AKRON—Jay Halvorson admits he guessed wrong last May when placing his winter-tire order with Goodyear for the current selling season.
Now, as the Minnetonka, Minn., dealer looks back on a winter that brought the area at least 66 inches of snow and his dealership more than a 50-percent increase in snow tire sales, the co-owner of Samaritan Tire Co. realizes he ordered too many units of Goodyear's low-priced Concorde line and not enough of its high-end Ultra Grip Ice tires.
It's something Mr. Halvorson doesn't intend to repeat when ordering for next season. "I'll perk up our orders for the ice tires," he vowed.
That's music to the ears of Goodyear, which is trying to revitalize the once-flourishing U.S. market for winter tires and counting on its Ultra Grip family of tires to accomplish that goal. In the process, the company also hopes to triple its share of the winter tire market within three years.
What this 2000-2001 selling season has shown him, Mr. Halvorson said, is that the "real growth" in winter tire demand is coming at the top-end of the price/quality scale. His experience, he said, suggests there has been little increase—if any—in customer demand for lower-priced snow tires.
Part of the reason is economic, he believes. "People driving newer cars are more inclined to buy four snow tires at a time. Those with older cars are more inclined to struggle through the winter using the tires they have."
Another reason, say Goodyear officials, is that all-season tires—the principal alternative to true winter designs—simply don't provide sufficient severe-weather traction for today's high-performance cars and luxury sedans, with their wider, low-profile tires and rear-wheel drive.
Goodyear's Ultra Grip family is intended to satisfy that need. It consists of the top-of-the-line Ultra Grip Ice, which has a silica-reinforced tread compound designed to maintain flexibility at low temperatures; the Eagle Ultra Grip GW2, targeted at the performance tire market; the Ultra Grip, which is pinned to facilitate metal studs; and the Wrangler Ultra Grip for sport-utility vehicle and light truck applications.
All but the Wrangler Ultra Grip come with directional treads. And all qualify for the Rubber Manufacturers Association's mountain-snowflake symbol, attesting to their traction ability under severe winter weather conditions.
Still a ways to go
Final figures on industry shipments of winter tires weren't available at this writing, making it difficult to quantify the effectiveness of efforts to rejuvenate consumer demand.
However there is no denying that Goodyear and other tire makers still have far to go in returning that market to its former glory.
Two years ago, when Goodyear began promoting its Ultra Grip lines to the North American market, the company said it hoped to expand the U.S. winter tire market to 20 million units per year from about 8 million.
Ironically, that's approximately what U.S. shipments of mud and snow tires were back in 1972 when Goodyear first introduced its trend-setting Tiempo all-season tire. In so doing, it touched off an industrywide avalanche of all-season designs that almost buried the traditional snow tire market in the U.S.
Now the Akron-based tire maker is trying to turn back the clock where winter tires are concerned.
Bob Toth, Goodyear marketing manager-auto tires, said he doesn't think Goodyear, when it introduced the all-season tire 29 years ago, intended to suggest that true winter tires didn't have their place.
At that time, he said, North America's motorists were just beginning to experience the superior traction of radial tires. And even radials with conventional tread designs delivered better traction on snow and ice than previous generations of bias and bias-belted snow tires.
Both cars and tires of that era were becoming more sophisticated and offering better traction. Mr. Toth said the all-season tire concept was a natural extension of that evolution—and it changed the way most U.S. drivers approached winter driving.
All-season tires offered an acceptable compromise for most motorists living in places where it snowed only occasionally and street-cleaning service was sufficient.
However, tires and vehicles have continued to evolve in subsequent years. As a result, the all-season tire is no longer the best choice for many drivers in colder regions of the continent, he said.
As the sophistication of vehicles continued to improve from a traction standpoint, tires have become lower in profile, stiffer in their sidewalls and wider in their tread. Today, Mr. Toth said, "you can't really design an all-season tire that will get a Corvette, with its steamroller tires, through winter. Snow tires are the only choice....
"There's just no other way around it. Winter tires start better, they stop better, they corner better, they're more dependable in winter driving conditions than all-season tires."
It's a marketing game
Consumers, he said, need to be educated about how beneficial winter tires are in providing traction under those conditions.
Mr. Toth said Goodyear has been "quite successful" in its efforts to promote winter tire use. While industrywide shipments of true winter tires grew 9.5 percent in the 1998-99 season, the company's own sales more than tripled that growth.
Final figures for the current season are not yet available. However, Mr. Toth said he believes Goodyear has "more than held our own against what the market has done."
Last year, in an effort to kickstart sales, Goodyear retained hockey great Wayne Gretsky as its Ultra Grip spokesman. It featured him in television commercials and personnal appearances, including as a speaker during the Tire Association of North America's convention and trade show in Las Vegas in November. Goodyear's contract with Mr. Gretsky expired Jan. 1.
Meanwhile, the company also held a promotion dubbed "The Ultra Grip Ultra Trip," in which contest winners were treated to a New Year's Eve celebration at New York City's Times' Square before being flown to Pasadena, Calif., for the Rose Bowl game and related festivities the following day.
Tapping dealer conduit
"When you have a real strong retail organization as we do," Mr. Toth said, "the biggest hurdle is convincing your army of retailers that this is it. They then become the conduit to the end consumer."
As a means toward that end, Goodyear held a "dealer summit," bringing together key retailers to discuss what the company could do in the "post-Gretsky" era to continue pulling through winter tire sales.
Participating dealers, Mr. Toth said, asked the company for training materials and additional advertising and promotion support based on tire features, benefits and performance attributes. "They wanted stuff they could talk to the customer with."
The result, he said, has been the creation of new point-of-sale materials, a winter tire training booklet and video tape supporting the Ultra Grip tire family.
Also at the request of its dealers, Goodyear has expanded its range of tire sizes, providing what Mr. Toth called "better coverage than we had for the 1999-2000 season."
"But the best news of all," he added, "is that after a winter like this with lots of snow, dealers are entering spring with their bins happily empty.
"I have high expectations that there will be an early snow next fall. So I'm anticipating that 2001-2002 is going to be very robust."