AKRON-Independent tire dealers are not the only ones grappling with a changing American buyer. For the past several years, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Goodyear have been experimenting with new formats for their company-owned retail outlets, including introducing tires-only operations, in an attempt to capture a more segmented, value- and time-conscious consumer.
Put simply, the changing tire-buying population is a fact of life for all retailers, according to David Luck, BFS vice president of retail store operations.
``For many years, the typical tire store basically-whether it be independent or operated by a different business-typically was the same...,'' Mr. Luck said. ``(Today) one type of retail format will not appeal to all the various customer segmentations in their shopping beliefs and purchasing preferences for tires.''
Armed with that philosophy, BFS began unveiling new formats for its company-owned retail outlets in the early 1990s. Those concepts, once ``refined,'' then will be released to independent dealers through the tire maker's Affiliated Dealer Program.
``One of our roles is to constantly experiment with new ways to appeal to the consumer,'' Mr. Luck said, adding that the number of Tire Station and Expert Tire outlets is expected to grow. ``We are in a (financial) position to try things an independent might not be able to try.''
Before 1990, Mr. Luck explained, the full-service Firestone Tire & Service Center was the only form of retail tire outlet the company operated.
Today, Firestone has more than 1,500 company-owned outlets marketed under four distinct banners to appeal to the same number of buying publics.
By far the largest number of stores, about 1,300, remain Firestone Tire & Service Centers. Located ``from coast to coast,'' Tire & Service Centers offer a full range of undercar and underhood automotive services along with tire sales. That concept continues to appeal to brand- and store-loyal customers ``interested in one-stop shopping,'' he said.
As its oldest and most-tested format, the Tire & Service Centers tend to be the most profitable for the company, Mr. Luck said. ``We have absolutely no intention of phasing out'' that format.
Still, the company recognized the need for added variety in its stores to capture, among other audiences, ``price-conscious'' customers. To that end, BFS introduced the Tire Station and Expert Tire outlets.
Located in metropolitan areas in 10 states, 72 Tire Station stores have opened since the early 1990s, mostly in converted Tire & Service Centers. However, BFS has unveiled a prototype store design-an 8,000-sq.-ft., six-bay facility that groups the sales room and inventory together-with the August opening of a Tire Station in Vancouver, Wash.
Tire Station's smaller-market counterpart, Expert Tire, now consists of 112 outlets in more-rural areas in 33 states.
``In a metropolitan area, you have the ability to appeal to a larger population base,'' he said, adding Tire Station stores operate with a ``larger warehouse concept.'' In contrast, Expert Tire outlets attempt to create a ``specialty tire store'' aura.
Both Tire Station and Expert Tire place less emphasis on underhood services while pushing heavier tire sales volumes and attempting to appeal to the ``value- and price-conscious customer.''
To help push its new format, BFS has emphasized ``everyday low pricing'' in its Tire Station and Expert Tire radio and television advertisements in comparison to Tire & Service Center special event and sale ads.
BFS also operates 11 Mark Morris stores, a California Bay Area dealership chain the tire maker purchased in 1984, which pushes its products to ``upscale,'' high performance buyers.
BFS continues to refine product mixes, merchandising procedures and marketing approaches for the concepts, Mr. Luck said. Once that has been completed, the formats will be released to independent dealers through its Affiliated Dealer program. Currently, 500dealers participate in that program and that number is expected to increase once the formats are made available to dealers interested in them, Mr. Luck said.
``This is our inventory of tools or weapons that a dealer can take to the marketplace to win their battle...,'' he said. ``We are not expanding or putting these in place at the expense of an independent dealer.''
Goodyear, on the other hand, has about 900 full-service Goodyear Certified Auto Centers across the U.S. But the company has also been expanding its Just Tires outlets that focus on tire sales and offer only tire-related auto services.
To date, Goodyear has about 70 Just Tires outlets across the U.S. and plans to expand that number to 250 within the next couple of years, a company spokesman said.
The number of Certified Auto Centers will probably remain constant with stores in some areas opening and closing, he said.
Targeted for major metropolitan areas, Goodyear said Just Tires outlets are formatted for ``time-pressed, value-conscious consumers who might never set foot in a traditional Goodyear retail store.''