AKRON—Leading up to the massive recall of three lines of Firestone tires, the setting might best have been described as a media "feeding frenzy."
Once Sears, Roebuck and Co. said its auto service centers and National Tire & Battery stores would halt sales of one size—P235/75R15—of the controversy-ridden Firestone Radial ATX, Radial ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, at least four other retail chains followed in Sears' deep footsteps.
Then TV, radio and print reporters began descending on some retail dealerships, practically begging for a quote, a video clip—something to bring home the controversy for consumers who might be riding on the tires.
Bridgestone/Firestone—and the tires—have been under a withering barrage of media attention, running the gamut of coverage from local TV and radio stations, to national newspapers and the lead story on a number of network TV news programs.
It is a story that changed daily...hourly.
While Sears was by far the largest retailer to stop selling the tires, and has the most points of sale, Montgomery Ward L.L.C.'s 230 Wards Auto Centers pulled from its inventory the Wilderness AT line—the only tire of the three the Chicago-based company carries.
Also following suit were Tire Kingdom Inc., the 148-store retail chain owned by TBC Corp., Dunn Tire Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y., and Tire Discounters, a chain of 21 retail stores in the Midwest.
But in the days before the recall, independent dealers handling Firestones weren't getting much in the way of advice from BFS. One spokesman for the Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker said dealers should suggest owners of the tires either be sent to a company-owned Firestone store, or call a toll-free consumer "hotline"—(800) 465-1904—set up by BFS.
But another source within the company said BFS was, through its sales force, "putting the word out on the streets to our dealers and company stores alike to do whatever it takes to keep the customers happy."
Most retailers interviewed by Tire Business said they were halting sales of the tires as a "precautionary measure" until an investigation was completed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Although Wards' customers weren't expressing much concern over the tires, Charles H. Knittle, vice president of governmental affairs and corporate communications, said the retailer "suspended sales of the Wilderness tire, pending the completion and outcome of the review" by NHTSA.
The same reasoning was given by Randall Clark, chairman and president of Dunn Tire Corp., in halting sales of the tires.
The company handles most of the Firestone lines. Rather than expose customers to any risk, the company took "the prudent and more cautious course" and decided not to sell the tires, at least temporarily.
After checking company records, he found "we have never had a problem with those tires. But once the publicity starts, with Ford's concern and Sears', you face calls from the media asking, `How come you're still selling them?'
"We don't want to embarrass Firestone. But on the other hand, our reputation with our customers is the only thing of value in our company, so we'd better protect it at all costs."
Likening all the attention to a "feeding frenzy," on Aug. 7 Mr. Clark told Tire Business TV cameras "were in our store at noon and will be back at 3:30. They just want someone to say something."
Dunn Tire, with 28 stores stretching from Erie, Pa., to Syracuse, N.Y., was offering free tire inspections to concerned motorists.
Cincinnati-based Tire Discounters operates two stores in northern Kentucky, one in Indiana and 19 in Ohio. The ATX II and Wilderness are special-order tires that don't make up a large portion of its sales. Nonetheless, Chris Wood, who's in charge of inventory and purchasing, said the company decided not to continue stocking the tires.
"We think that it's wise to wait and see what happens, because there's a lot of consumer scare going on," he said.
An Aug. 3 press release from Tire Kingdom stated the company's commitment "is first and foremost to customer safety" as it took the temporary measure of suspending sales of the three Firestone lines.
Meanwhile, consumer groups continued to weigh in on the issue. A consulting firm in Arlington, Va., that specializes in research and analysis of product safety issues said that, based on the growing evidence, it was joining with others "in calling for Ford and Firestone to recall and replace these tires."
Ralph Hoar & Associates, through its Web site, Safetyforum.com, claimed data it has studied indicates Ford Explorers equipped with the Firestone ATX and Wilderness AT tires "are eight times more likely to be associated with tire failures than a comparable SUV"—such as the Jeep Cherokee, which does not use those tires as original equipment.
Citing an analysis of government fatal crash statistics performed for the group, Ralph Hoar, Safetyforum.com's director, said that "in three decades of involvement in vehicle safety efforts, I've seldom seen such clear statistical confirmation of a problem.
"It is true that tires are rarely identified as the cause of a crash. That is all the more reason that these figures and this problem are so critical."