Growing up: Many tuner kids are trading their Honda Civics for more expensive vehicles
Traditionally, modifying sport compact imports with performance tires and custom wheels has been considered a young person's hobby.
But nearly 10 years have passed since the tuner craze first began to extend beyond its West Coast point of origin, and that demographics of tuner customers are changing.
Tastes in vehicles are evolving along with their age and income levels.
If you're a dealer that caters to tuners, this means that some of your customers are trading their entry-level Hondas and Toyotas for higher-ticket vehicles -- and more expensive tire and wheel combinations.
How do you keep former tuner customers coming back as their lifestyles and preferences evolve?
Here's how a pair of high performance tire dealers in two diametrically opposed markets are tackling the challenge.
Many happy returns
Mr. Fox Tire Co., a single-store dealership in Buffalo, N.Y., has made big money catering to tuner customers.
When Modern Tire Dealer first profiled Fox Tire in July 2003, owner Eric Fox said it wasn't unusual for his company to sell $700,000 worth of tuner tires and wheels each year.
Fox still sells a lot of performance tire and wheel packages -- and to the same customers.
It's just that their tastes in vehicles are changing.
Many are moving from sport compacts to SUVs like Expeditions and Tahoes. Those vehicles may be five or six years old but they still represent upward mobility to their owners, he says.
"We're selling a lot more 20- to 26-inch tire and wheel combos. Twenty-four inches has become commonplace whereas a couple of years ago it was 22 inches."
Fox also is seeing faster turn-over in tire and wheel packages. It isn't unusual for a customer to spend $5,000 on a set at the beginning of summer and then trade it in by the end of the season.
"The rims get recycled quite a bit. But that's a very good market for us because there is quite a bit of depreciation."
Tires are part of the package as well. (Fox Tire's top performance tire brand is Hankook. The dealership also sells Toyo, Nitto and other brands.) "We sell up to 100 used tires a day," says Fox. "You turn a profit both times: first when you sell them and then when you sell them again."
Margins on used tires and wheel packages are generally high. "You can double your money."
Fox Tire is located in a tough inner city neighborhood. It's imperative to keep prices in line with the area's demographics, according to Fox.
The best way to do that, he explains, is to buy at the right wholesale price. "We're very careful in our buying process. We've dealt with the same vendors for years. We pay fast and (vendors) know if they come to us with deals we can take them quickly and even mix loads.
"Price is crucial. Our customers have a certain amount of money in their pockets."
Service also keeps former tuner customers coming back to Fox Tire. "They have a face to associate with the product. If they have a problem, they have someone who will take care of them. We have over 20 tire machines, all high-end equipment.
"It's better to walk the walk rather than talk the talk. We build loyalty based on our actions. And we've established a lot of loyalty by servicing the customer."
Torrance, Calif. -- the home of Performance Tires Plus, another single-location dealership -- is a much different place than Buffalo. But the principles of customer service are the same wherever you set up shop, says Performance Tires Plus General Manager Dave Fox (no relation to Eric).
Performance Tires Plus is known for the meticulous manner in which it mounts performance tires and wheels and that brings customers back as they move into more expensive vehicles.
In fact, Fox reports that quite a few of his clients have recently swapped old cars for new ones as vehicle styles across several manufacturers and brands have received upgrades.
With that comes larger original equipment tire and wheel combinations. Fox says his tuner customers tend to hold onto their tires and rims for a while.
"But unfortunately the roads here seem to be unfriendly to low profile tires. We're seeing a lot of customers damaging wheels and tires frequently."
In the event of severe damage, customers are opting to replace entire sets instead of one or two tires and wheels.
As today's tuner customers age, Fox believes they will be replaced by other consumers who are just as interested in modifying their vehicles -- including older people.
That's because vehicle modification has gone mainstream, he says. "I think a lot of the media -- the auto shows, the cable channels that cater toward automotive programming, the magazines, the overall exploitation of wheels and tires -- is so prevalent, that it's doing the job (of promoting) for us.
"Guys and women, too, come in here just pumped up. 'I saw this on that show or in this magazine. What's this all about? I need to update my vehicle, too.' There's so much hype, and that has a great deal of influence on our customers. The demographics are much wider spread; it's not just kids."
Fox has sold tuner tires and rims to customers in their 50s. "A lot of them saw the tires and wheels on a kid's car and now want (the look) for themselves."
Performance Tires Plus displays up to 100 sets of custom wheels in its showroom. "When these customers walk into our store for traditional tires and oil changes, they can see (wheels and tires) firsthand. And while they wait around they will say, 'What will it take to get me into one of these?' And sure enough they come back and do it.”
Upwardly mobile tuners?: Auto Luxury is the next big thing, says Falken
What happens when tuner kids grow up and graduate into more expensive vehicles? They become prime candidates for "Auto Luxury styling," according to Falken Tire Corp. officials.
"These customers have been driving Honda Civics or some other entry-level vehicle for the last 10 years or so," says Falken Vice President of Sales and Marketing Darren Thomas recently told Modern Tire Dealer. "They're looking to move into something more commensurate with what's going on in other areas of their life."
Auto Luxury styling, which Falken says originated in Japan, is "cleaner and more elegant" than traditional tuner styling, says Thomas. This means that common tuner modifications like wild paint jobs and ground lights are out as vehicle owners strive for a sleeker, more subdued look.
However, the traditional tuner fondness for low-profile tires is expected to carry over. Auto Luxury enthusiasts "are looking for micro low-profile tires: 23-, 30- and 35-series."
Thomas cautions dealers that it will take time for the Auto Luxury trend to gain momentum "because the segment is organic. The next step is the tire dealer becoming comfortable with the (trend)."