GREAT NECK, N.Y.-About 10 years ago, as he increasingly waved goodbye to tire sales, Howard Zwang figured it was time to make a sound decision on how his business should be evolving.
``Over the years, with the tire business stagnant and declining, with tires lasting longer and people leasing cars and getting free oil changes, we knew we needed to (offer) something else,'' said Mr. Zwang, owner of Best Tire & Car Audio in this Long Island, N.Y., suburb.
Mr. Zwang, who who took over his father's then-22-year-old store in 1990, eventually added custom wheels to the business, then started ``dabbling'' in audio products by the mid-'90s. Now his store includes top-line audio and video equipment, along with security systems and just about every other aftermarket product a vehicle can handle. ``We do what no one else does,'' Mr. Zwang said.
A factory authorized dealer for Alpine, Clarion and Sony, among other audio system manufacturers, Best Tire & Car Audio is relying a lot more on the ``audio'' in its name.
Mr. Zwang estimated that in 1990 tire sales accounted for about 60 percent of his store's business. A decade later that number had shrunk to 40 percent. During that same time frame, he watched young male drivers starting to get jobs and, subsequently, needing a place to spend their money.
The trend upon which Mr. Zwang hopes to capitalize-perhaps by starting a trend of his own-is the economy-fueled surge of expendable dollars in the hands of teen-age and 20-something boys.
``When we started doing rims I was realizing how the market was changing. With the leasing of cars, I knew I had to find ways to get my shop full,'' he said. ``I realized the market with the most disposable income was the 18- to 25-year-old kid. They worked the whole summer and put every single dime they had into their cars. We knew it would be a good move to take the company into a direction...where it was a little more like a boutique.''
The strategy seems to be working, because without any ``high-end advertising,'' as Mr. Zwang put it, customers range from local teenagers to national rap stars to professional athletes. Among those whose cars have been revamped in Best Tire & Car Audio's bays are recording star Lenny Kravitz, rapper Q-Tip and several members of the New York Jets.
``We're a fixture down there,'' Mr. Zwang said of the Jets football complex. ``We pull in like we own the team. The security guys all know us-we did their cars, too.''
Best Tire & Car Audio belongs to the American Car Care Centers Inc. (ACCC) dealer marketing group, meaning it specializes in ACCC's American Radial private label line. Mr. Zwang said the fact his store handles almost every major brand ``is part of our success factor.'' It also sells custom wheels by AC Schnitzer, Lowenhart and AMG, among many others. Once ordered, wheels are then shipped overnight to the store, with that lofty cost passed on to the consumer.
Located in an upscale neighborhood, the outlet features 10 bays, a warehouse that stocks 2,000 tires, and a 2,000-sq.-ft. showroom that includes a pair of sound boards. The room, Mr. Zwang said, is nearly always bustling.
``If you saw one day in our store, you would compare it to a busy emergency room in a hospital,'' he said. ``You'll have an old lady in for the four-for-$99 tires-because she thinks she'll die before they will-and you'll have the guy dropping $23,000 on a stereo system.''
Part of what sets the store apart, he believes, is its employees. Audio experts do audio work, tire experts handle tire work. There is no crossover-everyone stays with his strength. It's part of why Mr. Zwang, with his undeniable enthusiasm, claims his is the best tire store in the country. ``We do what no one else in the country does,'' he said.
Mr. Zwang doesn't believe that will be the case for long. He feels dealers have to start making strides away from tire sales as their primary focus.
``I think the tire dealers who survive, especially the mom-and-pop shops, have to run complementary businesses within their own stores,'' he said.
``The competitive factors are fierce. I've never seen it as hard as it is now to sell a tire, at any profit margin. The guys who do remain in business need to specialize in something more than tires and brakes.''