Even though they may disagree on the semantics, TBC Corp.'s Larry Day and Goodyear's Sam Gibara are both right when it comes to consumers' tire-buying habits. There has been a shift in emphasis toward quality and away from price.
What constitutes quality, however, seems open to debate.
Mr. Gibara believes consumers have turned their attention more toward well-known flag brands following the Firestone tire recalls, which resulted in heightened awareness of tires and their relationship to vehicle safety. He described this market shift more than a year ago as a ``flight to quality,'' noting it should manifest itself in greater first-line, brand name tire sales.
But in a speech at the recent TBC Private Brands Division Marketing Meeting, Mr. Day, whose company sells and wholesales primarily private brand tires, took exception with the ``flight to quality'' theory.
The TBC president noted that, to consumers, quality means more than just the product and, in fact, may not mean the product at all. Instead, he suggested that consumers' flight is actually one to quality service-in particular the service provided by independent tire dealers.
In truth, both executives' have valid points.
Consumers, who now are much more aware of the critical role tires play in vehicle safety, want to feel confident in the tires on which they're riding. That means they want tires that they perceive are quality built and have a name they can trust.
That would explain the shift by many tire buyers toward more flag-brand purchases, as Mr. Gibara has suggested.
But since most tire buyers don't understand tires very well and may not have heard of many brands, they often turn for help to their tire retailer, who can explain differences in tires and suggest what might be best for their vehicle and driving habits.
And who is more qualified to provide that knowledge and experience than their independent tire dealer-a professional whom they trust and ``who knows tires best.''
Thus, it's the independent tire dealer who in many instances creates the value in the brand in the local market by providing excellent customer service and recommending the proper tire for the vehicle, which is Mr. Day's point.
This also helps explain why private label tires-which often have little name recognition with the public but are the technological cousins of flag brands-account for 22 percent of the U.S. tire market.
While tire brand recognition, especially for flag brands, plays a key role in purchasing decisions, the quality or value of the brand is often what individual dealers develop in their local marketing area.
Brand is important, but so is the interaction between the customer and tire store personnel in determining which tires actually make it onto the customer's vehicle.