Tire dealers in the Washington, D.C., area said store traffic was down and special precautions were taken to protect customers and employees following a wave of sniper-style shootings that has taken place there since Oct. 2.
Local tire dealers gave Tire Business varying reports on how the sniper situation had affected them, based on the location of the stores-whether they are near highway interchanges or more downtown-and the stores' configuration.
For example, the Merchant's Inc. locations in the Baltimore-Washington area suffered the week after the first shootings, but since have gone back to normal business levels, according to Merchant's President Michael Riggan.
``For one thing, we no longer have benches outside our stores-we moved them all inside,'' Mr. Riggan said. ``Also, our stores are very convenient to get into. Customers don't have to walk more than 20 feet from their cars to the door.''
Marcel Moon, manager of a Mr. Tire outlet in Rockville, Md., said both sales and highway traffic dropped off sharply the morning of Oct. 21 immediately following the killing of an off-duty bus driver in that city that was linked to the sniper attacks. However, highway traffic and business soon returned to normal that afternoon when police lifted roadbocks intended to catch the killer or killers.
He said that although the staff at that location was concerned about the shootings, no special safety precautions had been taken because ``we pretty much work inside the building.''
On the other hand, General Manager Ron Edwards of White Tire & Auto in Fredericksburg, Va., said business at that location fell off as much as 35 percent following two nearby shootings in that area.
Less than four miles from where one man was killed and a woman seriously wounded in two separate shootings, the outlet does considerable commercial tire service work in full view of U.S. Rt. 1, the main traffic artery through town. For that reason, staff members began parking company service trucks sideways in order to shield the yard from view on the highway.
Mr. Edwards said that although employees talk about the shootings, they continued to venture into the affected areas to service accounts.
The tragedies have affected people's lives in many ways, Mr. Edwards noted. ``My boy told me today his high school is shutting down sports activities for the remainder of the football season. So they've been practicing for nothing,'' he said.
Suburban gas stations-many of which have sidelines in tire sales and auto repair-have suffered the most from the sniper scare. That according to Roy E. Littlefield III, executive vice president of the Service Station Dealers of America (SSDA) and Allied Trades and government affairs representative for the Tire Industry Association.
Mr. Littlefield noted that he had been inundated with calls from the print and broadcast media to get the SSDA's reaction to the string of murders.
``It's so hard, because there's only so much you can say,'' he told Tire Business. ``Our members' stations are brightly lighted for safety, but that hurts us in this situation. And you can't build a fortress around a gas station.''
Gas stations within the D.C. city limits, or inside the more urbanized outlying towns and away from highway exits, were doing the same business as always or actually seeing an increase, Mr. Littlefield said. But the more isolated stations are suffered an enormous falloff of business, such as the one near Mr. Littlefield's home in Bowie, Md. The station is one-half mile from the school where the sniper shot and critically wounded a 13-year-old boy.
``I asked the owner how he was doing, and he said, `We're in trouble,''' Mr. Littlefield said. He was reluctant to name the owner, explaining: ``These guys are nervous about talking to the media. They're in the spotlight now...For a small business, this is a catastrophe.''
For Joseph Tomarchio Jr., executive vice president of the 45-store, Baltimore-based Mr. Tire Inc., the problem hasn't been only professional, but personal.
``My daughter is a competitive ice skater, and she takes her training in Rockville,'' he said. ``My wife has canceled some of her training, because she doesn't want to drive down there.'' Rockville is near where some of the shootings took place.
Besides Rockville, the dealership has locations in the nearby town of Gaithersburg, Md., Mr. Tomarchio noted. ``We're seeing slightly less floor traffic in those locations,'' he said, but added that the sniper situation has dampened business in other ways. ``One of our main methods of publicity has been for local radio stations to come down and do a live remote (broadcast) at our stores,'' he said. ``Needless to say, they've been canceled.''
The sniper threat has interfered in Mr. Tire's business in other ways as well. ``We have several white box trucks for deliveries, and our drivers have all been stopped and questioned,'' Mr. Tomarchio said. He added that he doesn't mind this, since the police must follow whatever leads they have.
Having the sniper still on the loose was making ordinary people jittery in a way that would have seemed ludicrous a month ago, Mr. Tomarchio said. ``The other night, I stopped at a Shell station to fill up. A woman was filling up her SUV, and she was ducking behind her car. I wondered what she was doing-and then I remembered.
``The different rubber companies I deal with are always asking me now if I'm all right,'' he said. ``We're in Baltimore, 35 or 40 miles away from Washington. But then the sniper made it as far south as Fredericksburg (50 miles from Washington), so you never know.''