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Broad-line tires continue to evolve: And the way dealers approach their bread and butter customers is changing with it

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Broad-line tires continue to evolve: And the way dealers approach their bread and butter customers is changing with it

Broad-line tires may not evoke a lot of "oohs" and "aahs" from customers, but they still comprise the "bread and butter" of many independent tire dealerships' sales. Domestic buyers spent $13 billion on new replacement passenger tires last year, according to Modern Tire Dealer statistics. And broad-line tires comprised a significant percentage of that amount.

In addition, broad-line tires are far from being a stagnant segment of the market. Broad-line physical dimensions like aspect ratios are changing. Years ago, 80- and 75-series aspect ratios were commonplace. Now, eight out of the top 15 P-metric replacement sizes sport 70-, 65- and 60-series aspect ratios. Meanwhile, tire manufactures continue to channel research and development efforts into broad-line products for results like better construction and performance. "The broad-line product today is absolutely superb," says Tony Koles, owner of Montvale Tire Co. Inc. in Melrose, Mass. But what are broad-line customers looking for and how are dealers meeting their needs?

Money talks

The general economy plays a big role in what broad-line tire customers buy, says Bob Briggs, owner of Briggs & Sons Tire, a Fayetteville, N.C.-based dealership with 10 retail stores. Though Briggs' customers run the gamut from "a guy who makes $300,000 a year to someone who makes $6 an hour," most, if not all, are facing personal budget crunches. "People are looking for something cheap because nobody has money for anything. They couldn't care less about" categories like broad-line, he says. "They want something down and dirty. They don't want a $300 tire!" Briggs sells Goodyear and Kelly broad-line tires and installed Dunlop as a lower-priced brand five months ago.

Regardless of income level, "it's up to my guys to give the customer what he wants," according to Briggs. The process involves qualifying buyers' questions, says his son, Kevin Briggs, who manages the Briggs & Sons outlet in Clinton, N.C. "We try to match the tire to what they want their vehicle to do and how they drive." Briggs' salesmen also ask how long customers plan to keep their cars. "Then we sell the benefits of the tire."

Kevin used to size-up customers when they pulled into his lot in order to determine whether they'd be good candidates for broad-line tires. He has since dropped the practice. "If you try to pick them out, most of the time they prove you wrong," he says. In some cases, he missed out on selling higher-priced tires to customers who he guessed incorrectly were shoo-ins for a low-priced product. In fact, many of Briggs' higher-income, "country club-type" customers ask for broad-line tires, he says. A good percentage of them lease their vehicles and don't want to invest in expensive replacement tires.

Size evolution

Les McLea's salespeople qualify tire buyers with questions -- well before they step inside his store!

When customers call, McLea Tire & Automotive Service employees ask them a series of carefully arranged questions written down on cards next to their phones.

"They just read off the card and the customer doesn't even know it." Discovering broad-line customers' needs and wants is a must, says McLea, who operates two stores in the Santa Rosa, Calif., area. "You need to ask the questions that will get them into the tire that's right for them, not necessarily the tire in your computer system."

Three-fourths of McLea's customers are not brand conscious and "will put on whatever we recommend. I have people who come in looking for Michelin tires that drive away with Toyos."

McLea's wide broad-line selection also includes brands like Remington, Continental and General.

"You have to give the customer options. We have a large variety of tires for people with different incomes."

Seventy- and 75-series tires still comprise 80% of McLea's retail business, though he sells fewer products with those aspect ratios than he did 10 years ago. Cars at the original equipment level are "coming out with larger tires and wheels and more performance products. The P-metric end has gone to more 60-, 55- and 50-series."

Jim Piletic, president of Northwest Tire Center Inc., a single-location store in Peoria, Ill., is seeing more 70- and 65-series broad-line tires vs. 75- and 80-series tires. The latter aspect ratios "are slowing down considerably," he says, for a variety of reasons. "You get better performance out of 70-, 65- and 60-series tires. You get better steering with a lower-profile tire." Broad-line tire wet pavement traction also "has improved dramatically."

Increased mileage is another advantage. The majority of the warranties attached to the tires that Northwest Tire Center sells range from 60,000 to 80,000 miles as opposed to "lower-end" warranties. Broad-line tires make up 60% of the 30-year-old dealership's total tire sales.

Long-term investment

Price isn't the main issue for Hay Tire Co.'s broad-line customers, according to company President David Hay. "They're looking for dependability, reliability and good value -- not the lowest unit cost. In a good-better-best mix, most are looking for better. Our customers trust us to provide a quality product at a good value."

Most of Hay's broad-line tire customers buy what his salespeople suggest. He offers Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal, Bridgestone, Firestone, Dayton and Hankook brand products. It's not easy to pigeonhole specific buyers, he says. Some of his wealthiest customers drive basic, family-style sedans. "What we encounter more than anything is that the car that requires a broad-line tire is one of several cars that a family owns."

Hay, who opened his Charleston, S.C.-based dealership 22 years ago, uses broad-line tires to build long-term customer loyalty. "When a customer comes in for tire advice, we recommend the tire that we feel is the best fit for their car. We're in it for the long haul and will recommend a product that will make the customer happy and a product that we're comfortable selling. We're not here to throw four tires on and never see the customer again."

Dealer targets broad-line tire buyers with coupons: Mail-out promotion generates 'huge' response

Les McLea, owner of Santa Rosa, Calif.-based McLea Tire & Automotive Service, sells broad-line tires, but he also sells a variety of other tires, including commercial truck products. Because of that, he says it's challenging to target a single type of buyer with his advertising.

That's why several years ago he decided to concentrate on reaching out to broad-line buyers by mailing a 20-page coupon book to customers on an annual basis. The promotion generated "huge" response and he now sends out 10,000 coupon books a year. It costs nearly $33,000, including printing and mailing expenses, but the return has been worth it, according to McLea. "We usually see about 250 coupons a month."

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