Historically, the tire business has been an industry that almost anyone could get into-as long as he had a strong back and a comparatively small investment. Some industry experts feel those days are over, never to return.
It takes a very sizable capital investment these days-along with a serious commitment in keeping up with the technological advances of the modern tire and the use of modern, sophisticated equipment-to meet the demands of today's consumer.
But it seems the ``more things change, the more they stay the same.''
Just as espresso cafes and fancy boutiques have sprouted in disposable income districts of our cities, shops where drivers with a flat tire can stop for a quick, cheap patch or an inexpensive used tire have proliferated in areas where money is short, tires are old, roads are full of potholes, and third-world entrepreneurs abound.
They are prospering in neighborhoods where full-line tire specialists are gradually disappearing and where service stations have given way to gas-only places. These greasy store-front operations solicit business with simple signs announcing, ``Flat Fix.'' Flats are being patched curbside by people who know just enough English to say: ``$3 for plug. $5 for patch.''
Some 90 percent of our legal immigrants are from Third World countries. Many are eager to own their own businesses, but are limited by scant capital and little knowledge of English. So, in many of these bottom-rung tire repair shops, they spend several thousand dollars to buy a used tire-changing machine, air compressor, hand tools, hand-operated jacks, and some used tires from vendors who roam neighborhoods selling tires cannabilized from disabled and junked cars.
In most cities, there are no statistics on flat-fix shops since no city or state agency specifically regulates their activities. But community groups claim that the number of these operations have shown a significant increase in the past several years. On some major arteries in New York City, for example, you'll find one on almost every block. In one nine-block stretch, I found five flat-fix shops.
Protests have been lodged against these shops in residential areas because they clutter the sidewalks with tires and fix cars in the street. Strangely enough, there seems to be little action by tire dealers in coping with this type of competition which may be jeopardizing their business.
One dealer in business for 35 years-whose dealership concentrates on the sale of new Michelins and Goodyears from $45 to more than twice that-felt that these flat-fix shops posed no competition. He fixes a flat for $15.
On the other hand, one flat-fix entrepreneur said there are always flats. His business fluctuates wildly, with some days producing as much as $200, other days almost nothing. But he felt he would be able to recoup his $10,000 investment within five months, even though another similar shop was located only a half-block away.
Customers claim that although the quality of these shops' work is uneven, they're cheap and fast.
However, the motoring public should be better informed of the fact that a tire repaired by anyone other than a technically trained tire specialist can be as dangerous as a medicine sold by anyone other than a qualified pharmacist. Both are responsible for the public's safety-a heavy responsibility worthy of greater recognition.
Technological development in tire design, plus much more expensive motoring, have limited tire replacement growth, but also have opened up enormous servicing possibilities for the tire specialist. The vehicle coming in for a flat repair or tire service must not be regarded as a nuisance, but as an opportunity for selling efficient tire maintenance.
That, if handled properly, can be more profitable than selling a new tire.
Offering a quality product or top-flight service in today's marketplace is no guarantee you'll attract or keep customers. By the same token, offering a variety of sales or purchase inducements doesn't necessarily convert a consumer into a customer.
Understanding your customer base is the first and most important step toward attracting and keeping customers.
To understand what makes customers tick, you must be aware of their alternatives. Where do they go if they don't buy your products or services? What are your competitors-such as the flat-fix shops-doing for customers that you aren't doing for yours? Is it price, fast service or convenience?
There will always be consumers for whom price is the major consideration. Still, it is the professional who the exacting consumer should be looking for.
In the future, a growing percentage of the tire specialist's revenue will be derived from servicing, and a reduced percentage will come from actual tire sales. This changing ratio must force a review of service charges, which must be realistic enough to cover labor costs, equipment depreciation and operating expenses.
Service is an important and essential part of the tire business. It not only furnishes an opportunity for additional replacement sales, it also contributes to highway safety by reducing the probability of accidents due to tires that are excessively worn, damaged or have been improperly repaired.