Selling performance to the tuner market: Dealers pursue hot segment differently

May 1, 2001

On the street, tuner cars -- like slammed Honda, Nissan and Toyota sport compacts or the Dodge Neon, Ford ZX2 and Ford Focus -- are easy to spot, especially if you follow industry trends closely. But the drivers of these often extravagantly customized vehicles are tougher to pigeonhole. Ages vary, though most tuner buffs tend to be younger, and backgrounds differ. But nearly every tuner customer has disposable income and is eager to spend it; why not at your dealership?

Since exploding out of southern California several years ago, the tuner market has grown at a staggering rate with no slow-down in sight. And profit opportunities for independent tire dealers involved in the lucrative segment will increase just as rapidly. But targeting the tuner market is a "pay-to-play" proposition, according to dealers. It requires a decent selection of high and ultra-high performance tires in a variety of speed ratings and tread designs and quick, if not instant, access to a wide variety of hot wheels. Equally important are energetic salespeople who can stay on top of changing sizes, styles and designs while speaking the quickly evolving language of tuner customers. And a willingness to jump from trend-to-trend in search of a winner doesn't hurt either.

Modern Tire Dealer recently spoke with several tire dealers who are turning admirable profits by catering to tuner customers. Each has participated in the segment for quite some time and has had plenty of opportunities to find out what works and what doesn't. Here's how they approach the market:

Guiding hand

All-Star Tire Inc. in Long Beach, Calif., pushes Falken high-performance tires at its single-location shop. "They're our best sellers," says a salesman. "Falken is a big name around here." The dealership also sells its fair share of Dunlop, Pirelli and Toyo brand performance tires. "Usually on these smaller cars you don't sell many high-priced tires like Michelins."

All-Star also displays more than 70 different custom wheel styles in its showroom at any given time. MAS, Konig and Alba wheels are popular with sport compact customizers "because they're very economical."

Price plays a big part in tuner customers' buying decisions, he says. "They're looking for moderately priced tires and wheels. They want to make their Hondas and Toyotas look nice but they don't want to spend $5,000 on a package."

All-Star's out-the-door price for a 17-inch tuner tire/wheel package hovers around the $1,700 mark; 18-inch packages are usually $300 to $400 more expensive. "It all depends on the wheel."

Customers can see what packages might look like on their cars by flipping through scrapbooks filled with photos of vehicles the company has equipped. While the books are effective sales tools, keeping them updated is challenging due to the vast number of wheel designs and how quickly they change, he says. "There are probably 300 different styles you can put on a Honda Accord, and that's a low estimate."

Ninety-percent of All-Star's tuner customers "don't know what tires or wheels they want when they come in here. So we say, 'This is the one I'd suggest."

And most of them want to up-size -- usually from standard 15- and 16-inch rims to 17- and 18-inch wheels and even beyond. The dealership's salespeople always explain to buyers who want to make large jumps the potential drawbacks of such moves, and in some cases, have turned away customers who refuse to listen. "We're not going to sell it to them if it won't work."

The nice price

Older tuner customers tend to know exactly what they want when they step into a tire store, says Mike Menchaca, manager of Al Archard Inc., a two-outlet dealership headquartered in El Cajon, Calif. "They know what it's going to cost and they grab it."

Younger enthusiasts -- those in their late teens and early-to-mid 20s -- need more guidance. "I end up showing them around the store a lot and getting quotes from manufacturers."

They also tend to shop around more. It isn't unusual for a buyer in that age range to scour three to five different dealerships to find a good price, according to Menchaca. "Price is the main issue."

Menchaca's modestly sized shop is nestled between several new and used car dealerships on a busy commercial strip that sees plenty of traffic. It successfully competes with eight to 10 tuner-oriented businesses within a five-mile radius by providing quick and efficient service. The dealership stocks a wide variety of performance tires from premium-priced Bridgestone and Michelin brand products to more inexpensive BFGoodrich and Ohtsu brand units. It also orders wheels directly from American Racing and Prime Wheel Co., who offer same-day delivery. "We'll even pick up the wheels, if need be."

Menchaca isn't afraid to play the price game if necessary. "I have a lot of competitors. Some of these guys offer way too much for too little. Sometimes you have to be a little cutthroat, price-wise.

"Nobody wants to pay an arm and a leg, so I tell (customers), 'I'll either match my competitors' prices or beat them.' We try to find a happy medium."

Word up

Word-of-mouth is king among the tuner set, says Jerry Tatum, owner of Leete Tire & Auto Center Inc., a three-store retail chain based in Petersburg, Va. "This isn't the type of crowd that reads many magazines or newspapers."

Tuner customers began rolling into Tatum's shops about two years ago when the trend finally hit his area. Since then, he's built a solid customer base thanks to personal referrals.

Most of his tuner clients buy both tires and wheels. "Many of these tires won't fit on OE wheels, which is good for us, because you can't have one without the other," he says.

Leete's 17- and 18-inch tire/wheel packages typically sell for $2,500 to $4,000, according to Tatum -- and that price has dropped from more than a year ago.

"There was a time when 17- and 18-inch wheels were big items but now they're low on the totem pole. Twenty-inches is the hot size right now."

Tatum's techs run into few problems when mounting up-sized tire/wheel packages since he ensures they're always aware of wheel well clearance. "That's the thing that will burn you the most," he says. "You have to make sure it's a right fit before you order it. And that comes from experience and knowing what will work."

Technical proficiency should be dealers' number one concern when selling tires and wheels to tuner customers, the dealer says. "The market constantly changes. You have to know what you're doing. And you have to cover yourself."