With its ``one-brand'' tire and wheel package concept, SURE Tire may be poised for a quick run out of the starting gate, but there'll be little time for smugness.
Charging on SURE's heels is at least one competitor: Falken Tire is a veteran in the battle for tuner market share. The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.-based subsidiary of Japan's Ohtsu Tire & Rubber Co. has announced it too will begin selling its own line of wheels in January.
Bearing the Falken name will be two wheels geared toward tuner cars, in 16-, 17-, 18- and 19-inch diameters as well as two wheel styles aimed at the light truck/sport-utility vehicle consumer in 20, 22 and 23 inches, said Richard Smallwood, vice president of sales and marketing. The Falken wheels and tires will be sold together or separately.
Vertical integration in an industry that's traditionally been about cars and trucks moving-quickly and with style-in the horizontal plane, has been gathering steam, he explained.
``The market's headed that way. I have no doubt that three years from now, the market's going to be a lot different, and frankly, I'd rather be at the forefront,'' Mr. Smallwood told Tire Business. ``There are so many synergies. I hate using that word, but it really makes sense doing this. You have dealers, distribution networks and you have your messages.''
He said that ultra-high performance and sport light-truck tires represent the lion's share of Falken's sales, and the people selling the tires usually wind up installing a set of custom wheels. Having one source for both is logical, Mr. Smallwood said, adding that efficiencies can be reaped in marketing.
``The people we want to reach are reading the same things. They tend to be better informed. A couple of years ago, you'd go to a retail outlet looking for a set of nice wheels and you'd have only a few choices. Today, you go on the Internet and you have hundreds of choices.''
Even though the wealth of information can ``complicate'' doing business, Mr. Smallwood is convinced that ``the small independent dealer won't die. They'll continue to do well. They just have to do business a little smarter and become more aggressive. It forces you to improve your game.''
Falken's wheels and tires will be slotted in the mid- and higher-price levels, particularly ``on the tuner side, where people are really buying premium packages,'' Mr. Smallwood said.
The channel needs to take lessons from players like Starbucks, he said. ``They're doing more than selling a product. They're selling a lifestyle. They're selling an image. Why do you pay $4 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks, when you can get that same coffee for 50 cents from somewhere else? That's what a good, small tire dealer does. They're just like Starbucks. They create a demand.''
The demand for tuner-type tires has been so strong, he said, that Falken has ``been in constant back-order for the last 12 months.'' However, the company hopes to ride what Mr. Smallwood believes will be the next big waves.
``There are two areas we're going to look at very heavily. One, which is non-traditional for Japanese companies, is the classic hot rod. Traditionally the builders have always stuck with the 14- and 15-inch tires, but the new 16-, 17-, 19-inch wheels are so beautiful that a lot of guys are trying to find ways to incorporate them in their hot rods.''
The other focus will be the ``crossovers'' and small SUVs like the Subaru Baja, Toyota RAV4 and Honda Element, the Falken marketing chief said. ``The market's kind of split. You've got a lot of empty nesters. They don't need an Expedition or Suburban. The kids are out of their house. If you're driving a big SUV and you live in a metro area, good luck finding a parking spot,'' Mr. Smallwood said.
``Then there's the younger, college-aged consumer. The smaller SUVs meet their lifestyle. They're going skiing with them. It all creates another unique opportunity."