Does 'Made in the U.S.A.' matter anymore?
It's no secret that the number of Asian-made tires coming into the United States and Canada has multiplied over the last 10 years.
Looking back at Modern Tire Dealer's 1996 ranking of the top tire store chains in North America, the 20 top dealerships on that list sold, in total, eight Asian-made brands.
Those brands included Bridgestone (carried by 13 dealerships), Yokohama (seven dealerships), Toyo (six dealerships) and Kumho (three dealerships). Four other brands -- Falken, Sumitomo, Nitto and Ohtsu -- were mentioned once each.
By 2006, the number of Asian-made brands sold by the 20 top independent tire dealerships in the U.S. had increased to 12. Several of the top 20 reported that they are selling more of the Bridgestone, Yokohama, Toyo, Kumho, Falken and Sumitomo brands.
Three dealerships added the Hankook brand, which didn't register in the top 20 back in 1996. And several dealerships in the top 20 reported they now sell the Maxxis, Federal, Wanli and Gateway brands, which weren't even a blip on the radar screen some 10 years prior.
The numbers bear out what many tire dealers are noticing at their retail shops: Consumer resistance to Asian-made tires is decreasing. Here's how two tire dealers are capitalizing on it.
You would be hard-pressed to find an independent tire dealership that has made more money selling Asian-made tires than Les Schwab Tire Centers.
Les Schwab has been selling Toyo brand tires since the late 1960s. The dealership also carries other imports like Federal (made in Taiwan), Maxxis (made in China), Ohtsu (made in Japan) and a brand called Kingstar, which is manufactured by Hankook Tire Co. of South Korea.
A major shift in consumer acceptance of Asian-made tires has taken place over the last 10 to 15 years, says Ken Brown, a second-generation dealer who runs Alan Brown Tire Center in Newport, Ore., near the Pacific Coast. Alan Brown Tire is a Les Schwab member-dealer.
Decades ago, a tire's point of origin was a major concern among consumers, says Brown. That's changing.
"There are always people who say, 'I don't want a foreign tire,' but as life progresses, they may drive in on a Chevy and the next time they're driving in on a Toyota. Their mindset changes.
"People care more about the product than where it's built. Today, we get very few people who say, 'Who makes that tire?' And when you tell them, they say, 'Well, OK.'"
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other giant retailers have all but erased the stigma associated with Asian-made products, according to Brown. "The public knows that everything in (Wal-Mart) is made in China."
He also credits the independent streak of consumers in the Pacific Northwest, where Les Schwab dominates, as a catalyst for greater acceptance of Asian tires.
"There are a lot of people who have moved to our area from California and they're pretty open-minded. I have a good customer who comes to me from Seattle; he was a union employee at Boeing, drives his Honda here and buys Japanese tires!
"I think it's just a changing world. People look everywhere for everything. If something is made better and it costs less, it will sell."
Brown's six-bay store receives all of its stock from Les Schwab's warehouse in Prineville, Ore., via two deliveries each week.
The majority of the outlet's passenger tire selection is Asian-made, says Brown. He pulls up an inventory sample on his computer screen to illustrate.
"I'm looking at a particular size, 255/60R16, and I only have one that is American-made," he reports.
"Looking at my screen, it starts off with a Federal, then another Federal, then a Falken, then the Firestone Firehawk, and then it goes to Toyo. And those Toyos are all imports; they're not made at Toyo's plant in Georgia."
However, Brown's light truck tire mix is more evenly distributed.
"If you take a 245/75R16, it starts out with a Federal, a Merit (from Hercules), then Cooper, then what we call the SXT, which is a Cooper-made tire, then Toyo." Brown reports that he's selling more Chinese-built product, including Gladiator brand medium truck tires, which are distributed by American Pacific Industries. "I just finished a pre-order for a whole bunch of them. It's a good quality product -- it's nice, round and it wears well -- and it's cheap."
Responsiveness from Asian tire manufacturers to their U.S.-based dealers and distributors also has improved, he says.
"If you have an issue with a certain line or a certain size, and you call up and say you're having continuing problems, they'll say, 'Let's get a hold of our adjustments and see what's happening.'"
Terry Myers, director of operations for Latrobe, Pa.-based Import Export Tire Co., says his customers are much more receptive to Asian-made tires than in the past.
Import Export Tire operates five retail outlets. The company began selling Chinese-built tires "when we hooked up with Hercules Tire & Rubber Co. five years ago."
Import Export Tire is a long-time Cooper dealership, and its founder and Terry's father, Tim Myers, had always promoted "made in the U.S.A.," which resonated with the company's blue-collar customers.
"It was a big issue with my dad, not selling American-made tires," says Terry. "He wasn't sure how they'd fly because we always waved the American flag." However, the quality of Asian-made tires made Tim a believer, according to Terry. "Our employees would show him (the tires') uniformity on a spin balancer."
Import Export Tire still sells Cooper tires and Hercules' Merit brand, but it also now sells Falken and Nankang brand tires, plus Tireco's Geostar brand. Asian-made tires have few uniformity problems, says Randy Myers, who manages Import Export Tire's Irwin, Pa., store.
"The trueness of these tires is incredible," he says. "They're never out of round."
Terry reports that servicing Asian tires isn't a problem either. If a tire doesn't come with its own warranty, Import Export Tire will sell its own warranty, called a "Tire Service Agreement," for $6.95 per tire.
The warranty covers road hazards and is good for 40,000 miles. It also includes free balancing.
"Customers -- the old steel mill guys -- used to want an American-made tire," says Randy. "That's not an issue anymore. They ask, 'What's your cheapest tire?'"