AKRON-The recurring theme tire industry executives imparted at a recent trade show was: The tire market is on a roll. Tire companies have put the finishing touches on one of their most successful sales years, and indications point to 1995 being another excellent year, according to Craig Anderson, president of Hercules Tire & Rubber Co., one of five participants in a panel discussion at the Ohio Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association trade show, Feb. 11, in Akron.
The five tire company executives also echoed previous declarations that this is the year suppliers will focus on their dealers.
As Chris Dickson, Continental General Tire Co.'s vice president of replacement sales, put it, independent dealers are becoming a ``rediscovered race.''
A strong economy and high consumer confidence have contributed to robust tire sales for tire makers and dealers during the past year, panel members said.
1994 sales ``were stronger than any of us really expected,'' said Tom Griffith, vice president of marketing for Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.
There has been an explosion of auto sales since 1992, and many of those cars will begin showing up at dealerships for tire replacements, Mr. Griffith said. He also noted that there are more cars on the road than in past years, and these cars are driven more miles-``indicating a solid year and beyond'' for tire replacement sales.
However, Mr. Anderson cautioned that the Federal Reserve may take steps to slow economic growth this year. Even so, he said, business levels should remain good through 1995, but by early 1996, he expects to see a reversal in this optimistic outlook.
Part of the slowing down of growth could be attributed to burgeoning costs of raw materials.
Mr. Anderson said the adverse effect of material cost increases on new tire makers has been minor compared to the impact on retreading firms. ``The problem is not only price, but availability (of materials),'' he said.
And as sales continue to thrive, the tire companies will be focusing on programs aimed at supporting their respective dealer networks.
The independent dealer's nemesis, the mass merchandiser, will continue to be a strong force in the market, the executives admitted. But, ironically, the proliferation of tire types and sizes, which creates headaches for inventory controllers, also is stifling mass merchandisers' gains in market share.
``As long as we keep the industry complicated, mass merchan-disers will have a hard time keeping up,'' Mr. Anderson said. But keeping a high and varied inventory is an area where independent dealers can excel, he said.
Warehouse clubs aren't going away, panel members agreed, but dealers can compete with them by focusing on details and service.
These channels are ``not exactly exploding in growth, but they are formidable competitors,'' said Stan Cooper, product marketing manager for Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. Still, he said, dealers ``have a real advantage by offering expertise, service and professionalism.''