WASHINGTON (Aug. 7, 2000)—The Firestone ATX-Wilderness issue took a further turn when Sears, Roebuck & Co. announced it would remove ATX, ATXII and Wilderness tires from its 1,130 affiliated stores.
A Sears spokeswoman, however, said only one size—the 235-width (P235/75R15), a special-order tire and therefore not high-volume—was covered under the Aug. 4 directive affecting 780 Sears Tire Centers and 350 National Tire & Battery stores. The company is working with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. on the issue, she said, but decided to pull the tires until it had more information from Bridgestone/Firestone.
"Sears is a long-standing and valued customer of Bridgestone/Firestone," the tire maker said in an Aug. 4 statement. "While they have informed us of their plan to stop selling the ATX and Wilderness lines until more information is available, Sears also assured us that they value our long-standing relationship and have great confidence in the Bridgestone/Firestone brands."
In that statement and two previous ones, Bridgestone/Firestone said that customers who have concerns about their Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires may bring them in to any company-owned store for a free inspection.
"If there is a problem, we will remedy the situation to the customer´s satisfaction," the company said in its Aug. 2 statement, without elaborating.
But what happens if the customer insists on dealing with his independent Firestone dealer? So far, the information on this issue seems to be contradictory.
"We are instructing independent dealers to refer customers to company-owned stores," said a spokesman for Bridgestone/Firestone. But what if customers take that as a brushoff? "We have no information on the response yet, because the issue is still new," he said. "There´s a lot of interest in it, so I imagine customers will be following up."
However, David Price, retail manager for Ziegler Tire & Oil Co., Canton, Ohio, said his company received a letter May 16 from John Lampe, president of Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Sales Co., instructing independent dealers on how to deal with customers who have concerns about their ATX and Wilderness tires.
"Basically, he wanted us to explain things to customers, inspect their tires for possible problems and assure them we´re taking care of the situation," Mr. Price said. "If we find a problem, we offer the standard adjustment."
Larry Morgan, president of Morgan Tire Co., the Clearwater, Fla.-based tire retailing giant, did not mention a letter from Mr. Lampe, but said, "Our official directive from Bridgestone/Firestone, in the simplest of terms, is to take care of the customer, keep the customer happy. That´s the word I´ve relayed to our people.
"We´ve given them total authority at the store level to do everything from checking and inspecting the tires for all possible defects, to replacing them free," he said. "We don´t anticipate any consumer problems, because we´ll do what it takes to make the customer happy."
Both Mr. Price and Mr. Morgan seemed unconcerned by Sears´ action. "I think we need to look at this positively," Mr. Price said. "We´ve been with Firestone since 1919, and we´re not about to drop them now. If the tires turn out to be defective, Firestone will take care of it."
Mr. Price added that phone calls to Ziegler Tire on the ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires started "just the other day," and are up to maybe "five or six" per day so far.
Mr. Morgan said he has seen no evidence of defects in the ATX, ATX II or Wilderness tires. "My son rides on ATX tires," he said. "To my knowledge, our people have found no problems of any nature as to the products in question. We have confidence (in) Bridgestone/Firestone and the government to determine if there is a problem, and then we´ll react accordingly."
While Bridgestone/Firestone did not say in its press releases how it planned to remedy the situation to customers´ satisfaction, Strategic Safety—an Arlington, Va.-based auto safety research and advocacy group whose main clients are plaintiffs´ attorneys—gave what it claimed was an indication.
Strategic Safety said in a report on its website that Bridgestone/Firestone had directed its Houston-area stores to replace ATX and Wilderness tires free of charge after Houston television station KHOU-TV ran a news report denouncing the tires as unsafe.
The KHOU report drew a sharp letter from a Bridgestone/ Firestone spokeswoman, who called the report "blatantly untrue" in many aspects, including KHOU´s assertion that the company changed its tire inspection and replacement policies in light of the ATX controversy.
"Firestone has had a long-standing policy of customer satisfaction, which includes inspecting its products for consumers free of charge," the spokeswoman wrote. "Further, that program also includes the potential of `adjustment´ for credit or replacement of tires under appropriate circumstances, a component of the program that has been our policy for more than three decades.")
In other parts of the U.S. where the ATX and Wilderness have received media attention, Bridgestone/Firestone has issued directives to company-owned stores, according to Strategic Safety. The group published on its website a memo it said that Firestone sent to Los Angeles-area stores after KCBS-TV in Los Angeles ran a story on the ATX.
Titled "ATX Issue—Los Angeles," with no company letterhead, identification or signature, the barely legible memo begins, "If customers come to your store as a result of the story aired on KCBS regarding Ford Explorers and ATX tires, follow these procedures."
The memo advises dealers to "thoroughly inspect tires for signs of conditions that would be covered under the warranty, potential road hazard failures or unusual wear. If you discover a condition covered by the warranty, adjust it in the normal manner."
If the tires are still good but the customer wants a replacement anyway, the memo states, dealers should offer a pro-rated adjustment with free mounting and balancing. "The sale should be on a regular sales ticket," it says. "Do not use an adjustment ticket...Tires that are taken off the customer´s vehicle should have a hole drilled in the sidewall and then scrapped (sic)."
The company would give dealers "assistance to cover the loss incurred on the tire sale," plus $7.50 per tire commission and $1 per tire to cover the cost of the scrap tire fee, according to the memo.
Bridgestone/Firestone has not commented specifically on this Strategic Safety report, although it has dismissed the group generally as a hired gun for personal-injury law firms.
The managers of two company-owned Firestone stores in Houston and one in Los Angeles referred reporters to Bridgestone/Firestone public relations officials for comment. Several Houston and Los Angeles independent Firestone dealers either declined or were unavailable for comment.