AKRON-On the heels of last year's record-breaking winter, many dealers spent the spring stocking snow tires in anticipation of another strong winter selling season. Now those dealers are waiting, listening to weather reports and watching the sky.
Some dealers in traditionally strong winter markets say they believe snow tire sales will increase 5 to 10 percent over last year's figures, which themselves were boosted by record snowfalls and sub-zero temperatures.
Should the winter season prove fruitful, however, the industry will probably experience tire shortages as a result of this year's United Rubber Workers Union strikes, dealers agreed.
Although all of the dealers contacted by TIRE BUSINESS said they had to use alternate companies to fill orders on some popular sizes, all were able to get their initial stocks of snow tires.
Some of the void was filled by Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., which offered snow tires at a guaranteed price throughout the winter, according to Roland Lesieur, co-owner of Maynard & Lesieur Inc. in Nashua, N.H.
In reporting its third-quarter results, Cooper highlighted ``excellent'' winter tire sales as contributing to record sales of $383.5 million.
``Winter tires are not so difficult to get right now,'' said Larry Stranaghan, owner of O.K. Tire Store Kelowna Ltd. in Kelowna, British Columbia. ``But we'll know (if there are shortages) when the snow comes.''
As in the past, the timing of the first snowfall will determine the bounty of this winter season, according to Jim Johnson of Johnson's Tire Service in Anchorage, Alaska, who said it is the motoring public's nature to wait until the last minute to prepare their vehicles for the winter.
``Most people wait until the day it snows,'' Mr. Johnson said, ``and then they want to know why they have to wait four hours (for a tire change).''
Anchorage received its first snowfall Oct. 16-17, but Mr. Johnson said he doesn't expect the majority of people to concern themselves with winter tires until a stronger, longer-lasting snow blankets the area.
If that snowfall occurs within the next month, he said, this winter's snow tire sales could increase 10 to 15 percent over the 1993 season, due to strong new-vehicle sales in the area.
Snow tire sales tend to follow new-car sales, Mr. Johnson explained, because original equipment and high performance tires cannot perform as well as designated snow tires on icy roads.
If the major snowfalls hold off until December, however, many buyers figure they can get through the remainder of the winter without changing to winter tires, Mr. Johnson theorized.
It's the population increase that's expected to drive snow tires sales this year in Kelowna, according to Mr. Stranaghan. He said he expects snow tire sales to increase 5 to 10 percent this year due to a population boom that has added about 5,000 people to the area in the past couple of years.
``More people means more vehicles, which means more (tire) sales,'' Mr. Stranaghan said. Ironically, he added, this year's British Columbian winter is expected to be a mild one-at least according to the Farmer's Almanac.
``We're into witch doctors here,'' Mr. Stranaghan joked. ``It's the easiest way of projecting the winter.''
Predicting the severity of the winter has never been easy, tire dealers admit-especially in April, when most dealers are ordering their snow tires.
``Everybody out here seems to think its going to be one hell of a good year,'' said Mr. Lesieur.
Everybody except him, that is.
``I think it's just going to be an average year,'' he added.
Maynard & Lesieur's wholesale business has benefited from New England dealers who are banking on a strong winter season, Mr. Lesieur said. But he expects his retail business to be on par with past winters.
This year the company is hoping to sell between 7,500 and 8,000 snow tires compared with about 8,500 winter tires in 1993. Mr. Lesieur said 1993's harsh winter yielded a December that was ``above normal'' and a January that was ``the first black (i.e. profitable) January in years.''
In New Bedford, Mass., wholesaler Jim Nicolson of Nicolson Tire Co. said he's having trouble keeping up his enthusiasm for this year's winter selling season.
``I'm optimistic about it, but as another day goes by, the pessimism is creeping in,'' said Mr. Nicolson, who wholesales tires to about 400 dealerships in New England.
This year, according to Mr. Nicolson, dealers are concerned with being stuck with unsold tires at the end of the season despite last year's winter sales increase of about 20 percent.
The all-season radial continues to push drivers of most vehicles away from snow tires, he said, leaving high performance and luxury vehicle owners as one of the few remaining buying segments for designated snow tires.