AKRON-Paraphrasing that old song, the weather outside may be frightful, but the snow tire market certainly has been delightful, as of late. Although all-season tires took a big bite out of U.S. snow tire sales during the 1980s, winter designs have made a comeback in the last three years. And record snowstorms this winter that have wreaked havoc along the eastern seaboard and in the Midwest will bolster that trend further, tire industry officials said.
``I love (this weather),'' said Bob Hepp, president of University Wholesale Inc., a Vermont-based tire distributor that sells snow tires from Nokian Tyres Ltd. and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. A winter like this ``does wonders for the snow tire business,'' he said.
And despite a mild winter, last year's snow tire market was ``vigorous'' because of all the snow in 1993-94, said Dennis Teed, Dunlop Tire Corp.'s passenger car product manager. Sales this year have been steady, but definitely down from 1994, he said.
``It's the biggest forecasting headache that the whole industry shares,'' Mr. Teed said.
Many car owners won't be able to find snow tires this year because of a low supply, but next year tire makers probably will make too many, Mr. Hepp said with a laugh.
For University Wholesale's revenue, the effect of current snow is instantaneous. Manufacturers, on the other hand, have already made their tires for the 1995-96 winter based on last year's weather and, more importantly, an overall growing demand attributed to dissatisfaction with all-season tires' snow capabilities and innovations in the segment including the introduction of improved studless tires.
The result: U.S. shipments of replacement snow passenger tires rose 46.1 percent to 7.4 million units in 1994 from 5.06 million units in 1990, according to figures from the Rubber Manufacturers Association. Snow tires represented 4.4 percent of U.S. replacement passenger tire shipments in 1994 compared with 3.3 percent in 1990.
Although the snow tire segment is the smallest tire group, it was the fastest growing one last year, Mr. Hepp said. Most tire makers hadn't invested in snow tires in 20 years, he added, but now those without a snow tire line are taking another look at the market.
A big reason for the added interest is that the effect of all-season tires on the snow tire demand ``is essentially over,'' said Dunlop's Mr. Teed.
All-seasons caused ``dramatic erosion in the snow tire market'' during the 1980s and the prevalence of front-wheel-drive vehicles also had an impact, he said.
Mike Van Sicklen, con sumer marketing specialist for Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., said snow tires at their height represented about 6 percent of the replacement passenger tire market. ``They were never really a huge portion of the market,'' he said.
However, the all-season tire nearly replaced the snow tire, dropping its market share to less than 2 percent at one point, according to Mr. Van Sicklen.
Consumers discovered the all-season tire did a lot of things well, but they eventually saw it couldn't match the traction of snow tires. All-seasons, more and more, emphasize comfort, wet traction and fuel economy, making them worse in the snow than they were initially, Mr. Hepp said.
An obstacle for the snow tire's comeback was legislation.
Concern over road wear during the 1970s put the traditional studdable snow tire on the hot seat and prompted several states to ban tires with studs, including Snow Belt states such as Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Then in 1988, steel studded tires were outlawed in Japan, prompting Bridgestone Corp. to invent a substitute-the studless Blizzak. Until three years ago, Bridgestone had abandoned the U.S. snow tire market, but in 1992 the Blizzak came to the U.S. and ``sold way beyond our wildest expectations,'' Mr. Van Sicklen said.
``(The Blizzak) is for those people in snow markets that cannot compromise traction,'' he said.
Bridgestone/Firestone introduced the Blizzak by inviting the media to an ice and snow driving event in Steamboat Springs, Colo. The firm also demonstrated the tires on ice rinks across the country and has since seen sales triple each of the last three years. The company currently claims a 20-percent share of the U.S. snow tire market, according to Mr. Van Sicklen.
Because studded tires have been banned in Japan, Japanese tire makers such as Bridgestone and Dunlop-which imports the studless Gras Pic from Japanese parent Sumitomo Rubber Industries Ltd.-have been the driving force behind studless technologies, Mr. Teed said.
Studless tires are not a new phenomenon, but marketing-wise, it's ``really sort of caught fire,'' the Dunlop executive said.
And the fire isn't limited to Japanese imports. Nokian Tyre, Goodyear and Groupe Michelin all offer studless tires in North America.
Michelin introduced studless tires 12 years ago, said Steve White, marketing manager for Michelin touring tires. In 1994 it brought in its Alpin winter passenger tire and saw its snow tire sales improve 40 percent, he said.
However, studdable tires continue to lead the North American snow tire market with an 80-percent share, a Nokian Tyre spokesman said, and are effective without studs. In fact, only 25 to 30 percent of studdable tires actually are studded, according to industry estimates.
The studding of tires also is growing steadily because it still gives the best traction, Mr. Hepp said. Studless tires such as the Blizzak and Nokian's NRW have gotten snow tires into new areas and sizes, and are excellent on hard-packed snow and ice. But they are worse on deep snow and haven't taken over existing studdable tire sales, Mr. Hepp said. ``I don't think the big push for studless tires has come from technology but from laws.''
Studdable tires could overcome stud bans with new lightweight studs made from aluminum or plastic. Oregon recently passed a law allowing lighter studs and the state of Washington is considering similar legislation.
University Wholesale still sells 75 to 80 percent studdable tires, and Mr. Hepp believes the Blizzak advertising blitz has helped raise awareness of both studdable and studless tires.
Studded tires are ``still a very stable market in the U.S.,'' and are allowed seasonally in most states, Mr. Teed said. ``The studless concept, although it still works, is not as appealing (in certain markets).''
But Mr. Van Sicklen believes the studdable tire's 80-percent market share is a high estimate. The studded tire is no longer king of the market, although it still has its niche, he said.
Since snow tire demand continues to grow, supplying dealers with a snow tire line-and improving and expanding it-is important to manufacturers and to the sales of their other brands, according to officials.
A tire maker has to offer snow tires in all sizes so dealers ``don't have to go outside the family,'' Mr. Van Sicklen said.
Growth in the snow tire market is coming from latest-model cars, Mr. Teed said, with car owners making an investment for that first winter.
Mr. Van Sicklen said the most popular snow tires are for the sport utility and light truck segments.
Light truck snow tires' popularity just follows the rapid growth in the truck market, but the biggest seller has been snow tires for four-wheel-drive vehicles, he added.
The increasing demand for all-season tires didn't take away from new developments in snow tires, Mr. Teed said.
The overall snow tire industry has moved toward comfort, and noise levels from snow tires-including studdable tires-have dropped.
From a tread and rubber compound standpoint, there has been more innovation in this tire segment than any other, Mr. Teed said. ``You really can't hedge on either of (the segments),'' he said.
``You need to have both (the all-season and snow tire segments) working for you to be the most effective supplier you can be.''