While the big dealerships get bigger in the tire industry, a Pennsylvania dealer has decided to compete with large chains and price clubs by doing the opposite and remaining small.
Kerry Gross operates Gross Tire Center, a single-bay store in Williamsport that he manages by himself. Only three years ago, Gross Tire sold batteries, oil changes, wiper blades and headlights in addition to tires. But when Mr. Gross, 29, took over the business from his father, John, he managed to make enough profits from tires that he decided to switch over to only selling tires. That move came despite the fact he must compete with a Pep Boys store, Sam's Club, Sears Auto Center, Penske Auto Center, an American Car Care Center and a few other regional chain stores in the same town.
Yet in 2001, Gross Tire sold more than 2,700 tires compared with almost 1,700 in 2000. Though not high-volume business, it was still enough to help the dealership post between $150,000 and $160,000 in sales. Mr. Gross said he projects his 2002 sales to grow to $200,000, which he feels is adequate since he has low overhead and only has his father to help him with customers.
He said his success at selling just tires has caused some local auto service providers to scratch their heads and ask him how he does it.
``It's because we've been family-owned and operated for so many years, it's almost kind of like a landmark,'' he said of his store. ``I have some of my father's generation coming in, and my own generation coming in, plus word of mouth brings a lot of new faces all the time.''
But while some may wonder how Gross Tire can stay afloat in the tire business, Mr. Gross just shrugs off the competition and focuses instead on doing a number of ``little things'' well. Unlike most of his competitors, he said he special orders any tire brand a customer requests and caters to those who appreciate personalized service.
``Most of (my customers) don't like the bigger chain stores where they don't ever meet the person who's working on their car,'' Mr. Gross explained, noting he gives customers free tire gauges, shows them how to check tire pressure and hands out brochures on tire care and safety.
Although he performs no mechanical work, Mr. Gross said that if he sees that a car needs new shocks, brakes or exhaust while he's mounting tires to it, he'll point out the need to the customer. He also tries to be completely candid about tire life and care.
``When I'm selling a tire-if it's say, a 65,000-mile warranty tire-I'll tell them that, but I also say `honestly, expect to get 50,000 miles out of that,''' he said.
Word-of-mouth advertising has proved to be a bigger boon to Gross Tire than advertising in the Yellow Pages or newspapers, according to Mr. Gross.
About a month ago, a woman who works with Mr. Gross's wife experienced a flat tire during her lunch hour and drove to a nearby Penske store to get the flat fixed. But there she had to deal with a ``pushy'' salesman who tried to sell her four tires at a price she didn't like, Mr. Gross said.
She called him, and he quoted her a lower price on a set of four tires. So, she not only purchased tires from Gross Tire, but recommended the store to a neighbor.
That neighbor, in turn, purchased a set of tires from Gross Tire and recommended the dealership to a friend, who also ended up buying four tires there. That customer left behind some recaps from his truck that Mr. Gross eventually sold to a contractor.
``The pushy salesman at Penske caused me to sell 16 tires,'' Mr. Gross noted.
Gross Tire, founded 55 years ago as a Gulf gas station by Mr. Gross's grandfather, became a tire store in the early 1990s when the company began carrying Cavalier tires through its gas distributor, Mr. Gross said. By 1992, the dealership was forced out of the gas business by the growing number of convenience stores, so it began offering a number of automotive products to replace the lost business.
Mr. Gross said he and his father noticed that they had been selling Cavalier tires for about half of the suggested retail prices and decided to advertise a ``buy one, get one free'' special. That sale put Gross Tire on the map as a tire retailer in its area, he said, as people came from as far as 50 miles away to buy Cavaliers.
To this day, he said people in his town still remember that sale and call to ask if he still offers a ``buy one, get one free'' special. He now stocks Sigma, Hankook and BFGoodrich brands in addition to Cavalier, and said his reputation has enabled him to stick to tire-only sales.
Noting how the large tire chains and price clubs attract customers with lower prices, Mr. Gross said that every Sunday he will cut out competitors' newspaper ads and compare their pricing with his. Then he plays by their ``rules'' by pushing a cheap price for a tire in a particular size.
``I see what the bigger guys are doing. They're picking out one or two sizes and they can just really lowball. Well, I can do the same thing, too. I can shop around my four distributors and find something on special.''
He recently purchased between 200 and 300 BFGoodrich Rugged Trail tires in size P265/7016 at a special price and is promoting them for $74.99 per tire. ``For a name-brand truck tire, that's dirt cheap,'' he said.
That's the game the big chains play, he said. ``They advertise one or two things real dirt cheap, but then when you get in there and it's something you actually need, that's when they sock it to you.''