AKRON-Get on-line and surf the Internet. You'll likely be disappointed. With access to practically everything, the computer generation is finding itself gliding back and forth between home pages that often range from marginally amusing to downright frustrating.
But while experts at some of the tire industry's more forward-thinking companies agree today's fledgling virtual world is im-mature, most say the Internet continues to hold vast marketing and retailing potential.
So tire manufacturers, like Goodyear, Continental General Tire (CGT), Dunlop Tire Corp., Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp. and Bridgestone/Firestone Off-Road Tire Co. are slowly coming on-line.
They are there, they say, not so much for what the Internet is today, but for what it has a good chance of becoming tomorrow: the new way to shop.
``The Internet is like a rocket taking off and has not reached full speed by any stretch of the imagination,'' said James Novak, CGT director of marketing.
Goodyear's Electronic Marketing Manager Rob Elder said his company's home page is seen by 600 people each day. While there, viewers are able to learn about tires, have a computer pick a Goodyear tire suited to their driving style and performance preferences and find the nearest Goodyear retailer.
``The line of thought is: We'll help you learn about tires; we'll recommend the product that best suits your needs; then we'll tell you the closest place you can get that product,'' Mr. Elder said. ``We're hoping to drive traffic to the retailer.''
And it has, he claims. The company receives E-mail ``on a regular basis'' from computer users who said they bought tires from Goodyear dealers after visiting the tire maker's home page.
The tire information on Goodyear's World Wide Web site-which also includes general facts like how to read a sidewall-is a value-added benefit for consumers, he said.
Other manufacturers' pages work in much the same way. Computer users with a modem and access to an Internet service provider-which includes popular on-line services like America On-Line, CompuServe and Prodigy-are able to look at company profiles and information on computer screens in their homes or offices.
The potential to provide educational material to computer users at their leisure was one of the major reasons the American Retreaders Association decided to go on-line this year.
``One of ARA's primary goals is to improve the public's knowledge of all aspects of the tire industry,'' said Executive Director Marvin Bozarth. ``Our Web site will help accomplish this objective on an international level.''
In a matter of years, the Internet has become a worldwide information source, playground and communication forum, limited primarily to academics, upscale computer users and computer ``geeks.'' But that is changing as more and more people obtain access to the information superhighway.
CGT's Mr. Novak, like experts at other companies, said he believes the demographics of Internet users soon will include a larger portion of the middle class because of the publicity it has received. On-line services have become so aggressive with their product that their software typically comes automatically available on new computers or free through direct mail promotions.
It is estimated that more than 18 million people in North America have access to the Internet through 4.5 million registered host computers, according to EDR Media, the company that set up CGT's web site.
``The (personal computer) is becoming more of a new-home item,'' said Mr. Novak. ``The vast majority of new homes are having two telephone lines: one for the phone; one for the computer.'' He said he can envision a day when a personal computer becomes a standard appliance in a new home, like a stove or refrigerator.
Still, purchasing tires via the Internet is a ways away-if it's a potential reality at all.
Many consumers are justifiably wary of handing out credit card information over the Internet. Others simply are uninterested in having ``four tires show up in their mailbox,'' a Goodyear spokesman said.
Instead, it is more likely manufacturers would develop programs where Internet users could order a set of tires and set up an appointment to have them purchased and installed at their local retailer.
With the idea that the Internet can drive sales at the retail level, some dealerships themselves have developed home pages touting their services and reaching out to potential new customers.
Some of the larger North American dealerships, including Discount Tire Co. and Tires Plus Group Inc., have been the most eager to test the Internet's waters.
But the information highway is just as accessible and beneficial to Jeff Oestreich, who manages a single Tire Station outlet in Lima, Ohio, part of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s network of company-owned retail stores.
``It's an unlimited arena,'' Mr. Oestreich said. ``And it's awfully inexpensive the way I'm doing it.''
Mr. Oestreich put his company on-line through a local network server at a cost of about $25 per month after he purchased the necessary software to design a page.
Because of his early enthusiasm in developing his page, which he calls The ``Unofficial'' Firestone Home Page, Bridgestone/Firestone officials and other Firestone dealers across the country have contacted him for ideas in creating their own sites.
Mr. Oestreich's page includes photos of IndyCar driver Scott Pruett, a racing schedule and information on Firestone's AutoPass credit card.
It also focuses on providing visitors with winter car care tips, product information and an extensive personal profile that includes a photograph of his family.
``My management philosophy is: If you're a customer of mine, I want to keep you as a customer of mine,'' he said. ``I approach business from that aspect. (Customers who view our web site) can look at us as friends.''
In the first two weeks of January, more than 170 people visited his site, Mr. Oestreich said, and a number of his in-store customers have mentioned his home page.
``It's a great tool,'' he added. ``I would encourage any tire dealer to look into it.''