AKRON—What do all-season radial tires and La Nina, the drop in Pacific Ocean water temperatures off the coast of Peru that alters North American weather patterns, have in common? Several tire dealers from various parts of the U.S. told Tire Business these are two main reasons why winter tires aren't selling this season.
And even though the northeastern part of the U.S. was hit by the first strong winter storm of the season in late January, many dealers think that's too late in the season to have a significant impact on the depressed winter tire market.
Weather experts say La Nina is the cause of this year's mild winter weather and the lack of snow in many areas, which tire dealers say is keeping winter-tire customers away.
"We're not getting much snow at all," said John Warder, store manager of Richlonn's Tire in Racine, Wis. Mr. Warder said his location in southeast Wisconsin usually sells 50 to 60 sets of winter tires in an average year. However, he's sold only about 20 sets this year, some of them to the Racine Police Department.
The story is much the same in New England, which didn't really have much snow before mid-January.
Bob LaRoshe, wholesale manager for Maynard & Lesieur Inc. in Nashua, N.H., said winter tire sales in early January were only about half of last winter's due to an absence of snow.
Maynard & Lesieur went into the winter-tire selling season with approximately 2,200 winter tires in stock, he said, and still had about 1,000 remaining.
The dealership sells Cooper, Kelly-Springfield and Nokian brands as well as the Bridgestone Blizzak and Michelin Arctic Alpin tires.
One of the Midwest's major wholesalers, T.O. Haas Tire Co. in Lincoln, Neb., also reported a slump in winter tires sales this year. President Randy Haas said his dealership's winter tire sales are down 12 to 15 percent from last year.
"Unfortunately, we didn't have a lot of foul weather until the week before Christmas in much of our area," Mr. Haas said.
However he added: "The thing that's really bright is that the LT sizes, all-positions, all-season mud and snow, are up drastically over previous years."
T.O. Haas shipped about 20,000 winter tires last year, Mr. Haas said, which accounts for less than 4 percent of the dealership's total tire sales.
One dealership that reported increased winter tire sales was Moore Tire Sales Inc. in Owego, N.Y. "We're in good shape," President Byron Moore said.
This season Moore Tire has shipped 65,000 winter tires to its 14 locations and 6,000 wholesale customers, he said—about 10 percent more than last season. And even though southern New York hadn't had any severe winter weather through mid-January, Mr. Moore said, "People know at some point we're going to get snow."
Mr. Moore said he sells only Cooper winter tires, and these account for about 10 percent of his dealership's total tire sales.
A dealer in western Canada also found a way to increase winter tire sales in spite of the mild weather.
David Cosco, president and CEO of Tirecraft Auto Centers Ltd., a 127-store dealership based in Sherwood Park, Alberta, said cooperative advertising campaigns by two manufacturers stimulated winter tire sales.
Tirecraft and Michelin Tire Canada heavily promoted the Arctic Alpin tire in a pre-Christmas campaign. Hankook Tire America Corp. also cooperated with Tirecraft in promoting Hankook-brand winter tires. "Both campaigns were quite exceptional," Mr. Cosco said, increasing winter tire sales by "a good amount."
Rod Jay, owner of the Big O Tires store in Yakima, Wash., said he's sold only about 40 percent of the winter tires he ordered last year. He normally sells about 800 winter tires, which account for about 20 percent of total annual tire sales, he said, so the 40-percent drop has hurt.
"We hadn't had any snow until Sunday (Jan. 16), when we had 6 inches," he said, "and it was gone a day later." Mr. Jay added that some customers who own winter tires haven't even put them on this year—causing the dealership to lose income from the $40 changeover charge.
Other dealers also observed that the timing of the snowfall is almost as important as the quantity.
"We're pretty much past the season for winter tires right now," Mr. Haas said.
Richlonn's Mr. Warder agreed that after January, "If we do get snow, people just say, `I'll just wait.'"
"This is kind of a soft year," said Clayton Snow, owner of C&S Tire L.L.C. in South Jordan, Utah. November and December in the Salt Lake City area were unseasonably warm, he said, and that hurt sales.
"The weather guys (on TV) sell as many winter tires as anybody," Mr. Snow said. Also, if it snows in late October, "everyone thinks it's going to be a bad winter," he said.
Mr. Snow has sold about 200 winter tires this year, about the same as last year. However his dealership's overall sales are up about 25 percent compared with last year.
The all-season radial also is responsible for the decline of the winter-tire market, most dealers agreed.
"The all-season tire has taken over the market completely," said Ken Leipold, manager of the Leipold Tire Co. location in Stow, Ohio. "Last year, during the bigger snows, people came in asking for aggressive all-weather tires," he said, "but nobody was asking for winter tires.
"Half of the people don't know what a snow tire is," he added.
But Mr. Moore warned that all-season tires are good only until the snow depth reaches about 6 inches; in depths of snow above that they are "worthless," he said.
Mr. Cosco said winter tires are a necessity for driving in the mountains of western Alberta. Tirecraft tells its customers that once they try winter tires, they won't go back to driving on all-weather tires in the winter, Mr. Cosco said.