire center. There also are six Walmart Tire & Lube Service Centers, two Sears Auto Centers, two Pep Boys Automotive Supercenters and five Firestone Complete Auto Care outlets.

Service “is the only thing you do to survive anymore, in my opinion,” he said. “Everyone’s selling tires. Everyone’s got the same tires at the same prices.

“Everyone buys from the same person. There’s an ATD (American Tire Distributors) on every corner.

“Only you can make it better for the customer.”

[PAGEBREAK]
H&A Auto Service Center Inc.

“If you want it, I’ll get it.” Caleb Morgan is store manager of H&A Auto Service, a one-store dealership in Acworth, Ga. He is a proud Goodyear dealer, who also stocks Dunlop, Republic and Blue Streak (a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. associate brand).

Blue Streak is an entry-level economy line. “I sell them as a last resort when I’m going to lose the sale,” said Morgan.

He also keeps a few Pirelli, Michelin and Toyo tires on hand “in case a customer wants something as a third option.” If he sells a tire line three times within a month or two, he will add it to inventory, which hovers around 200 tires at any given time.

“I routinely check inventory every week. I stay on top of popular sizes and popular brands.”

Morgan, who considers himself “extremely aggressive but not pushy,” doesn’t like the blunt approach to selling: Here is the price, yes or no.

“I can sell that way, but it seems impersonal. I find out what they like, what they don’t like. From there, you can make your assessment of what the customer wants and address his needs.”

What if all the bays are full? “We’ll make something happen,” he said. “If we can’t get them in, we’ll schedule an appointment right away. We’ll compensate them.... That doesn’t mean we’ll give everything away, but we’ll do what we can do to get their business.”

Stephen Hammond purchased the company from his uncle six months after it opened in 2002. Including Morgan, he has seven employees who service the cars and the customers, plus himself.

“I’m hands-on but hands-off,” he says. “I take care of the problems.”

There are four major suppliers within a 50-mile radius of the store: ATD, Kauffman Tire Inc., Carroll Tire Co. and Goodyear’s own warehouse. Typically 60% to 70% of the tire sales are Goodyear product.

“We are a G3 dealer,” said Hammond. “Goodyear has been good to me, and I try to push their tires. But if we get a customer looking for another tire, we’re not going to let him leave our store because we don’t have it. We’ll get it and sell it to him.”

Unlike some dealers, Hammond likes to service national accounts. “We try to get fleet business,” he said. If a fleet owner is satisfied, he’ll bring in his car, his wife’s car, maybe even his hot rod.

“We meet their needs.”

[PAGEBREAK]
Lanning Tire Sales Inc.

For people living in Sarasota, the real estate market began to decline in late 2007, well before scandal and bankruptcy rocked the nation’s financial community.

Earlier this year, an annual Forbes magazine study, which relied heavily on data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, labeled Sarasota the third-worst medium-sized city for jobs. Unemployment figures in Florida as a whole reached record levels in May (10.2%) and June (10.6%).

Prior to the downturn, Steve Lanning, president of Lanning Tire Sales, and his wife, Sheryl, owned three stores and employed 67 people. Less than two years later, they are down to two stores and 34 people. Steve says it was hard to lay off so many people, but necessary for the company to survive.

“We’ve revamped the whole business,” he says. “I think it has made better business people out of us, because it has (forced us) to go back to the basics.”

Hours, overtime, insurance programs, equipment expenditures, advertising, vehicle usage — all costs were scrutinized “in order to get to a break-even scenario,” says Steve. That didn’t happen until May of this year.

“Everybody thinks the winters are the busy season because Yankees come down for the winter, but it’s just the opposite,” he says. “They do all car work before they come down.”

However, business usually picks up at the end of February and the beginning of March. The last couple years have been different, according to the Lannings.
      
Steve: “We came out of winter and it just hasn’t taken off...”

Sheryl: “but we’re holding our own...”

Steve: “because of changes we made.”

Sheryl Lanning is the company secretary. She shares face time with Steve in billboard, print and cable television ads, although as part of its austerity program, the company has cut back on TV advertising.

None of the ads features tire pricing. “We’re not a discounter,” says Steve. Lanning Tire stocks primarily Cooper, Goodyear, Bridgestone, Pirelli, Falken, Nitto and some Michelin, “especially in truck tires” because of its national account business. Carlisle specialty tires round out the inventory.

“We will gladly entertain getting other product if you want it,” he adds. The company also offers used tires.

Metropolitan Sarasota, which includes Bradenton, remains an affluent community based on per capita income. There is still plenty of business to be had, says Steve, who services everything from domestic and imported cars to motor homes and golf carts.

“There are beaucoup golf courses in the area,” says Steve, which is why he has one salesman who only calls on golf courses.

Lanning Tire also sponsors The Perry E. Lanning Memorial Golf Tournament every year. College sponsorships are awarded in honor of Steve’s older brother, Perry, who co-founded the company with him in 1974.

[PAGEBREAK]Alray Tire & Muffler of Conover

“How come you never do stories on southern tire dealers?”

That question was posed to me by a dealer from Alray Tire & Muffler of Conover at the North Carolina Tire Dealers and Retreaders Association convention in 2007. He was part of a contingent representing Alray Tire’s four stores, each owned separately but working together as “kissing cousins” in Conover, Boone, Lenoir and Valdese, N.C.

How do you answer that question when you know the magazine has featured dealers south of the Mason-Dixon Line on many occasions? I told them I would try and visit one day.

Two years later, I showed up almost on the dealership’s doorstep. One of the dealers at the convention, Chad Fowler, still worked at the Conover store, and remembered the conversation (the employee who asked the question was no longer working at Alray).

Now the manager, Fowler said business was back to normal this year following a slow start.

“At the end of last year, I was very skeptical. It was very scary. But it seems to have picked up with tax season, and it kept growing. We are up to the level of last year.

“I think people think it’s better to fix what they have than buy what they don’t need.”

Fowler has a good working relationship with local car dealerships. He not only supplies tires to them, but also handles overflow when their bays are full.

Village Motors of Conover, a used vehicle dealer, is “probably the biggest commercial account we have,” said Assistant Manager Dustin Curtis. There is so much business between the two that they communicate using walkie-talkies.

Curtis said the idea was born from accidentally leaving his cell phone in the car of a Village Motors customer. When the service manager called to let him know he had found it, he saw the potential in walkie-talkies.

At the time of my visit, Curtis had just purchased a second set, this one for Robinson Motors #2, another used vehicle dealer.

Danny Bollinger, manager of the Robinson Motors dealership in downtown Conover, thinks it’s a great idea.

“It’s not going to tie up our customers calling in,” he said. “As frequently as they call, it’s like their own private line.”

It’s a two-way street, said Fowler. “It gives them more access to us, and rightfully so, given the amount of work they give us.”

Fowler stocks Michelin, Firestone, Mastercraft, Goodyear, Geo-Trac, Dayton, Kumho, Nankang, Lexington, BFGoodrich and GT Radial. POS material also promotes Yokohama.

“If it’s made, I will try and get it for you,” he said. “It’s not fair to say we sell this or that. If it’s a tire, we can do it.”

[PAGEBREAK]C. Adam Toney Discount Tires

Charlie and Adam Toney have seen the signs of the recession in the rural area surrounding Beckley, W.Va. New car sales are down. The cost of living is up.

Smaller retailers have gone out of business. Gas stations are being forced to contract-buy thousands of additional gallons of gas to stay in business.

Charlie Toney, however, was in an expansion mode.

“We needed a larger, modern, newer location to service our clientele and offer more availability,” he said. “It sometimes hurts if you don’t have the product right there when the customer wants it.”
Toney’s new 27,000-square-foot building, his second store in Beckley and fourth in West Virginia overall, had been open a short time when I arrived.

The predominantly retail store features a training area (“Goodyear is going to help with it”); a huge waiting area, complete with a flat-screen TV; and a children’s playroom.

“Our retail business has been very good for the last 15 to18 months,” he said. “When new car sales are down, independent retailers should flourish.”

Charlie is the president of C. Adam Toney Discount Tires. His father, Adam, and uncle co-founded the business in the late 1970s in Oak Hill, W.Va. Now a retail/commercial/wholesale tire store twice-removed from its original location, it remains the company’s headquarters.

Adam manages the company’s 1,700 wholesale accounts under the Mountaineer Tire & Battery banner. Wholesaling represents 45% of total business.

C. Adam Toney Discount Tires employs 63 people. To some of the long-time employees, it’s the only job they have ever had.

“My managers and assistant managers treat the business like it’s theirs,” said Charlie. “That’s what makes our business strong.”

The dealership sells Goodyear, Kelly, Remington, Cooper, Starfire, Fierce, Maxxis, Continental, General, Bridgestone, Firestone and some Dunlop brand tires. It also offers all the MAST (Michelin Americas Small Tires) products.

Despite the hard times (“There isn’t much optimism in the big cities,” said Charlie), the Toneys are not ruling out further expansion.

“Oh yeah, you can’t sit around in this business,” said the elder Toney. “You have to find ways to grow the business or you will get swept under the table.”

[PAGEBREAK]In the months that followed

By the end of the season, the Cincinnati Reds had a losing record. How successful was the Bob Sumerel ticket promotion?

Rob Wildman, territory manager for Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., said the five-state dealer campaign proved more successful this year than last year, despite the economy.

“It did help the consumer make the buying decision. Did people come in because of it? No, but it definitely helped us.”

In August, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in Florida was 10.7%, a little higher than in June. The unemployment rate for the Bradenton-Sarasota-Venice region was 11.9%.

Business at Lanning Tire Sales “is about the same,” says Steve Lanning. Business is good for two or three days, and then it goes right back to where it was. When that happens, it’s so empty “you can shoot a cannon through the store.”

As for me, I had to have the oil and oil filter changed on the 2007 Saturn Vue as part of the deal with my wife, Tris. I had a number of choices as to when to have it done.

The owner’s manual hinted that it should be changed every 3,000 miles but was not definitive. On many new vehicles, the factory recommended interval is anywhere from 7,500 to 10,000 miles.

Tris always has her oil changed every 6,000 miles.

The choice was an easy one. When her car reached the 6,000-mile mark, I paid $21.05 for the oil change, officially ending my road trip.    ■

[PAGEBREAK]BJ’s Wholesale: 183 clubs, one price sheet

There are 183 BJ’s Wholesale Clubs in 15 eastern states from Maine to Florida, including Ohio.

Based on my investigation, tire pricing is the same at all of them, regardless of what the local retail tire dealers charge.

BJ’s embraces out-the-door tire pricing. It includes “lifetime” tire balancing, flat repair and tire rotation; mounting; a road hazard warranty; and valve stem. State and local taxes and disposal fees also are included.

I visited three outlets. In Mooresville, N.C., I talked with a shopper who told me the prices at the nearby Discount Tire store were lower than at BJ’s.

Here are some pricing examples, common to the clubs in Mooresville; Akron, Ohio; and Tampa, Fla.    

P185/70R14 87S: Michelin X-Radial, 80K, $89.99.

P185/70R14 87T: Uniroyal Tiger Paw Touring, 80K,  $75.99.

P245/65R17 105S: Michelin Cross Terrain, 65K, $225.99.

The least expensive tire sold at BJ’s was the Michelin X-Radial DT in size P185/65R14 85S. The 80,000-mile tire was priced at $71.99.

(In its “MemberSavings Book” for October, BJ’s offered $40 off any set of four Uniroyal passenger or light truck tires. The offer was “not available in all clubs.”)

Club hours are Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9. p.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

10 reasons why... Consumers should buy from Lanning Tire

The “Place to Buy Tires” according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune Readers’ Choice poll, is Lanning Tire Service Inc. It has been every year for the last nine years.

Owners Steve and Sheryl Lanning know why they are the place of choice. They spell it out in their “10 reasons why we are the best place to buy tires” pamphlet.

1. Trust. 2. Integrity. 3. Knowledge. 4. Experience. 5. Quality. 6. Preventive Maintenance. 7. Service
8. Longevity. “For (35) years, Lanning Tire has provided the Sarasota area with tires and service nationwide chains cannot deliver,” reads the pamphlet. “We do business with the long view in mind. Which means we get to know you and you get to know us, in many cases, on a first-name basis. We compete with the big guys by providing a higher level of personalized service and support. When you do business at Lanning, your purchase is supported by a team of proven professionals.”

9. Reputation. 10. Locally owned.

Special promotions -- Alray conducts business one day at a time

Alray Tire & Muffler of Conover offers the following daily specials:

Monday: $15 four-wheel nitrogen fill (normally $21.40).

Tuesday: Free rotations (a $10 value).

Wednesday: Senior Citizens Day (10% off).

Thursday: 10% off all tires.

Friday: Ladies Day (10% off).

Saturday: Free brake inspections.

Alray offers a free alignment check Monday through Saturday to any customer who applies for a Car Care One/Michelin credit card (an appointment is required).

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