Minorities make up more than 35 percent of the population of the U.S. and represent $3.1 trillion in combined buying clout, or roughly a quarter of the nation's entire buying power.
When it comes to business, however, minorities—Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and Native Americans—represent about 21 percent of business ownership, according to U.S. Census Bureau and Minority Business Development Agency data.
Drill down further, however, and the available census data show minority ownership in the tire retail and automotive repair sectors is measurably less.
Nonetheless, it seems every medium to large-sized city in America has its fair share of minority tire merchants, who may be running anything from a gleaming Firestone or Goodyear store with half a dozen lifts and the latest service bay equipment, to shacks made of plywood and tin siding with used tires chained to a post and a hand-made sign proclaiming “llantas”—Spanish for tires.
It's street-level free enterprise, and hard-working minority dealers are competing effectively for their share of that growing buying power.
Like their Caucasian counterparts, tire dealers who come from minority races and cultures say they got into—and stick with—selling tires for a multitude of reasons.
Although every dealer may depend on moving tires to make a living, minority tire merchants Tire Business talked with are quick to point out that what really drives them may be helping the customer solve a problem, meeting a tight budget or beautifying the customer's car, SUV or truck with aftermarket wheels and tires.
And minority dealers are facing the same challenges every dealer these days faces—sky high prices for top-tier tire brands, finding problem-free tires at prices budget-strapped customers can handle, having to stock too many tires and increased competition from chain stores and warehouse giants like Sam's Club and Costco Wholesale Corp.
But some minority dealers claim the advantage they enjoy over the average (white) tire dealer is the easy, genuine customer rapport that some argue can only come from truly understanding and respecting black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American customers.
“We know what they like, like wide wheels, affordable prices and customer service,” said Oscar Prado, who rented space to start a one-man tire store in Rosenberg, Texas, in 1998. Today, Oscar's Tire Center has two stores and is set to expand the original store in 2013. “They want you to be friendly and understand them.”
For dealers like Mr. Prado who serve Hispanic areas, that means every one of his employees is fluent in Spanish. Many of his customers don't speak English and that communication breakdown can be frustrating, especially when it comes to technical products like tires, he said.
Since opening his tiny store in a Houston suburb, he has expanded, opening a second store in a fast-growing, more upscale community that features light industry. From being barely able to pay bills and being turned down for loans because of insufficient credit scores, he now owns his building, has great support from his bilingual Chase banker and will have a new, bigger store that will feature space for lifts, offices and a customer lounge.
Oscar's Tire Center did $2 million in sales last year, thanks in part to the sales of accessories and up-sized custom wheel packages. Typical would be fitting 22-inch wheels and tires to a Dodge Charger sedan or Chevrolet Silverado pickup.
“I like how the cars look,” Mr. Prado said, adding that the typical setup will run in the neighborhood of $1,600 and include Cooper, Toyo, Yokohama, Hankook or Nitto tires and Asanti or Lexani wheels.
Mr. Prado's daughter Ana, an international business major at the University of Houston, helps run the business, and said using Google advertising services has been a significant help in marketing, especially with more tech-savvy customers who use their smartphones to search out tires or wheels.
Her father, meanwhile, has been forced to buy large quantities of tires for his inventory in order to get favorable pricing that will help his longtime customers get past sticker shock.
“The quality of tires and wheels when we started was a lot better,” Mr. Prado lamented.
Larry Saleh also looks at the past with wry fondness. The former auto sales specialist opened his family-run tire business in 2004, coining it “KS Tire Shop” after his first-born son Kamel.
Although the Houston retailer's clientele are of various ethnicities and income levels, the Liberian immigrant caters to the African American community.
“Business was good—very good,” said Mr. Saleh, whose store is known for its “buy three, get one free” tire promotion. KS does a lot of custom work, installing chromed wheels and tires up to 32 inches in diameter.
Business has slowed dramatically since 2008, however, when the recession kicked in. During the interview with Mr. Saleh for this article, one customer elected to put a set of used tires on his Chrysler 300 after being told what a new set of tires would run.
With walls of chromed custom wheels adorning the shop's small showroom, the family has some striking transportation. His wife Markahn drives a Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon, Kamel's daily transportation is a tricked out 1981 Chevrolet Impala, and Mr. Saleh owns a Lincoln Mark LT pickup—each has custom upsized wheels and tires.
In Bell, Calif., the family of Jose Vasquez uses a recipe that mixes old and new to keep treasured longtime customers and drive new consumers to their Southern California location.
The store, Savas Tire & Wheel, is well known by the community and on Internet forums, said Israel Vasquez, the store's manager and Jose Vasquez's son. Their website, savastire.com, is lively and packed with information on the Savas staff, products and services.
“I do a lot of Facebook,” Israel Vasquez said. “It's a big marketing tool. Most consumers are shopping more online. You have to put your name out there and tell them, ‘We're here. Give us a shot. We'll do whatever we need to do.'”
He noted that tire vendors are starting to develop more useful websites. For example, he points to NittoDealerPortal.com, which he said is absolutely free and invites the customer to input information.
“I like it because it's a way to be in contact with your customer. It's difficult for me to send out emails. The Nitto site's doing it all for you, mailing out flyers and cutting out the cost to us completely.”
But it's not just about the Internet and social media, he said.
“We're 100-percent bilingual,” Israel Vasquez said. “And our advantage is that we're family owned and operated. When you're family owned, people seem to know. They can talk to us. We can make them feel pretty comfortable. We have a bond of friendship and relationship.
“You come to me for the first time, and I'm going to do my best to treat you as a friend or guest. I don't care whether you're spending a dollar or a thousand dollars. I treat customers just like how I want to be treated.”