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Thirty years ago, few motorists north of the Mason-Dixon Line left their driveways during wintertime without a set of snow tires on their vehicles. But thanks to the proliferation of all-season tires over the years -- and the popularity of front-wheel-drive vehicles -- dedicated snow tires gradually lost their grip on the market. Consumers came to believe that all-season tires were enough to pull their cars and trucks through snow and ice -- an attitude that put the freeze on many snow tire dealers' sales.

Several years ago, tiremakers began to aggressively promote dedicated winter tires again. Existing products were updated, new ones were rolled out and ad campaigns were deployed. But after years of depending on all-season tires to perform when the mercury drops, are consumers buying into the idea that they need dedicated snow tires again? It often boils down to factors like location and driving habits.

'Shrinking market'

Harry Staley, owner of Staley's Tire & Auto Inc., a three-store dealership based in Billings, Mont., estimates that 30% to 35% of drivers in his market buy dedicated snow tires. Most of them live in hilly or deep snow areas.

Staley's customers frequently drive in tough-weather conditions. They know the value of dedicated snow tires and are willing to pay extra for them. "But it's a shrinking market for the most part," he says. "It's not like it was years ago when we were here until 10 at night changing snow tires."

Changing weather patterns in eastern Montana have been a factor. "Winters have gotten milder and milder over the years. This year we only had one big storm."

Many of Staley's customers still rely on all-season tires during the winter months. "They go by their experience. If they experience that front-wheel-drive cars work best with all-season tires, then that's what they use."

Last year, Staley bought equipment to sipe all-season tires for customers. From a performance standpoint "it works real well," and the service has allowed him to stock fewer snow tires. Snow tire overstock remains a problem, he admits. This past year, he sold most of his extra snow tires to other dealers in Montana, many of whom are located in the western part of the state, where winter weather tends to be more severe.

Nearly 20% of Staley's retail snow tire customers demand a certain brand or type, he says. "Normally, they ask us what we have."

Consumer (over)confidence

"We haven't sold many snow tires over the last couple of years," says Dick Matschke, owner of Richlonn's Tire & Service Centers in Milwaukee, Wis.

He suspects southern Wisconsin's unseasonably warm winters might have something to do with it. "Last year, we didn't have any snow until January." Milwaukee received less than a foot of snow altogether last winter, he says.

"In 1976, I had one store and would order between 1,000 and 1,200 snow tires a year. Now with four stores I only order 600 tires," and half of that amount he wholesales to accounts like local police departments and the Wisconsin State Patrol. Another 25% of his total order is usually left over at the end of the season. "I don't know anyone in Milwaukee who's selling lots of snow tires." One of his wholesale tire suppliers has dropped them from its lineup entirely.

Most consumers believe all-season tires work fine year-round, according to Matschke. "The normal guy doesn't think he needs them. People think they can go through anything with front-wheel-drive." He tells them they can do it a lot easier and safer with dedicated snow tires. "I'm a big snow tire advocate. The product is very good."

Some of his customers often travel to northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada. "We always tell them if you're going up north, there's nothing better than snow tires."

Customers who are on the road a lot also should use dedicated snow tires, he says. And people with small cars are prime candidates for the product. "Sometimes on these small cars, the original equipment manufacturers are going with bigger tires so you get less pounds-per-square-inch pushing on the tire. They just sit on top of the snow and spin! Those are the cars that could use snow tires."

Convincing customers is another matter, he says. "Unless things change, I don't see the snow tire market growing -- at least not here. I think it'll be flat."

OE influence

Some dealers in other parts of the country are reporting snow tire sales increases. Snow tires in the New England market "are making a comeback because of the low-profile sizes coming OE on cars today," says Steve Lesieur, president of Maynard & Lesieur Inc. in Nashua, N.H. "Low-profile, wide-base all-season tires are not getting around in the snow and ice here."

All-season tires might perform adequately further south, "where they get one or two inches of snow. But when you're talking six to eight inches or more, they just don't work."

Maynard & Lesieur's retail snow tire sales are gradually increasing. Some 8,000 to 9,000 units were sold prior to February's series of snowstorms, "which is pretty good." Sales depend heavily on early-season snowstorms, he says. "We had at least four good storms in November and December."

Lesieur also says his techs studded nearly 1,500 tires last winter, though not as many compared to years past. "Twenty years ago, when everything was rear-wheel-drive, people definitely wanted studded tires. (These days) a lot depends on where the customer lives and what his or her job is. People who live more in the country tend to want studs." Housewives are more likely to ask for studded tires, too, he says.

Maynard & Lesieur uses a two-tier snow tire sales approach. It markets the Nokian Hakkapeliitta to drivers who own expensive cars like BMWs and Volvos, and positions the Cooper Weathermaster ST2 as options for "everyday-type cars" like Fords and Chevys. The strategy has proven successful, according to Lesieur.

Still going strong

As long as it snows, customers at the Les Schwab Tire outlet in Pocatello, Idaho, will buy snow tires, says Jeff Jackson, the store's assistant manager. "We go through quite a few snow tires -- 200 to 300 (units) in a couple of weeks," despite the fact Pocatello and surrounding communities have received only about two inches of snow vs. the 12 to 18 inches that normally fall each winter.

Many of Jackson's customers, especially those who live in hilly areas, also ask for studs. "Around here with hard-packed snow, it gets really slick."

Pat McFarlane, owner of Venburg Tire Co. in St. Paul, Minn., is selling more snow tires than he did 10 years ago. The products comprise 15% to 20% of his total tire sales during the winter months.

Older drivers with rear-wheel-drive cars tend to stick with all-season tires, according to McFarlane. "The people who grew up on front-wheel-drive and have very expensive cars are the ones coming in and buying snow tires." They are usually well-informed when it comes to the features and benefits of dedicated snow tires "and seek us out," he says.

"I don't think (snow tire sales) will come back to the degree we saw it in the 1950s and '60s, but there will always be a need for snow tires for people who have specific vehicles."

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