Tire Discounters has invested ``hundreds of thousands of dollars'' in time and equipment to outfit all 37 of its retail stores with nitrogen inflation systems this year in a bid to increase tire sales.
Rick Barnhart, vice president of operations for the Cincinnati-based dealership, said all of its stores were online with nitrogen in January. Since then, he said tire sales already have increased and customer feedback has been positive.
``We're selling a few more tires,'' he told Tire Business. ``We've actually created a buzz in the market.''
That buzz represented another investment of some more ``hundreds of thousands of dollars'' in advertising, he said. Tire Discounters started a series of primarily radio ads earlier this year talking mostly about specific benefits of using nitrogen-such as it makes tires safer and last longer.
Nitrogen inflation has been under the surface of the tire industry for years. Off-the-road users, racing professionals and commercial airlines long have used the colorless, odorless, inert diatomic gas instead of regular air in their tires. But interest in nitrogen among retail dealers has been simmering more as they consider its promoted benefits. Nitrogen is said to provide cooler running temperatures, lower fuel consumption, reduced wheel corrosion and longer tread life, among others. The main characteristic of nitrogen is that is flows out of a tire slower than air, maintaining correct pressure longer.
Tire Discounters, a member of the American Car Care Centers (ACCC) Inc. dealer program, built its own system for its 37 stores plus its training facility. The dealership also expects to open three new stores in the coming months, and they will all have nitrogen inflation systems.
As it launched the inflation program, the company also trained every last employee, even office staff, about nitrogen. More than 300 employees took the in-house training. ``They all needed to realize what the value was in the program,'' Mr. Barnhart said.
At first the dealership offered the service for free to any motorist who asked for it. Later, the company decided to offer it free for customers who at one point had bought tires from Tire Discounters. Non-customers pay $4.95 per tire to cover labor costs, but everyone is essentially on the honor system.
But the main objective for nitrogen is to build relationships.
``It's a long-term thing,'' Mr. Barnhart told Tire Business. ``We want to build long-term customers.''
The idea of offering nitrogen inflation first was kicked around last year, he said. In a separate statement, the company said it launched an eight-month process of research, procurement, installation and training.
``Our first step after some initial discussions was to conduct focus groups and see how the idea played out,'' Mr. Barnhart said in the statement. ``The reaction was pretty much unanimous: People liked what they heard.''
With an ad budget this year that's higher than usual, Tire Discounters' main advertising thrust will include the nitrogen angle.
``Everywhere I go, people are asking about it,'' said owner Chip Wood in the statement. ``It's a totally new concept to most people, so there are a lot of questions and overall curiosity. Once we explain nitrogen's benefits the reaction is incredibly positive. And, when they find out it's free to all our customers, well, there you go.''
Mr. Barnhart said nitrogen inflation could be an important part of other tire dealers' futures.
``The equipment (cost) is reasonable enough, and it's better for your tires,'' he said, though he added the cost vs. the benefits for some small dealers may not end up the same.
Mr. Wood was expected to give a presentation on his nitrogen operation at the April meeting of American Car Care Centers' board. Dave Crawford, ACCC marketing director, told Tire Business Mr. Wood will talk about his investment, necessary equipment and how successful the program has been for his dealership.
However, Mr. Crawford cautioned ``it would be hard for ACCC to mandate this across the country'' as a company-wide program. ``Based on what the board determines, we'll probably leave it up to our dealers to decide whether they want to offer nitrogen fill-ups to their customers,'' he said.