HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. (Aug. 4, 2000) — As a precautionary measure, Sears, Roebuck and Co. said it has temporarily stopped selling some Firestone-brand light-truck tires that are at the center of a growing controversy about their safety.
The big retailer´s action came in the wake of news reports concerning tire-related accidents involving Explorer sport-utility vehicles manufactured by Ford Motor Co. and equipped with Firestone ATX, ATX II or Wilderness radial tires made by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. (BFS).
With the tire maker and Ford shifting into "damage control" mode and trying to get a handle on the situation, a spokeswoman for Sears told Tire Business Aug. 4 that the mass merchandiser "felt it was appropriate to act cautiously and to discontinue the sale of these tires until we have more information from Firestone."
However, she pointed out that "really, it´s only one size of tire that we´re talking about here. It´s simply the 235-width (P235/75R15) tire in the ATX Wilderness line. At Sears, this is a special-order tire, so we´re not talking about a significant portion of our business."
Sears is "working very closely with Bridgestone/Firestone on this issue," the spokeswoman continued, "and from a Sears perspective, it was Sears´ decision to discontinue the sales at this point. But it´s a temporary discontinuation, and we´re proceeding very cautiously."
She could not say how many such tires Sears has sold. The tires are standard equipment on Ford Explorers, but she said the Hoffman Estates-based company doesn´t carry a large number of them in its inventory. To her knowledge, no customers had yet approached Sears with concerns about the tires. But, the spokeswoman added, "after all the media coverage hits," the company´s automotive service centers will "probably have a fun weekend."
Sears´ move also may prompt concern from some independent dealers who sell the tires in question. But as the drama was unfolding, most dealers contacted by Tire Business were unsure of what they should do to allay customers´ fears.
At Grismer Tire Co., John Marshall, who´s in charge of retail operations, said the independent dealership based in Dayton, Ohio, has "sold a boat-load — a lot — of those tires, and we´ve not experienced any problems with them."
Of the brands Grismer Tire´s 21 outlets handle, some 70 percent of their tire sales consist of Bridgestone, Firestone and Dayton brands.
A few months ago, he said, BFS sent out a notice advising dealers that the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had requested information on the tires and that there had been some lawsuits filed because of problems with them. "They told us they´d sold some 46 million of them, had very few problems and were cooperating with the government."
Mr. Marshall said BFS provided Grismer with guidelines to follow should anyone inquire about the tires, advising "to have customers come in and have us inspect their tires. They told us to make sure the tires were at proper air pressure and to tell motorists to keep them at the pressure recommended by the manufacturer."
Within the last few days, he added, BFS sent out more information to dealers.
"We´re getting some calls — obviously because of the recent newspaper and TV reports on the tires," Mr. Marshall said. "But because our customers have not really had problems with the tires, it´s more or less just been inquiries.
"We´re advising them that, if they have any concerns, to come in and we´ll inspect the tires and check the air pressure."
Generally, because of the high quality of tires today, Mr. Marshall said adjustments are "rare" — very few customers return to the dealership claiming to have problems with their tires. "So it´s quite unusual for us to have a defective tire."
Calls by Tire Business to several Cleveland- and Akron-area BFS-owned Firestone Tire & Service Centers produced various reactions from service personnel.
In Strongsville, Ohio, an employee said the store, as of Aug. 3, had not received any notice from BFS about replacing the tires for customers, then added: "The only problems with the tire I heard about happened in Brazil."
At a store in downtown Cleveland, an employee said BFS "hasn´t told us anything about it yet," then suggested calling a toll-free customer service number — which was repeatedly busy when TB attempted to call it.
A worker at a Firestone outlet in Richmond Heights, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, was perhaps the most helpful, reassuring and talkative.
"These tires have traveled millions and millions of miles," he said. "So what (the media) is doing is picking on an isolated situation where they still don´t know what caused the tire failures — whether it was low air pressure, road hazard."
"So what Firestone is offering for your peace of mind," he continued, "is to come in and have your tires inspected, set your air pressure. If there are any problems, you can see them right there.
"I don´t anticipate any problems, but we´re more than happy to inspect them for you ...."
The employee did point out that Bridgestone/Firestone´s customer satisfaction replacement policy is to ``measure your tires´ tread and give you credit toward the purchase of another set of tires — and that´s as fair as we can be. We´re not going to give you free tires."
He reiterated that "there´s no problem" with the Firestone tires being investigated, adding that "over 48 million have been made and nothing has been proven wrong with them. So you can imagine if they´re talking about 20 or 30 tires, what a small percentage that is.
"And you know how the news media can get on their sensationalism thing."
Apparently at least one Sears auto center also was in the dark concerning what to do about the Firestones. In a mall-based outlet near the Akron offices of TB, on Aug. 4, a salesman said: "We´re still waiting for direction from Sears corporate on how we´re supposed to handle this particular problem.
"At this point, we probably should refer you either to a Firestone facility or to any Ford dealer. There´s a Firestone store right across the parking lot from us. We actually have no idea how we´re supposed to handle this yet."
Calling a Ford dealership may or may not be very productive.
Although the car maker has been touting itself as America´s "newest tire store," an employee working the service desk at Montrose Ford Inc. near Akron said Ford "hasn´t given us any information yet" on how to deal with any Firestone-related tire problems.
"You know how it works: The newspapers know first; the customer knows second; we know last," he lamented.
"Does that make sense? If they´re going to recall them or anything, (the customer) will probably get a letter in the mail before we´ll even get anything about it. It makes no sense to me but, unfortunately, that´s how it works."