CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio-The phone's ringing again. A salesman in the lobby wants to ``have a few moments of the owner's time.''
The truck delivering the latest load of tires pulled in just minutes ago, and this big burly fella with a ponytail is rolling them toward a service bay, asking where he should put them.
The small parking lot is aching for more space as a guy wheels his convertible near the front of the shop and comes in to set up an appointment for service. Almost a couple weeks' wait, he's told.
Right at this very moment, 42-year-old Dave Gruver may be the hardest-working man in this bustling Akron suburb.
From the looks of it, it's a typically frenetic day for the owner of Northcoast Tire Inc., where perhaps the unwritten motto should be: ``Where the work never ends.'' Actually, it does end-on Sundays, when the dealership's closed.
Sure, it's normally pretty busy here. And that's a good sign.
So too, it seems, are the signs out in front advertising Laramie, Tredtech and Multi-Mile, all private label tires.
Some 80 percent of the shop's tire sales are in private brands, Mr. Gruver said, catching a couple minutes' respite in his crowded storeroom to talk about his business. A month ago he decided to go with General, Continental and Hoosier as his major brands, though it's still too early to evaluate that move.
Prior to that, he had sold some General, Goodyear and Firestone lines-whatever deals he could muster with a wholesaler.
But the ``bread and butter'' lie in private labels, he has concluded. ``From a retail standpoint, what I've found-particularly in Laramie, with its good road hazard pro-gram-is you can't really go wrong.''
Any unrepairable tire problem is covered by the Laramie warranty, with free replacement up to 20-percent wear, and prorated up to 50-percent wear. Mr. Gruver has decided to offer his customers free replacement for up to 50-percent treadwear.
While Tredtech is not the cheaper tire-and its warranty falls short of Laramie's, covering only workmanship and materials-he sells more of the Tredtech brand.
``Crazy as it sounds,'' he explained, customers like it because ``it's a better-looking tire, with a little higher grading.''
Then again, he can have the Tredtechs, made by Continental General Tire, in his shop ``in 20 minutes, all day long'' from a nearby wholesaler, without having to stock them. The Laramies, on the other hand, are delivered once a week from Columbus, Ohio.
Also, ``Laramie is produced by Kelly-Springfield, and there's an awful lot of Kelly-made products out there, all real similar,'' he said. ``So it kind of puts a cap on what you can make with it.''
Simply put, selling private label tires isn't rocket science.
Mr. Gruver stresses ``quality. Absolutely. The technology with private labels over the years has really been enhanced,'' he said, due to technology swapping among tire manufacturers' flag, associate and private brands.
He'll tell a customer that, in many cases, the private and major labels share the same ``green'' tire-only the tread designs differ. And in the case of Laramie, he emphasizes that it's a Kelly-made tire, ``mainly because of the association of the name. First-time buyers may not know Laramie, but they've heard of Kelly.
``I try to find out what their driving habits are, how long they plan to keep their vehicle, then go from there. I'll give them the benefits and features of both the private labels and majors,'' along with the road hazard warranties.
``The private brands are pretty easy to sell.'' Don't concentrate on price, he advised, ``unless price is the issue. And I'm finding more and more that it's not.''
Mr. Gruver cited ``exclusivity'' as his primary reason for selecting a private brand to sell. ``It's got to be. There's nothing worse than fighting with someone three miles away over the same product.
``That's why I chose General as a major brand-no one else in the area has it.''
Four-year-old Northcoast Tire also sells a complete line of Multi-Mile specialty tires. ``They've saved me more than once,'' Mr. Grover said. ``I'm already dealing with wholesalers, so if it's available to me, I'm going to make it available to my customers. For instance, an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) club comes in here because I carry those types of tires.''
Customer complaints about pri-
vate brands are extremely rare, he noted. ``What I do get a lot of is people coming off major brands and into privates. Put them into a premium private label line, and you've got a customer for life. They're totally impressed with the performance, handling and smoothness.''
But price encroachment from major and associate brands is a continuing headache.
Manufacturers have been dropping prices on their flag brands to the point where the traditional difference between major and private brands-which used to range from 7 to 15 percent, he said-has shrunk to about 5 to 7 percent.
He attributes that to industry overcapacity and sluggish sales.
Mr. Gruver tries for a profit margin of 30 to 42 percent on all tire sales, ``but that includes all the extras, not just the rubber.''
Consequently, the young dealership has experienced a complete about-face. A year ago, 60 percent of its business was in tires, with the remainder in automotive service. Today, it's just the opposite.
``I've expanded service-invested in an alignment rack, a new air conditioning service unit. I'm doing more general maintenance. There's a lot more profit in it,'' Mr. Gruver admitted, explaining that he's fortunate to have become affiliated with several used car lots in the area. Northcoast does all the service work on the vehicles before they're resold.
Besides undercar work, the company is heavily into underhood service, including tuneups. It also does engine replacements for some of its commercial accounts.
It's been said often, and Mr. Gruver is a firm believer, that in order to succeed, a business must find its niche-especially with some prognosticators quick to put small independent dealerships on the endangered species list.
``We've been fortunate with finding our way,'' he said. ``Lots of times it's the smaller specialty things, and how you take care of somebody, that keeps them coming back.''
He also has found that customers' cars are ``an extension of them-they don't like just anybody working on them.
``If you do it wrong, they'll tell you right there. If you do it right, they say they'll be back-and will send everybody they know.''
Today's customers are a lot more educated about their cars than ever before, he noted. ``From my standpoint, that's great.''