AKRON—With only a few exceptions, the winter of 2000-2001 seems to have been good to those who sell snow tires.
After several years of relatively mild winters throughout much of the northern U.S. and Canada, ice, snow and cold weather came early this year. As a result, most of the tire dealers contacted by Tire Business said their sales of winter treads are up—significantly up in some cases.
Many drivers who depended on all-weather tires to get them through the past several snow seasons have been putting two and often four snow tires on their vehicles this winter. As might be expected, however, sales are also being affected by whether or not specific localities normally get heavy snows.
Out West, for example, Nick Hodel, chief executive officer of Northwest Tire Factory in Portland, Ore., said snow tire sales at the 148 Tire Factory stores varied by location.
"We don't get a lot of snow in Portland," he said, "but it has been a good snow season in different places at different times throughout the Pacific Northwest."
Sales of snow tires have been as much as 10 to 15 percent better than last year, he reported.
In the North Central region of the U.S., sales were strong in certain areas, as well. Tom Wright, owner of Wright Tire Service in Anoka, Minn., said his dealership's sales of Bridgestone Blizzak tires have been "very good this year." Mr. Wright said his part of the country received heavy snowfall that began in November and continued throughout December.
Farther south in Anderson, Ind., Christopher Jones, owner of the 24 Tire Barn Warehouse outlets, has experienced similar weather conditions. Snow tire sales have been more robust this year, he reported, because it was the coldest and snowiest December on record.
In fact, Mr. Jones said his sales were up 50 percent in December compared with a year ago, but he is not sure that this pace will be maintained throughout the winter.
"It may be that we just had earlier sales this winter," he said.
In between those two cities lies Flint, Mich., where Jim Faught is president of Northwest Tire & Service. Mr. Faught considers snow tires to be a thing of the past in his area. He said snow tires are such a small part of his company's business their sales are not even measured. However, he added that such is not the case in the more northerly regions of Michigan where winters are longer and snows heavier.
Along the East Coast, opinions also are mixed about how well snow tires have been selling this winter. Again, though, the data seem to be driven by whether or not heavy winter snows are the norm in any particular area. In areas where it normally snows, amounts this year have been greater than in the recent past, and so have snow tire sales as a result.
Burlington, Vt., is one area where heavy snow is the norm, which is why Terrance Sheahan, president of Goss Tire Co., said his winter tire sales are up 15 to 18 percent over last year.
"We've had plenty of snow and cold weather this winter," Mr. Sheahan said.
In the coastal Portsmouth, N.H., area, winters are more temperate. For that reason and because the roads are well maintained, snow tires sales there have remained essentially flat for several years, according to Lionel Labonte, president of Stratham Tire Inc. in that city.
But as seems to be the case in northern Michigan, people in northern New Hampshire and Maine buy more snow tires, Mr. Labonte said. With the exception of rural areas where the snow is heavier and roads are hillier and more winding, the market for snow tires is shrinking, he believes.
In Ohio, Dean Mueller, vice president of Cleveland-based Mueller Tire & Brake, reported that snow tires sales have been good this year.
It has been a solid season because snow there started early in November and continued in December, he said. There are 15 Mueller stores in the Cleveland area.
While Cleveland's east side snow-belt traditionally gets more lake-effect snow than the city's west side, Mr. Mueller said this winter has provided "equal-opportunity" snowfalls.
In Canada, Don Blythe, president of OK Tire Stores Inc., attributes significantly increased snow tire sales to two factors. First, he said, the winter of 1999-2000 did not produce a lot of heavy snow. Second, OK Tire Stores Inc. is better able to supply its 213 franchised locations.
Although the company is headquartered in Langley, British Columbia, Mr. Blythe said it is making a major sales effort in Quebec, where more than 50 percent of Canada's snow tires are sold. A new warehouse in Quebec now allows OK Tire Stores to better serve its franchisees in that region, he said.
Mr. Blythe added that unlike prior years, one of his main suppliers—Kumho—has this year been able to deliver all the snow tires that were ordered.
In fact, none of the dealers contacted said they had significant problems obtaining the snow tires they needed. Only Mr. Hodel in Portland, Ore., experienced spot shortages in certain popular sizes.
Some dealers, such as Mr. Wright in Minnesota, sold tires they had in inventory from last winter, as well as those ordered for this year. Others, like Mr. Sheahan in Vermont, had no inventory, but ordered early and got the tires they needed.
Tire Barn Warehouses in Indiana had some inventory from last year, but will sell out this year, according to Mr. Jones there.
Adding to the current demand for snow tires is the trend toward installing four, rather than two, on each vehicle for the sake of safety and handling.
Mr. Jones and other dealers said they recommend that most customers buy four snow tires for their front-wheel-drive vehicles. Lots of people now buy four snow tires for cars ranging from the Ford Taurus to minivans, and stud them, he said. Mr. Jones added that tire manufacturers could do a better job of promoting snow tires for cars with front-wheel drive.
Both Mr. Mueller and Mr. Wright agreed that certain types of cars can especially benefit from the use of snow tires. Mr. Mueller said owners of performance cars or cars equipped with wide or touring tires are good potential customers for snow tire designs.
"Cars like Camaros, Mustangs and those with 16-inch wheels often use snow tires. But we also put some on an Olds Cutlass recently," Mr. Wright said.
Regardless of how many snow tires individual dealers may be selling this year, their experience confirms that people usually buy snow tires only after they realize that they really need them.
That's why some dealers who had inventory remaining after the last several mild winters are now selling out of winter treads. They noted that many drivers appreciate the relatively quiet and smooth ride all-season tires provide, and therefore do not rush to replace them with snow tires.
But, concluded Mr. Mueller, in really bad weather, all-season tires simply aren't effective.