CLEVELAND—The setting: A bustling inner city tire dealership in a once heavily ethnic—now still blue-collar—neighborhood. The camera pans the storefront, revealing cars and trucks being jacked up, a battalion of tire techs rolling tires to their destinations while glistening rows of custom wheels stand silent sentry duty.
Sounds: Air compressors chug-a-chug in the background; ratchets hammer away at lugnuts through the constant ringing of phones as workers shout into walkie talkies.
Cut to a gaping service bay where a police car from a nearby suburb silently slips into place. The officers jump out.
``We need four tires. Fast.''
Techs descend on the vehicle like ants on a lollipop, arms flailing as hubcaps fly. The whole routine looks almost effortless.
Moments later, four new tires find their mark. Lights flashing, siren wailing, the car screeches out, leaving a neat path of fresh rubber.
``Dragnet'' it's not. And you won't likely see that scenario in a Spielberg flick, though if you close your eyes, you can almost hear a snarling Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men paraphrasing: ``You want speed? Four tires fast? You can't handle speed!''
But, swear to the tire gods, the above episode happened—kind of like that—at Safeway Tire & Wheel Specialists. The sprawling, 50-year-old dealership in downtown Cleveland definitely handles the speed thing.
It caters to a clientele as diverse as the kid with a few bucks of expendable income burning a hole in his pocket, local law enforcement, upscale types dreaming of mucho-expensive custom wheels for their buggies, suburban office workers, and inner city residents on a tight budget who look at used tires as their next ``new'' set.
Add to the mix a wide variety of specialty tires and a retreading shop that produces 80 passenger and light truck tires daily, and you have a business that prides itself on being a literal panacea to the needs and desires of almost any customer entering its portals.
It may sound a touch audacious, but Safeway's dual-edged motto is: ``If we can't do it, you don't need it done''; and ``If we don't have it, you don't need it.'' Or how about: ``If you want it, we can get it.''
Take that cop car incident.
Gary Adamic is Safeway's manager of retail, company secretary and son of the late Ernie Adamic, who founded the dealership in 1949 in an old gas station. He beams, recalling the day the men in blue from Bratenahl, a ritzy Cleveland-area community, pulled in for four tires. In the interim, they'd gotten an emergency call on the radio, meaning they had to get out. Fast.
``We put four guys on the car and got it out in 10 minutes,'' he said. ``I think they ended up being the first car on the scene.''
That's 10 minutes better than what he normally requires from his techs—and what Safeway pledges: ``Four tires in 20 minutes.''
Mr. Adamic admitted he expects a lot. Employees must quickly be able to tell a tire's type, size and manufacturer just by looking at its tread design. No joke. ``If they can't, we lose time—and time is what makes all this work.''
Just don't get the impression scant attention is paid to the personal touch. You don't build up the word-of-mouth referrals the firm enjoys and repeat, third-generation customers simply by providing speed.
But it doesn't hurt. Tom Welsh, area sales manager, pointed out there's ``not a lift in the place.'' Only hand jacks are used in the 16 tire bays. ``It's a hell-of-a-lot faster to get them in and out, because in today's society, time is money.''
General Manager Mark Yagour—the guy with the phone almost permanently planted in his ear—waved his hand toward the main street on which the dealership is located, to where his sparkling white 1998 Mercedes S420 with the license plate ``Broke 3'' is parked. Its thin strips of tire rubber are festooned with 20-inch Lorenzo custom wheels.
That eye catcher—along with 14 delivery trucks sporting less-expensive but still fetching chrome wheels—pull in passersby and help boost sales, Mr. Yagour believes.
The trucks, rolling ads for Safeway, visit car dealerships and commercial accounts to do mounting and balancing. They're washed daily because ``image is everything.''
big wheels in town
About 40 percent of Safeway's business is in retail/commercial, an equal amount in wholesale, with the remaining in automotive service through an 18-bay operation referred to as its ``safety center.''
Custom wheels comprise only 15 percent of Safeway's sales, but that's a nice chunk of change considering many customers spend $2,500 to $5,000 on a purchase.
Mr. Yagour estimated Safeway averages a margin of 30 percent on tires and double that on rims.
``When you're selling tires and wheels together, that's a pretty good profit. Our motto isn't that we're the cheapest in town.''
Safeway leans toward the more exotic rather than commonplace wheel lines. ``The real expensive stuff,'' Mr. Yagour noted. Its retail and wholesale units sell between 3,000 and 3,200 wheels annually.
He remembered the most expensive job he ever sold: three sets of tire/wheel packages for $9,800 each for three Mercedes owned by a group of musicians.
Most times Safeway snares the package sale to customers interested in ``plus-sizing,'' that is, stepping up from a 16-inch to an 18-inch or even to 20-inch wheels.
For customers wanting to upgrade their vehicle's wheels, the company turns a lucrative business taking off original-equipment aluminum wheels, which are sent out to be chromed and then are resold.
Ten percent of Safeway's tire sales consist of major-brand high-performance tires. It also handles Vogue, an upscale private brand with a distinctive gold stripe.
Wheel buyers are typically on-the-spot ``impulse buyers,'' Mr. Yagour noted, though he acknowledged some ``call around, study the wheel books, sleep on their decision and come in probably knowing more than we do.''
Despite its accent on speed, to cement a sale Safeway often mounts a tire/wheel combo on a customer's car just to show how it will look.
You want it? We got it
In its cavernous warehouse behind the tire center, the dealership stocks some 50,000 tires and 600 wheels. It also has quick access to 300,000 tires in one day through various distributors.
Mr. Welsh's bailiwick requires him to ``walk the car lots,'' since he said Safeway services the tire needs of about 85 percent of the car dealers in Cleveland and outlying areas.
He also gives presentations—and discounts—to groups and employees at various local companies, hospitals, TV and radio stations, credit unions and union halls.
With its downtown location, huge inventory and limited competition, Safeway bills itself as a convenience to workers who can drop their vehicles off for service, take a courtesy shuttle to their offices, then get picked up at day's end.
``Everybody's time is at a premium,'' Mr. Welsh said. ``They don't want to tie up their Saturday at a tire store, if they can help it.''
Safeway also supplies some area tire dealerships. ``We go the extra mile for our customers,'' Mr. Yagour said. ``If we don't have it, we'll find it for them,'' even if it means buying from a competitor.
That personalized service comes from the fact many of the dealership's more than 70 employees have worked there for years, including some tire techs with up to 25 years of service. Their expertise helps draw repeat business.
``It's knowing what kind of tire or wheel can go on a car without looking in the book,'' Mr. Yagour explained, with Mr. Welsh adding: ``But not being too lazy to look in the book for the customer.''
Down the road
So you thought things would get easier? Mr. Yagour anticipates more headaches for tire dealers in the next few years due to continuing proliferation of tire sizes and wheel variations. Consumers' tire-and-wheel buying decisions also will be complicated by the availability of more ``exotic'' tires, run-flats etc.
He expects the trend toward plus-sizing wheels one, two, even three sizes will continue.
But after 15 years with Safeway, he still relishes the challenges. ``It's different every day. Different cars, tire sizes I haven't even heard of.... I like to sell people what they need.''
Mostly, he's selling ``trust,'' especially when he hears from a customer: ``Give me what you'd put on your car.''
``We're not just throwing four pieces of rubber on a car,'' Mr. Welsh said. ``We look at it as a safety issue for a family....''
For Mr. Adamic, who grew up in the business working in the retread shop, the ``wide array of people we get in here every day'' appeals to him.
``You might get a preacher, a nurse and a police officer all at one time,'' he said, grinning at the cop alongside him at the service counter.
``It's humor that allows me to keep going...because it's a tough enough business as it is.''
Consider that, before going public with its speedy service offer, Safeway held a meeting with its tire technicians.
One longtime worker thought about that for a moment.
Then, in broken English, he responded with what he felt was a better proposition: ``Four tires, 20 minutes? No. Four tires, four men, five minutes!''
And he wasn't joking.
Safeway Tire employees Brian Weems, left, and Tom Dean enclose custom wheels in plastic bags in preparation for delivery to customers.