AKRON—The question for many dealers and manufacturers who already have jumped onto the Internet is not whether the Web will be a force to reckon with, but when. Take, for instance, Tom Michel, marketing director for Cincinnati, Ohio-based Michel Tire Co. His company went on-line in April, 1996.
``We were looking down the road (when they went on-line). Everyone today doesn't have home computers,'' he said. ``But as prices come down, you won't be able to not be on the Internet.''
That attitude prompted TIRE BUSINESS to take an in-depth look into the way dealers and manufacturers are using the communications medium today, as well as the direction they believe it is heading.
The Internet is a vast collection of networked computers around the world. People access particular areas of the Internet, commonly referred to as sites or pages, by entering addresses in software programs called browsers.
Most tire industry sites, including those of both tire dealers and manufacturers, provide company histories, tire-safety information and product listings.
A number of interactive sites allow consumers to view customized lists of available tires based on their model of car or driving preferences. Other Web pages allow customers to enter their location in order to find the address of—and in some cases maps to—the nearest outlet.
``People find it easier to do their research at home,'' said Larry Deatherage, owner of Dee's Tire Store in Yukon, Okla.
When Mr. Deatherage opened his second store, he called in a computer specialist to connect the locations. Being ``very computer-oriented,'' he decided at the same time to set up an Internet site.
Mr. Deatherage, along with a number of other dealers, said he likens the importance of the new technology to that of the fax machine when it first hit the market.
But he added, the level of connectivity the Internet provides will change the face of tire retailing in even more profound ways.
Theoretically, Mr. Deatherage said, he can have a customer thousands of miles away visit his Web site and contact Dee's Tire with a purchase order.
``I can call (Continental) General (Tire) and have them ship the tires to him without me even having them in stock,'' he said.
Wholesalers, in particular, are finding the Internet a convenience both for themselves and for their dealers.
With 24-hour-a-day connections to their dealer customers, wholesalers are able to post inventory, pricing and other business information for viewing at the customer's convenience. The system can cut down on administrative, fax and paper costs, some mentioned.
Northwest Tire Factory Group has a system that allows different levels of access to its member dealers and retail customers.
Consumers, for instance, can learn of the nearest location.
Group members, on the other hand, have access to inventory and pricing information that is updated every half hour.
By this summer, the group hopes to have software that will allow its members to order inventory over the Internet, as well, according to Chief Financial Officer Nick Hodel.
Treadway Exports Ltd., a subsidiary of Electra Group International, makes its living off of international business. As such, the Internet is a perfect fit for the Waterloo, Ontario, business.
But Michael Bierstock, vice president of marketing and purchasing for Treadway, cautioned dealers to make sure their web sites are able to capture the interest of anyone looking in.
``You have to design your site to give immediate gratification. They're just a click away from your competitor,'' Mr. Bierstock said.
Although the Internet is changing marketing, small dealerships still will be able to cope in traditional ways, said Daniel Brown, vice president of sales and marketing for J.H. Heafner Co. Inc.
``I think (the dealer) will find it most beneficial for him to be with a group that can provide Internet access for him,'' Mr. Brown said.