From the tire buyer’s perspective

Nov. 3, 2010

People may be driving around on them longer and longer these days, but at some point, it’s certain that every driver in your city will buy a set of new tires — from someone. The market has become so competitive, however, that need alone does not guarantee customers will show up at your door with their wallets open.

You’ve got competition in strange places. Tires of virtually every brand and technical specification are available beyond your shelves at the local superstore, right along with the tube socks and the rutabagas. Buyers also shop the Web, and often come away with price breaks steeper than you can offer.

The economy isn’t cooperating either. Since the 2007 recession, the United States Department of Commerce says your customers are spending 16% less on auto parts, tires included. 

It’s a fairly dismal reality check, but Modern Tire Dealer estimates that this year, Americans will spend somewhere around $20 billion replacing their tires. So market share is there for the taking.

I’ve spent the last week checking out what you’ve got to offer, and I’ve come away with a few observations that may help you make or save the next sale.

Because here’s the thing: Buying tires is nothing like buying tube socks or rutabagas. It’s a considerable expense for a highly technical product. Customers who trust their rush hour battle and children’s welfare to tires will happily pay a little extra for what only you can offer them: the benefit of your expertise and the value of your reputation for trust.

In my opinion, there are plenty of things most of you are doing well — and some things that could use a little tweaking. Good examples will be identified and credited. Horrible examples will remain nameless.


Get to know me

Maybe your customer spends every weekend tracking his or her Toyota Sequoia through the muck and yuck at the nearest trail or camp site. On the other hand, maybe she’s a mild-mannered motorist who chose her Lincoln Navigator because it made her feel safe to drive something taller than the average NBA guard — but it’s the same SUV her son uses to break land speed records and impress his high school friends with hairpin turns.

It’s possible the guy driving the Subaru Outback has a lead foot and a short attention span. What he needs for his daily commute is a set of tires that will stop somewhere short of a four-car pileup.

The point of all this is simple: You really can’t judge an off-roader by her manicure, or the needs of a commuter by his tie.

Karen Miles is co-owner of Barberton Tire and Auto Service Inc., a small independent dealer that caters to local businesses and blue-collar customers hit hard by layoffs and plant closings. Miles and her husband, Butch, took over the business in 2006.

He’s a technician; she is the tire expert and minds the front of the store. When it comes to customers, Karen Miles diagnoses them like the Navy medical corpsman she was for four years.

“Anymore, what rolls in here has been driven right down to the wear indicator,” Miles says. “The first thing I always ask is what brand and what type of mileage they’re looking to get out of the tire. Even if an economy tire is what they are looking for, I try to steer them away from low mileage tires. Most of the time, I can get them a higher rated tire for just a few dollars more.

“If a tire is rated for a specific mileage, I usually explain that those ratings are under perfect driving conditions, tire pressure, alignment, etc., and not to expect that exact amount. In the long run, there are more affordable deals, and it’s my job to find them for you.”

Miles says tire sales represent almost 30% of her business. Her biggest selling brands are Cooper, Uniroyal and BFGoodrich. Turnaround time for installation is typically next day.

The tires she stocks are the result of her own matter-of-fact, marketing research. “I keep track of what brands have resulted in the fewest complaints with the highest of praises,” she says. “That’s what I sell.”


Technical bells and whistles

Asymmetric or directional tread? Winter or all-season? A hard or soft rubber compound?

There’s another catch here. The time when you could just tell a customer what to buy is long gone. They want your recommendations, but they’ll expect you to tell them why they need what you’re selling.

That can be a tall order. Over the last few years, most independent tire dealers see fewer factory reps who visit them less often, and, according to the dealers with whom I talked, they receive fewer point-of-purchase materials from manufacturers. At exactly the same time that your brands are cutting back on marketing support, your customers have become more educated.

None of this matters. You still have to explain the science of tires to prospective buyers who have just enough knowledge to be dangerous.

Some of you are falling down on the job.

Here’s the answer I got three times (from three different dealers) when I asked which asymmetrical tread design would be best for my driver in the Lincoln Navigator and why. (Remember, she’s the woman tenuously driving a sky scraper on wheels, the same vehicle her son likes to hot rod with his friends):

“Most people only know tires are black and round. They buy what we tell them they need.”

It’s hard to know why some of you aren’t bothering to explain why the technology works, even when you’re asked. As a reporter, that’s a missed opportunity — and it gives me a fairly sensational detail to report for my story. As a customer potentially ready to fork over $500 to$1,200 for a new set of tires, it would just annoy me, and I’d move on to the next store.

As you would expect, company-owned tire stores have the most resources. The Goodyear company-owned store inside Summit Mall in Fairlawn, Ohio — a suburb of Akron a short drive from Goodyear’s corporate headquarters — is a good example. Floor-to-ceiling wall displays touted the benefits of the Fortera brand’s triple-tread design and the durability and quiet of Goodyear’s all-season workhorse brand, the Wrangler ST. A kiosk in the middle of the tire center lobby was filled with cards explaining the strengths and benefits of each brand.

Randy Shapiro, 23, has been at the Goodyear store for five years. He was part of the largest staff I encountered: five salespeople and 15 techs. Shapiro and his coworkers attended Goodyear’s four-day boot camp, and their tire knowledge is regularly tested online.


He was enthusiastic and helpful when I came in, and he could spout any statistic I asked for, but I had to ask. It wasn’t always clear how a particular attribute connected to real-world driving. That’s either a lack of critical thinking related to the training process, or maybe it was the artificial environment of answering questions from a reporter.

I’ll buy either possibility, but since Goodyear wasn’t the only place I found the disconnect, I’m guessing there’s a common challenge among salespeople in applying knowledge to practice.

In practical terms, here’s the effect. Checking out tire brands and specs, I learned that a customer may have to trade some longevity for a tire with greater traction because tires made from soft rubber compounds grip better but wear out faster. A directional tire is a good solution for a driver concerned about hydroplaning. Our driver in the Lincoln Navigator example should be looking for an asymmetrical tread design that grips on ice, spits out snow and has re-enforced outer tread to keep junior on all four wheels on the curves.

Since engineers can design for qualities as minute as the amount of static generated by the rotation of a tire, it seems a shame that I found out about the practical applications of many of the coolest tire specs on the Internet, not in a showroom.

Sell your experience

Even if your customer has done his Internet homework, you have the advantage of your experience. One salesperson I ran into really knows how to make the most of it.

In a champion’s round of tire “Jeopardy,” a top contender would have to be Mike Spitale, manager of Parrish-McIntyre Tire Co., a large, independent tire dealership in Akron, Ohio. Spitale’s been selling tires since high school — almost four decades. The guy minding the counter with Spitale has been selling tires for 30 years.

Neither man is too worried that they’ve seen less of company reps lately. Both have an encyclopedic knowledge of their brands: Bridgestone, Firestone, Michelin, Goodyear, Kelly, General, Uniroyal, Dunlop and Hankook.

Together, they handle about 1,000 cars a month for sales and service. About one-third of their sales are SUV and crossover tires. Many of Spitale’s customers are repeaters, and he also gets their kids and their neighbors. It’s not just that Spitale knows every tire’s strength and weakness; he knows how those strengths and weaknesses play out in his region.

Like his competitors, Spitale knows many of his customers are strapped for cash, but he’s not afraid of proposing some innovative solutions. “If you’re looking for safety, we would probably sell you a winter tire,” Spitale says. “They’re more expensive than all-season, but maybe the tires you have don’t need to be replaced just yet. People who use single-season tires never go back, and because you use them less, they wear longer.”

Maybe your customers don’t have to worry about snow, but if you’re a regional expert, you’ll know whether a tire that aggressively cuts through snow for an Ohio commuter can move sand for a desert off-roader.

“My total thing is I know what works here in Northeast Ohio,” Spitale says. “That is my best sales tool. Someone evaluating tires for a consumer magazine in California may not have considered what works here.”


Be prepared

For many of us, tire buying has developed into an odd dilemma. The truth is, many of us don’t give our tires a second thought until one goes flat or we hear the sickening screech of a few-seconds-longer-than-acceptable skid on slick pavement the day it’s our turn to haul the pee-wee football team to practice. When that happens, we’re suddenly acutely aware that only a few inches of air-filled rubber stands between us, a flat, a fender-bender or far worse.

Chances are we have researched the Internet and shopped around some, but when that rolling wake-up call comes, a good number of us will end up at your door — with our checkbooks and credit cards. Tires are one of those buys that few of us can postpone once we know there’s a need. So the sale’s almost a sure thing.

It’s fall in Northeast Ohio, so the tires I drove around on just fine all spring seem like they’re losing their grip on cold, rainy days. They’ll be worse when the snow flies, so I’ll probably only procrastinate a little longer.

If you happen to see me in your store, I’ll be looking for a reliable set of mid-priced, all-season tires with good handling in the snow and a short breaking distance for highway travel — or possibly even a set of winter tires. All you have to be is prepared.    ■

Modern Tire Dealer asked Kymberli Hagelberg, a journalist based in Akron Ohio, to visit local tire retailers and write on her findings from the consumer’s perspective. Her business and political reporting has appeared in Knight Ridder and Newhouse Newspapers, and has been heard on National Public Radio. She drives a Honda, but dreams of driving around in a 1965 Mustang convertible.