SURE Tire Inc.'s got a new private label integrated tire-and-wheel program that goes by the official name Concept Essenza.
But to hear the firm's movers and shakers talk up their new baby, this could be the Godzilla that finally bloodies Tire Rackasaurus.
Godzilla, er, Essenza, was spawned by the monster-sized demand-$2.17 billion in sales in 2000, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA)-for aftermarket tires and wheels. At one end of this tuner (a.k.a. sport compact) market are upscale buyers like professional athletes and movie stars (and their plastic surgeons, orthodontists and therapists). They're the kind of drivers who aren't fazed by a $10,000 tab for a set of the latest and greatest wheels and Z-rated tires for their Porsche, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Audi or Corvette.
In far greater numbers, are the cash-strapped young men and women who helped fuel the boom in the first place. They drive Honda Civics, Ford Focuses and Mitsubishi Eclipses. Trouble is, there hasn't been much in the way of affordable, cool-looking tires and wheels for them.
That's about to change, promises Brad Saunders, head of the new product committee for SURE-the acronym stands for Summit Universal Co-Op Remington Enterprises, a 28-member organization. In November, the Essenza line will debut at the SEMA/International Tire Expo (ITE) in Las Vegas. SURE's mission: offer sets of top-quality tires and wheels, private-labeled by three or four of the industry's most solid manufacturers, at retail price points that are ``aggressive.''
How aggressive? Pat McLaughlin, executive director of the St. Peters, Mo.-based SURE, said 16-inch sets are expected to have a suggested retail price between $600 and $700; 17-inchers will run $700 to $800; and 18-inch packages will cost $800 to $1,000.
``That's an unbelievable price for tires and wheels,'' said Barry Steinberg, a Boston-area veteran of the performance tire and wheel scene. ``They'll obviously give the Tire Rack a run for the money. The owners of Neons, Civics and Accords might spend $10,000 for motors and a big exhaust pipe, but when it comes to tires and wheels, most don't really care about the brand unless they're running in that higher end.''
Mr. Steinberg, owner of Direct Tire & Auto Service, wasn't told details of the Essenza venture other than the projected retail prices. ``Sounds like they're going to be in the mail-order business,'' he said. ``They're trying to get both pieces of the pot. Sounds like another scary entry.''
Development of the bargain-priced tuner tire/wheel packages began in Los Angeles, when Wayne Williams, a former sales and marketing executive for the defunct Parnelli Jones Inc. tire dealership, joined forces with Mr. Saunders, vice president of Fairmount Tire and Rubber Inc., a long-time West Coast tire distributor and SURE member.
``I went to Brad about a year ago with this concept of having the same name on the tire and on the wheel. Of course, Brad has contacts in the tire companies. I have contacts with the wheel companies,'' Mr. Williams said, praising Mr. Saunders and his father, Jerry, the company's founder.
``It was supposed to be a one-hour meeting. Well, we spent four or five hours just bouncing ideas around. Brad and Jerry are aggressive, and they know where they're going.''
Recalled Brad Saunders: ``It made so much sense. I got so excited! It was so simple.
``My guys at the retail level are looking for more ways to add value for their customers. We think it's a perfect fit and a profit opportunity for retailers across the country.''
Pat McLaughlin, executive director of SURE, emphasized that the group is determined to make it easy for the authorized Essenza dealers it signs up to serve the growing tuner market, even if the shops don't necessarily have the expertise in fitment or popular wheel styles.
``We've been listening to the fellas who bolt them on, the ones who are involved in expanding this market,'' Mr. McLaughlin said.
``We're looking to be very competitive with prices and increase dealer profits by having a really neat and clean package to offer.''
He compared the Essenza approach to the way computer makers Dell and Gateway market bundled computers and key peripherals.
``When we started doing the research, we found this was something no one else was doing,'' Mr. McLaughlin said. ``Anything the dealers can use to put a sale together and make it easier for their customer to understand is good. That's why we are so excited.
``I can't think of another product that's like this. The closest is maybe the Vogue tire and wheel assembly.''
Just what's in-and who's behind-the Essenza name? ``We wanted something that sounds a little upscale. We want it to have an Italian flair, a little European,'' said Mr. Williams, whose role in the project is as a consultant.
Mr. McLaughlin picked up the story: ``Essenza in Italian means essence, and we feel this best depicts the passion we're going after.
``Concept Essenza is really the essence of style and passion in the tuner market.''
The other part of the equation-the tires-carries the designation Essenza 210 Type R, another homage to the tuner market, and Honda in particular. The H-rated tires will be made by Goodyear, but the Akron-based manufacturer's name will not appear anywhere on the tire or in Essenza marketing.
``We're extremely pleased with Goodyear as our partner,'' said Steve Disney, president of SURE. ``We've been working very closely, and it's a very healthy form of cooperation.''
Mr. Williams said that when they asked some leading wheel makers to private label just one or two of their most popular designs, the response was excellent. Essenza wheels will come in 10 initial styles from two manufacturers, with more designs and sizes being considered.
They will include ``super-sized'' applications for light truck and sport-utility vehicles, where 20-, 22- and 24-inch wheels have become the rage. Z-rated tires in the larger sizes are almost certain.
A custom, five-foot-tall point-of-sale tire stand and card rack, a manual with all the specifications for plus one, plus 2 and plus 3 fitments, and a tire-and-wheel package counter card will be given to authorized Essenza dealers who have 48 tires and 24 wheels shipped by March 30, 2003. A Web site, www.conceptessenza.com, will feature a dealer locator.
``Upscale ads'' in Import Tuner and Sport Compact Car magazines will list a toll-free number for consumers, Brad Saunders said.
The Essenza packages will be displayed at Fairmount Tire's booth at the SEMA/ITE show, Nov. 5-8, as well as the new-product showcase there.
As for the company's long-range goal, Mr. Saunders said: ``We want to have premier retailers as authorized Essenza dealers across the country.''