The secret desire of tire dealers. Sounds like something straight out of one of those checkout-line tabloids, doesn't it? No, they don't speak about it in mixed company. But when they gather among themselves, it wouldn't be surprising if any tire dealer in the ``snow belt'' who's worth his or her road salt is secretly hoping this coming winter is a blustery one.
``Old Man Winter, give us your best shot,'' they taunt. ``We dare ya': Dump a ton of the white stuff-we can handle it.''
Nice guys, huh?
A slew of bad weather last winter left many dealers and tire manufacturers alike hoping this year is a repeat performance-or worse. Translation: booming sales of snow tires.
In most cases they comprise only a small portion of a dealer's overall tire sales. However, winter tires-thanks to severe winters since about 1992-have been enjoying a comeback, becoming a growing niche market in North American snow belt regions.
That's due to several reasons.
The obvious one is, when the weather gets bad motorists panic, flocking to dealerships for help and maybe some consolation.
In some cases, they've discovered that the all-season tires on their vehicles just can't cut it on ice or when the snow gets deep.
But some astute dealers have boosted their revenue from snow tires by addressing real safety concerns while making the education of consumers an important part of their sales arsenal.
This series will explore the snow tire market, including how dealers sell winter tires, and snow tire programs of some tire makers.
Simply put, ``if you don't get any winter, you don't get the sales,'' said Dennis Gaede, president of Nokian Tyres (North America) Ltd., the Ontario, Canada, subsidiary of Finland-based Nokian Tyres Ltd.
Last winter, based on weather conditions, snow tire sales were particularly strong, he reported. Worldwide, Nokian garners the largest part of its revenue from winter tire sales, with the remainder coming from the manufacture of forestry tires.
``The need for winter tires has been increasing every year for a number of reasons,'' Mr. Gaede said, including:
Vehicles today weigh less than their old-er counterparts;
Due to budget cutbacks, cities, states and provinces haven't the resources to plow secondary roads as often; and
``From a safety factor, in some areas of North America, you just cannot run with all-season tires.''
Transport Canada, an agency of the Canadian government, has been investigating wintertime traffic accidents in the country and has concluded that some deaths could have been avoided had the motorists been using winter tires, Mr. Gaede said.
The government is considering establishing regulations as to where and when snow tires must be used. It also may declare that all-season tires will have to meet certain criteria, or will not be allowed on vehicles during winter months.
What the government is saying, according to Mr. Gaede, is that ``if the industry doesn't voluntarily set some guidelines for winter tire use, it will.''
The company's parent firm works closely with the Finnish government, which checks winter statistics on vehicle accidents. It has found that 76 percent of all fatalities are caused by a tire's loss of lateral grip.
``So our company puts a lot of emphasis on the safety features of tires,'' Mr. Gaede said. ``A lot of consumers get confused, thinking that starting and stopping traction is the most important aspect of a winter tire. That's not the case. It's the lateral grip.''
In Finland, for example, snow tire use is mandatory during winter months.
Nokian holds seminars to provide dealers and distributors with the background and technical expertise required to sell winter tires-as well as the reasons why motorists need them.
Business is so good, Mr. Gaede said, that the company is actually selling out its production capacity.
Overall, the winter tire market has grown over the last four years, he estimated, from about 4.5 million units in 1992 to 9 million currently. Last year Nokian manufactured a total of 3.2 million tires-though he would not divulge what percentage weresnow tires-and by 1998 it plans to expand production to 5 million units.
``It's definitely a comeback'' for snow tires, he stated, ``because the all-season designation has really changed-the tires are not really (good for) all seasons.''
Nokian recommends use of four snow tires on a vehicle, especially for front-wheel-drive cars. Mr. Gaede said snows only on the front create a ``dangerous situation'' that can lead to loss of control in the rear wheel position.
It also advises that studded tires are better than non-studded, depending on driving conditions.
It supplies snow tires to Prine-ville, Ore.-based Les Schwab Tire Centers Inc., which has outlets primarily in western and northwestern states, and Mr. Gaede said ``90 percent of their winter tire sales are for studded tires.''
While snow tires may pretty much ``sell themselves'' when the weather gets really bad, Mr. Gaede believes sales are also dependent on the safety factor.
``Some consumers are well aware of the need for winter tires,'' he said. ``But our feeling is the dealer needs to be trained so that his sales people will sell the right tires for the right application, particularly for winter tires.''
A dealer must be aware, he continued, that in certain geographic areas that get a lot of snow, ``if he's recommending all-season tires where winter tires are really required, he's endangering the lives of the people riding in that car.
``Dealers are selling safety to their customers.''
So how do dealers decide on the number of snow tires to order?
Now there's a question that elicits answers ranging from the obvious to the semi-tongue-in-cheek.
Some admit to perusing the Farmer's Almanac for its sometimes accurate winter predictions.
Others joke about checking the hair on ``wooly bear'' caterpillars or, as a dealer in Colorado noted, the height of certain weeds that grow in the mountains. That's supposed to be a harbinger of how deep the snow will be.
Actually, most tire dealers give their best ``guesstimate'' based on weather predictions and on what they ordered last year. That can be tough, when initial orders have to be placed with manufacturers by April or May, for deliveries beginning in late August.
``It's very difficult for dealers to know what to order,'' said Steve White, a Michelin North America marketing manager who handles performance and snow tires.
Muddying up the picture are constant additions of new sizes annually due to new original equipment fitments. The dealer must not only look at his past order history, Mr. White said, ``but also at the vehicles coming into his shop for all-season tires throughout the year, because of the changes in trends of sizes.
``It's a real risk, since we ask them to order in May so we can manufacture enough product.''
``I pretty much guess,'' admitted Dana E. Foote, owner of Dala Tires Inc., which does business in Loveland, Colo., as Big O Tire.
``I've been in this market for my fourth winter, and it's a guess every year. Up here you can't really go off what you sold last year because the weather seems to alternate from year to year. Whatever was popular two years ago will probably sell this year.''
He sells Pacemark and Wintermark studable snows made by Kelly-Springfield Tire Co.
In jest, you might say Robert L. Rochefort, president of Vermont Tire & Service Inc. in Montpelier, Vt., has somewhat of a ``mean streak.'' During a conversation on snow tires one senses he almost takes glee in hoping the weather this winter is bad. Real bad.
That sound he hears is the healthy jingling of a cash register.
Winter tire sales are a ``very large part-between 25 and 30 percent-of our business,'' he said.
Vermont Tire not only talks a good game to customers, it carries that through to its advertising.
``We constantly run ads on snow tires to educate the customer to the value of snows as opposed to all-season tires, especially in this part of the country,'' where Vermont typically gets up to 110 inches of the white stuff annually, Mr. Rochefort said.
``We also stress the point that snow tires are not only for traction-a lot of these front-wheel-drive vehicles have adequate traction-but for stopping because, compared to the adhesion of a snow tire, you don't stop on all-season tires on snowy roads.''
Consequently, the dealership's sales staff stresses snow tires' combination of traction and stopping power, because ``if you go up a hill, you do have to come down.''
He also attempts to educate-and convince-motorists about the value of having four snows on a car vs. only two.
Still, that can be a tough sell, as illustrated by a story he related.
An elderly gent with a new Ford Escort stopped in to buy two snow tires. Despite Mr. Rochefort's best efforts to convince him why four would be better, the man demanded only two-threatening to take his business elsewhere.
So two he bought.
The next morning Mr. Rochefort saw the man's car parked at the dealership. Its rear bumper was hanging precariously; one whole side and fender were caved in; a headlight was broken.
The man told the dealer: ``If anyone ever doubts why they need
four snow tires, you have them call me. You wouldn't believe what happened when I went home last night.''
It seems the argumentative customer had an up close and personal encounter with a utility truck after going down a hill and around a corner near his house. His car smashed into the truck, spun around several times, just missed going down an 80-foot embankment, and ended up kissing a tree.
Because of weight distribution, front-wheel-drive vehicles have great traction in pulling a car around a corner, Mr. Rochefort explained, ``but the back end tends to swing around-that's a wild ride!''
Vermont Tire sells some 15,000 snow tires in a season, peddling as many or more sets of four as pairs.
``It's been excellent the last few years and keeps getting better,'' Mr. Rochefort said, ``because I think people are getting more and more educated-they're sick of sliding all over the place. I guess the preaching has finally sunk in.''
He orders this year's inventory based on his snow tire sales last year, taking into account sizes turning up on new cars, such as a 175/65/R14, which is ``extremely popular. Not everyone makes a snow tire for that.''
While cutting back on orders of 70- and 75-series snow tires, he's been adding 60- and 65-series, which are growing in prominence. The dealership sells mainly Coop-er snow tires, plus a smattering of Michelin, Nokian and Gislaved.
Most customers are looking for a winter tire that's ``very, very effective at a reasonable price,'' Mr. Rochefort said.
His best-selling snow tires are the Coopers, which he called ``very popular'' because they're competitively priced and ``extremely effective. We've been advertising those tires heavily in the last few years.''
Unlike some tire makers, Coop-er-and Nokian-build snow tires throughout the winter, which helps out dealers who may have under-ordered or run short of inventory.
Vermont Tire, a retail/commercial/wholesale operation with another location in South Burling-ton, Vt., kicks off its month-long snow tire advertising campaign Oct. 16 with three to four cable television spots per day.
This year Mr. Rochefort also will do some ``fairly expensive'' TV advertising on a local ABC network affiliate and at least two newspaper ads per week.
It's an aggressive crusade, but ``our advertising and the products are getting very well known,'' especially by word-of-mouth referrals, he said, ``and I don't think you can do any better than that.''
Why the upsurgence in snow tire sales? ``People are sick of being on edge while driving, often ending up in a ditch,'' he said.
``Safety is a big factor, and people are finally realizing that these all-season tires just don't cut it when there's 4-5 inches of snow.''
``The ideal situation for us would be to have threatening weather from now until mid-November,'' Mr. Rochefort said. ``Then we can do a lot more business. If it snowed tomorrow, we'd be done for, because we couldn't keep up with the work.
``We're swamped now, and when it snows, customers just go wherever they can to buy tires. They don't have time to shop.''
One year, when it snowed early, Vermont Tire did ``terribly,'' he recalled. It just couldn't fulfill customers' winter tire needs, so they went elsewhere.
A portion of the dealership's business is from the tourist trade-weekend skiers he refers to as ``flatlanders'' who have ``no idea how they should drive up here, but sure find out in a hurry after they get pulled out from an embankment after realizing their tires just aren't adequate.''
``Do I have a mean streak, hoping for bad weather? Naw,'' Mr. Rochefort protested, somewhat unconvincingly at that. ``Hey, if you're going to live up here, we'd might as well have snow!''