Cleveland Tire & Wheel ‘Gets’ Its Customers

April 26, 2024

Donnie Schilling, owner of Cleveland Tire & Wheel, which has been in business for more than 20 years, knows his customers and says that’s the key to successfully selling high performance (HP) and ultra-high performance (UHP) tires, as well as custom wheels.

Schilling’s dealership is located on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio, in a lower middle-class neighborhood. “People aren’t coming to me for high-end tires. They come to me because my prices are good and they know we’ll do it right.”

Cleveland Tire & Wheel sells “a lot of private label” HP and UHP tires. Two decades ago, “we didn’t have all of these different brands,” says Schilling. “How do you know which one is best? We try to stick with the brands we’re familiar with.”

The dealership sells tires and wheels for a wide range of vehicles, from traditional sedans to big pickup trucks.

Schilling says customers who drive sedans and sports cars “are 100% wheel-first.” For them, tire brand or type is a secondary concern. “Ninety percent of the time, they don’t even notice the brand.”

Conversely, Cleveland Tire & Wheel’s customers who drive pickups are more geared toward tires than wheels. “Everybody wants that aggressive (tire) look, whereas the car owner is after the wheel. A lot of customers who’ve been coming to me for years are now driving trucks.”

Margins on mounting and balancing light truck tires and wheels are typically higher, says Schilling. “We can charge more for labor because not everyone does a great job of balancing” light truck tire and wheel assemblies.

“We double-balance. We use weights and (balancing) beads. It takes very little time” to add beads to the mix “and you can charge more for it, if you want to.”

Schilling estimates that 20% of his customers who are in the market for a new set of rims “know what they want. The other 80% come in and just know they want wheels and want to do something” to dress up their vehicle.

Schilling or one of his sales associates will go online, “dial up” different wheel designs and show them to customers, with the goal of zeroing in on a handful of styles.

“We’ve been doing this for so long, people know we’ll point them in the right direction,” he says. “So we’ll show them wheels and I’ll say, ‘Stop me when you see something you like.’ We can drill down to two or three styles and then talk about it.

“If the customer’s an older gentleman, we know he doesn’t want something that’s super-obnoxious and gaudy. A younger customer might want something that’s flashy. Some customers don’t know anything about wheels. You have to explain it to them. When we started 20 years ago, we didn’t have the luxury of finding all of these products and applications online.”

In-store wheel displays remain an important sales tool. “We still have them, so we can show wheel finishes and contours,” says Schilling. “Seeing new wheel styles is something I’ve never gotten tired of. I thought they plateaued 10 years ago, but (manufacturers) keep coming out with new stuff.”

Three-piece forged wheels are big sellers at Cleveland Tire & Wheel, he notes. “And quite a few manufacturers are starting to do them more economically, so a guy who wants 24-inch tires and wheels doesn’t necessarily have to spend $5,000” for a top-of-the-line set.

Over the years, Schilling has pared down his inventory, relying on four or five local distributors, including K&M Tire Inc., to provide him with just-in-time drop-offs. “We get deliveries twice a day. Nowadays, with any given application you can have dozens of (size) options.”

He adds that the proliferation of bolt patterns on newer vehicles makes stocking wheels more complicated. But his distributors can deliver rims quickly.

Ticket building has to be precise when selling HP/UHP tires and custom wheels, according to Schilling.

“Everything has to be exact. If you order wrong, you’re stuck. There’s nothing worse than ordering a set of tires and wheels that don’t fit. Now you’re back to square one and you’re holding thousands of dollars of your customer’s money. You have to figure it out.”

Employing experienced technicians also can mean the difference between success and failure, says Schilling, who reveals he often will jump in to operate a machine. “Sometimes you need a fresh set of eyes. I enjoy getting my hands dirty.”

One of Cleveland Tire & Wheel’s technicians, Ron Smith, “has been with me forever. He knows so many tricks of the trade, he could write a book.”

Having the right equipment also is crucial. “Guys have reached out to me over the years, wanting (advice) about opening their own shop, and I say, ‘Don’t buy junk equipment.’ One of them bought a machine and it looked great, but he had nothing but problems with it.”

Schilling says only one other tire store in his part of Cleveland “can do up to 32-inch tire and wheels combinations.”

Some shops that lack the equipment and expertise to mount exotic tire and wheel packages will send customers to Cleveland Tire & Wheel to handle that part of the transaction.

“They might have already sold the tire and wheel, but don’t want to lose the customer, so they’re willing to break off a piece of their net profit so we can save the day,” says Schilling, who adds that his dealership’s labor rate has increased in recent years.

“After COVID-19, I checked around to see what other people were charging and said, ‘We’re way short.’ I’ve raised my prices – in a lot of cases, doubled them – and nobody’s batted an eye. For what we do, I think we’re very fair. We have a lot of knowledge and we have the equipment.”

Not all of Cleveland Tire & Wheel’s customers have cash in hand, which is why the dealership offers a wide range of financing options, including an old-fashioned layaway plan. “These are blue-collar people who work nine-to-five jobs. Maybe they don’t have good credit and will put 10% down and will stop in after every paycheck and put (more cash) down.”

For many Cleveland Tire & Wheel clients, new wheels and tires represent “status,” according to Schilling.

“They have to look good and they have to make a statement. If we can achieve that, we’ll have a happy customer.”

About the Author

Mike Manges | Editor

Mike Manges is Modern Tire Dealer’s editor. A 25-year tire industry veteran, he is a three-time International Automotive Media Association award winner and holds a Gold Award from the Association of Automotive Publication Editors. Mike has traveled the world in pursuit of stories that will help independent tire dealers move their businesses forward. Before rejoining MTD in September 2019, he held corporate communications positions at two Fortune 500 companies and served as MTD’s senior editor from 2000 to 2010.