AKRON—Mild weather may have many tire dealers in the northern U.S. and parts of Canada selling fewer winter tires than last year, but for the manufacturers, it's another ho-hum, business-as-usual type of winter. With snow tire orders due in the spring and summer, tire makers won't feel the full effects of the 1999-2000 winter tire season for a few months. Some have an idea of how inventory is (or isn't) moving, while others will have a better estimate when the season officially closes out.
"Everybody's still holding out for that last blizzard," said Morrie Van Dorp, marketing services manager for Nokian Tyres Inc. "It's not what we had hoped for it to be."
Mr. Van Dorp said he had talked to some customers in New England and on the West Coast who did sell snow tires to safety-conscious consumers, but admitted that "the weather would have helped wonderfully." He wouldn't comment on sales figures but said Nokian's snow tire sales were about the same as last year. "We probably could have sold a lot more if we had some early snows, but we haven't seen that yet," Mr. Van Dorp said.
Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Michelin North America Inc. also acknowledged that their winter tire sales are slow. BFS' 1999 snow tire sales fell 10 percent from 1998, said Shu Ishibashi, vice president of consumer tires marketing.
Michelin said its winter tire sales were "softer" this year, but declined to say by how much. However, a company spokesman said snow tire sales in Canada remained above-average despite two consecutive mild winters.
Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. experienced a "record" year in 1999 for snow tire sales by adding some sizes and targeting the right product mix for the market, a spokeswoman said. However, because of the mild winter, Cooper doesn't expect those same sales highs in 2000.
"We anticipate that (little snowfall) may reflect on next year's sales," she said. "It's really hard to quantify. It's always a pitfall when you have a weather-related product, but that could be the outcome."
Bob Toth, marketing manager for Goodyear consumer brands, noted that Goodyear's new Ultra Grip line "well exceeded" the Akron tire maker's goal of increasing winter tire sales by 25 percent for the 1999-2000 selling season, boosting sales nearly 80 percent.
He said he hadn't heard any dealer complaints about winter tire sales and couldn't assess the weather's impact yet. "The question will be: How many did they sell out and how prepared are they to place their order come April/May?" Mr. Toth said. "It's way too early for me to speculate how many they're selling out of the barns."
Mr. Toth also said it's quite possible that some dealers could have had decent winter tire sales early in the season because of consumers' anticipation of severe weather. Now, however, the winter selling season is almost over.
"I have to believe that if the sale hasn't been made by now, it's almost too late for snow to save it," Mr. Toth said. People who have made it this far without investing in snow tires probably have decided to stick it out, he said.
None of the tire makers interviewed buys back excess inventory from dealers after a mild winter as a general policy, but Goodyear, Nokian and Michelin all acknowledged they would evaluate individual circumstances.
Goodyear's Mr. Toth said the company will take back a certain percentage of inventory and usually store it in a warehouse for the next winter or possibly ship it to other areas, such as Europe.
He wouldn't elaborate on Goodyear's buyback program, but said that after a mild winter two years ago, the company extended its dealers' billing periods and allowed them to keep the inventory for the following year. Goodyear also cut back on importing snow tires that year.
"We want the dealer to feel comfortable buying winter tires from us, and we want him to come back and buy winter tires from us (again)," Mr. Toth said.