Editor's note: The following comments were gleaned from performance tire and wheel seminars conducted by a panel of 12 independent tire dealers last November at the Specialty Equipment Market Association/International Tire Expo in Las Vegas.
OK. Your shop has been parked on the sidelines long enough. The executive decision was made, oh, about a mile back when that coolly sinister Cadillac Escalade pulled up next to you at the stop light, blacker than Darth Vader-except for those two-foot diameter chrome wheels.
But before dealers can jump on the performance tire and wheel bandwagon, they need to get a firm nuts-and-bolts grip on what they're chasing.
For starters, high-performance wheels and tires could be the key to a dealer's survival, according to Mel Dobrin of Butler Tire Co. in Marietta, Ga. The South African native, who runs five performance-oriented tire stores in the Atlanta area, drives home his point by claiming that among North America's largest retail tire dealerships, ``every one of the top five is in the wheel business.''
Most involved in this segment would probably agree that to succeed requires passion, expertise and commitment.
Pushing performance wheels and tires isn't for dabblers, said Steve Craven of Craven Tire & Auto in Fairfax, Va. ``You have to have someone who's really excited about it. If you're serious about the business, you don't get your feet wet. You have to jump into it.''
And be ready to invest some serious money.
``Half my life is in equipment,'' said Mr. Dobrin, who began his Atlanta-area business in 1986. The dealership, which specializes in high-end European autos, had for years sold high-performance passenger retread tires, among other products.
State-of-the art tire-changing machines ``that can handle 18- and 24-inch tires all day long'' run $10,000 each, Mr. Dobrin noted. Then there are the laser-equipped alignment racks, which print out and store in memory the alignment readings-before and after. Each customer, whether he or she drives a Volkswagen or a Porsche, receives both copies. The tab for the latest alignment machine, including installation and necessary extras, came to $35,000, he said. And the five Butler stores have 10 of them.
It's difficult to predict which wheel styles will be fashionable. Many, if not most, of today's hottest wheels will be out of favor in a matter of weeks, said Tim Seehusen, president of Hopkins Firestone in Hopkins, Minn. The media influence customer choices, he added.
``They come in and say they saw the wheel in a magazine, and they want ones just like it. There are way too many to stock. You can't guess (on what will be popular).'' But, Mr. Seehusen added, ``Chrome seems to matter.''
``Display what you are going to sell,'' Mr. Dobrin advised, explaining that Butler Tire maintains inventories of three to four lines of wheels for Mercedes Benzes and two to three lines for BMWs.
``Seventy-five percent of the time, we'll have what they want in stock. If the wheel they want is not what I call a `house brand,' we'll buy outside.'' Where at one time wheel designs lasted a year, Mr. Dobrin said, typically now ``wheel styles last two to three months.''
How you show off those fancy wheels and tires is crucial. It's a mistake to think you can get by with cheap inserts designed to look like generic custom wheels, warned Barry Steinberg of Direct Tire & Auto Service in Watertown, Mass.
Mr. Seehusen agreed. ``Wheel display is a huge deal'' with consumers, he said. ``They want to touch them-even if a particular wheel may not be what they're looking for.'' For the car or sport-utility vehicle enthusiast, dazzling wheel ware and tires with racy tread designs constitute ``entertainment value,'' Mr. Seehusen said.
Tire retailers also can gain valuable exposure by working with local auto dealerships.
Direct Tire dresses up select vehicles with tire and wheel packages for new-car showrooms or other high-visibility places. Consumers may not want that car, but often they love the wheels, Mr. Steinberg said. ``The dealers even tell them where to go'' to get them. Selling to car dealers also boosts your credibility, he added.
It also doesn't hurt if your business is in an area with professional sports. Hopkins Firestone, Butler Tire and Direct Tire count a number of pro players as customers, and that clientele tends to enhance a store's image-or even become a magnet. ``We sell to a lot of athletes all day long, and we've got customers who will come in two to three times a week, just to see them,'' Mr. Seehusen said.
Mr. Steinberg makes sure the celebrity power keeps working. ``We take pictures of every vehicle with the star next to his vehicle,'' said the veteran Boston area retailer. ``The photos go into an album that every customer sees.''
Mr. Steinberg pointed out that other effective ``billboards'' may be closer than you realize-and they're free.
``Most of my employees have custom wheels on their vehicles. Whoever's car is cleanest that day-it might be a Honda Civic with 18-inch wheels-we'll park it out front,'' he said.
Sometimes the technique almost works too well. ``My guys sold the wheels and tires on my car to someone while I was out to lunch!'' Mr. Steinberg said. Ditto for Mr. Seehusen, who said the aftermarket wheels he once had on his personal vehicle also were sold to a customer-before he had put 1,500 miles on them.
Instant gratification is a hot button for many car enthusiasts, Mr. Seehusen said.
``I've had customers pay $600 to overnight wheels.... My biggest competition is the electronics shops. Money is burning a hole in their (customers') pockets, and if they can't get the wheels and tires they want, they're going to Circuit City or Best Buy and buy a big screen TV.''
Asked for a ``walk through'' of the typical wheel sale, Mr. Dobrin said when a wheel order comes in, the buyer isn't called to come in until the product is checked for damage.
He said ride quality is the most common problem in selling aftermarket wheels and tires. ``No one who spends $3,000 to $4,000 on wheels wants to put up with problems,'' Mr. Dobrin explained. So Butler Tire uses force-variation technology on the vehicle. Wheel bolts are hand-torqued and the package ``gets balanced on the car.''
Such work doesn't come cheaply. Butler charges a minimum of $100 to balance four tire/wheel packages on the car with its state-of-the-art equipment. Mr. Dobrin said the charge to correct a vibration on a Cadillac Escalade that's been fitted with 22-inch wheels can run $200 to $300. The charge for most four-wheel alignments runs from $69 to $125.
And don't be shy about putting the word out that you have cutting-edge equipment. ``Service business comes in from other peoples' stores because they can't get (a problem) solved,'' he said.
Mr. Steinberg named other potential problems if dealers aren't careful: proper backspacing and load ratings. He said Toyo Tire (U.S.A.) Corp. has an ``excellent'' fitment guide.
Mr. Seehusen urged dealers to turn to their tire suppliers for help. ``The tire manufacturers have come full circle. Years ago, my guys knew more than they did. Today, you can call all the tire manufacturers for training.''
The dealers handle follow-up care, such as road hazards, differently. Direct Tire offers free flat repairs if the tire was purchased from the dealership, Mr. Steinberg said. Mr. Dobrin said Butler charges a minimum of $25 to fix a tire and $50 to $55 for 22- or 24-inch tires. Hopkins Firestone charges $90 for tire repairs, Mr. Seehusen said.
At Hopkins, Mr. Seehusen said, a tire protection plan would run about $175 on a set of tires and wheels that cost $4,800.
``Everybody is dying to get into the wheel market, but everybody's afraid,'' Mr. Dobrin said. ``It's like venturing into unknown territory, like space. It's getting to be as confusing as hell. There's so much technical information you have to know.''