AKRON-Last year's winter may not have hit very hard, but many tire dealers still took it right on the chin, getting stuck with an abundance of leftover snow tires. This year, some of them are wary of ordering too many, not wanting to carry over a lot of excess tires again next year.
``You have to be a soothsayer and have a crystal ball to get it right,'' said George Kropf, marketing manager for Peerless Tire Co. The Denver-based firm sold about 20,000 snow tires last year.
But running out of snow tires can be a bigger blow to dealers than having too many, he said.
Tom Mellen, purchasing agent for Interstate Tire Co. in Buffalo, N.Y., agreed, saying that dealers often worry too much about what they won't be able to sell rather than what they can.
``Being they're gun-shy of stocking inventory, they usually lose business,'' said Mr. Mellen, who ran Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. re-tail stores for 35 years. ``When the snow flies, you'd better have something to put on (a customer's) car.''
``If I'm overstocked. . . I've tied up my money in inventory that's not turning over; down the road, I'll have trouble paying my bills,'' said Steve King, owner of Steve King Tire Center Inc., Nashua, N.H. ``You're walking a tightrope because you don't know which way to go.''
Barry Steinberg, president of Watertown, Mass.-based Direct Tire Sales, said he, along with a lot of other dealers, have not even bought snow tires yet.
``I'm just not to going to gamble again. I just can't afford it,'' he said. ``I think we're probably.*.*.going to get hurt because we're not going to have enough tires.''
Somerset Tire Service also will be cutting it close, according to James E. Hannon, president of the Bound Brook, N.J., company.
``If we happen to have a severe winter, we'll scramble and try to meet the demand as best we can.''
Mr. Hannon said part of the problem was that many dealers took an ``aggressive position'' in buying inventory for last winter, anticipating a repeat of 1993's severe season.
For some, snow tire sales were actually good last November and December as customers prepared for more severe weather.
But the snow never came.
``Right after Thanksgiving, it was like someone turned off the faucet,'' he said. ``We just had next to no demand again. . . .''
Roland Lesieur, owner of Maynard & Lesieur Tire Co. in Nashua, N.H., said tire makers should be taking more of the risk.
``It's my job to supply my dealers out of my warehouse. It's (the manufacturers') job to supply their people out of their warehouses. I think they've been getting away with murder as far as taking the risk,'' he said, noting that he was stuck with about $80,000 worth of snow tires this year.
Mr. Kropf said tire makers ``have it made'' because almost all of the snow tires they make are already sold. ``They don't care if it snows or not. It doesn't matter.''
And buy-back programs are a thing of the past. Few manufacturers and wholesalers offer them because the costs are ``too prohibitive,'' said Mr. Hannon.
Doug Snyder, president of #1 Snyder Tire & Electronics in Wintersville, Ohio, agreed that buy-back programs hurt suppliers.
``If you tell a guy, `Go ahead and try these, and if you don't sell them, send them back,' that's the worse thing you can do, because he's not going to sell them and you're going to get them back.''
``There's an old saying in any business: `A guaranteed sale always means one thing-guaranteed fail,' '' he said.
One way manufacturers can help out, said some dealers, is by producing snow tires later into the season, until October or November. That would allow dealers to order fewer tires early and ``fill in'' inventory when they have a better idea of the weather.
``I think the manufacturers have to change their attitudes about snows,'' said Mr. Steinberg. ``They can't expect a dealer to commit to something in May and then not have back-up inventory.''
Some tire makers, like Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. and Nokia Tires North America Ltd., already continue to make snow tires well into the season, Mr. Lesieur said.
A spokesman for Findlay, Ohio-based Cooper said it is merely responding to market demands.
``We have the merchandise available when they want it,'' he said, noting some dealers bought tires as late as last December.
Still, it can be a ``Catch-22.''
``You're either a hero if you have them or a bum if you don't,'' said Mr. Steinberg. ``But you're still a bum if you have too many.''