AKRON—Howard Zwang, co-owner of Best Tire & Car Audio in Great Neck, N.Y., has never seen anything like it in 37 years of tire sales. ``Right now, I'm selling more 20-inch wheels than ever before,'' he said.
Fueled by the robust economy, sales of aftermarket wheels, performance tires and other performance equipment have been growing steadily during the 1990s. And sales of performance tires and custom wheels have become an increasing source of profits for Mr. Zwang and other tire dealers
According to the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) in Diamond Bar, Calif., manufacturers' sales figures for wheels, performance tires and suspension products increased 44.4 percent between 1990 and 1997 to $1.69 billion.
``It's something you don't have to have—it's something you want,'' said Jim Spoonhower, vice president of market research for SEMA, describing the attitude of purchasers of performance accessories like custom wheels.
Last year, SEMA surveyed 3,000 vehicle owners about performance aftermarket auto equipment purchases, dividing that group into ``stratified samples'' depending on their vehicle preference and geographic location.
According to SEMA's study, tire dealers are in a position to garner big sales in this market. Customers interested in restyling, restoration, off-road and light trucks all listed tire dealers as their first choice for purchasing equipment, with mail order firms second.
For those interested in racing and street performance, mail order was first with tire dealers a close second.
Nearly three quarters (70.9 percent) of the surveyed customers are between the ages of 25 and 54, while less than half (43.6 percent) of the general population falls within those ages. About half (49.7 percent) of the customers have an income between $35,000 and $75,000 compared with about a third of the population at large.
The survey also revealed that buyers of performance products are slightly more likely to have attended college (about 55 percent) than the population as a whole (45 percent).
SEMA noted there are about 130 manufacturers of custom wheels offering hundreds of styles. Tire dealers find this extremely volatile market a challenging one.
``With the competitiveness of wheels, you need to make a full commitment to be in this game,'' Mr. Zwang said. That means going to shows and following the trends in auto performance magazines.
Custom wheel and tire packages account for between 15 and 20 percent of Best Tire's annual sales. Mr. Zwang said he usually stocks about 150 different wheel styles with a price range of $99 to $2,000 per wheel.
Rich Lucas, owner of Chicago-area Lucas Tire and Auto Care, agreed that keeping up with wheel styles is difficult because ``the top 10 stock numbers last year are not the top 10 stock numbers this year.''
Lucas Tire has a special section of wheels priced at less than $100. Its overall custom wheel sales have grown from 8 percent to 17 percent of annual sales in the last five years.
``It's a very finicky business,'' said Mark Rhodes, president of Plaza Tire Inc., which stocks about 5,000 wheels at all times. Still, the Cape Girardeau, Mo.-based firm's wheel sales grew 15 to 20 percent from the previous year.
``We're in the middle of the Midwest,'' he added, noting Plaza Tire's light truck and SUV wheel sales are very strong.
A prosperous economy provides more discretionary income for purchasing aftermarket products. But Mr. Spoonhower said there are other factors behind increased sales of custom wheels and performance tires.
The amount of time American workers spend commuting from home to work has increased. They also are keeping vehicles longer, he said. This leads them to spend more on aftermarket products for the car interior to make the commute more comfortable. The desire to make their vehicles look newer also leads consumers to buy external features like wheels.
And there's another motivation.
``Since a lot of vehicles look the same, they want to do something different,'' said Mr. Spoonhower. The key to increased sales of aftermarket products, including custom wheels, he added, is to ``go after the self-image of the customer.''
He suggested dealers drive around and notice the types of wheels on vehicles in their area and get to know their customers, because wheel selection is a personal thing.
Mr. Lucas said customers at his five locations see ads for tires and European cars in auto magazines and want the latest styles. They also ``follow the leader'' when a friend, neighbor or co-worker upgrades wheels and tires.
``Almost every wheel sale comes with a set of tires,'' he said.
Best Tire's Mr. Zwang said that along with a 1,000-page catalog of accessories that includes wheels, his store displays custom wheels like jewelry, using lighting and frames to highlight the product.
Many dealers—including national mail-order companies like The Tire Rack and Discount Tire Co.—use computer technology on the Internet or in the showroom to show customers how a certain wheel style will look on their car.
Mr. Spoonhower expects this sales tool will gain increased acceptance.
He said Ford Motor Co. showed a mock ``virtual dealership'' at the recent National Automobile Dealers Association meeting in San Francisco. It eventually will allow customers to select options and colors to build a car on screen.
The current computerized wheel marketing systems Mr. Lucas has seen lack quality and don't show the latest wheel styles that are available, he said, wondering if wheel makers were hesitant to make the newest styles available on the Internet for fear competitors would copy them.
Dealers in northern states admitted seeing some decrease in custom wheel sales in colder months. Wheel packages account for about 25 percent of Lucas Tire's sales during spring and summer and drop to about half that in colder months.
However, Mr. Lucas sees an opportunity in this seasonal aspect of the business. Some customers buy two sets of wheels and tires, and Lucas Tire offers free changeovers for those wanting to remove expensive custom wheels before winter.
This spring-fall changeover gives his shop technicians additional opportunities to inspect cars and sell needed maintenance services.
While the majority of wheel purchasers are men, Mr. Spoonhower said women also purchase wheels or influence men's buying decisions, and each has distinctly different style preferences.
``Women don't want to see all that junk behind the wheel,'' he said. They prefer wheels that fully-cover the brakes; men prefer a more ``open'' look like on wire wheels.
Women also are likely to buy lower-priced wheels, said Mr. Lucas.
None of the dealers interviewed spends a lot of money marketing custom wheels. ``We don't need to do a lot of expensive ads,'' Mr. Lucas said. Wheel displays are changed about every six months and his outlets exhibit photos of cars equipped with new wheels.
Lucas Tire's best-selling wheel brands are Niche, Concept Neeper, KMC and Progressive.
Plaza Tire sometimes promotes wheels in its print ads, but most sales come from ``word of mouth.'' Mr. Rhodes said Plaza's strongest custom wheel market is for pickup trucks, in part, ``because they're easier to stock, since in the past there haven't been as many exclusive bolt patterns as with passenger cars.''
Plaza Tire's leading brands are Ultra and Superior.
``We display what's hot and have a knowledgeable sales staff,''said Best Tire's Mr. Zwang, who has some well-known entertainers for customers.
Mr. Lucas added: ``This is a niche for the independent tire dealer.''