AKRON — The light-truck tire market has seen its fair share of changes over recent years.
More consumers are considering light trucks for more than transporting commodities, seeing them as everyday regular-use vehicles. Tire dealers around the country are seeing strength in the market.
"[Light] trucks just a few years ago were used more as a tool to get a job done, be it hauling lumber, farming. Trucks were work vehicles," Johnny Gill, owner of Goldsboro, N.C.-based Hill's Tire & Auto Service, said.
Today, trucks are still used for work, but their reach has expanded.
"With the new breed of trucks that are equipped with options that were once only found on high-end luxury cars, they are seeing use as everyday transportation: Getting groceries, getting the kids to school and are even seen as a fashion statement," Mr. Gill added.
"Truck sales are growing at a rate five times that of cars, and tire manufacturers have taken note of this trend and are pushing the (research and development) to focus on the truck market."
With the increase of light truck sales, tire dealers across the country see LT tire sales representing a significant part of their businesses.
"I would say in our shop that 60 to 70 percent of tires sales go to light trucks," Mr. Gill said.
Josh Auten, High Country Tire & Wheel of Blairsville, Ga., also said his LT tire sales fall between 60 and 70 percent.
Jose Gomez, owner of Sandpoint, Idaho-based Gription Tire Pros, said LT vs. passenger sales are about 60/40.
Dealers agree this segment of the industry continues to grow.
Rex Pennington of Major League Tire, a Northeastern Ohio dealership that operates three stores — one each in Mentor, Massillon and Hartville — noted that LT tires are more than 20 percent of his tire revenue now.
While sales vary from location to location, "our average used truck buyer always seems more eager to spend money on his new used vehicle than any other segment we see," he added.
Butch Taylor, owner of Titan Auto & Tire, which has two locations in South Chesterland and Moseley, Va., said about 20-25 percent of his business is light truck tire.
"Generally, the light truck tire market seems to be expanding," he said.
"In the U.S., many small businesses use light trucks in their day-to-day work, and this in turn leads to higher use of tires....
"I think we have seen an increase in LT tire sales, as this likely relates to lower fuel costs," Mr. Taylor said.
Sales of light trucks grew 10 percent to nearly 5.9 million vehicles through the first half of this year, according to the Automotive News Data Center. Meanwhile, car sales fell 12 percent through the first six months of the year to 2.75 million.
Avery Austin, owner of, Austin's Auto Advantage, Safford, Ariz., said his light truck tire business is at least 40 percent.
"The area we're in,…the ratio of trucks to cars is probably almost two to one," he said.
"As far as demand, we're actually going through a boom right now. It's been kind of busier, so tire sales are up."
Kim Sigman, partner/general manager at Community Tire Pros & Auto Repair, which has six locations throughout Arizona, said he sees mid-tier LT tires outselling their higher- and lower-end counterparts.
He said light truck is about 40 percent of Community Tire's business, mostly Tier 2 and 3 brands.
"We sell about the same amount of Tier 1 and Tier 4. However, if I back out my national account and government sales, we sell more Tier 4 than Tier 1," Mr. Sigman added.
Other tire dealers also are seeing growth in mid-tier tire brands.
"The current trends that we are seeing in the light-truck market are that consumers are shifting their purchases to the mid-tier light-truck tires because their quality is almost as good as the premium tires, and the cost for the mid-tier tires are substantially less money," said Nick Fox, manager, Point S Tire & Auto Service, J&J Tire & Auto Service, Helena, Mont.
He noted that 30 percent of his business is light-truck tire sales, but this number might be higher, since consumers use some full-sized SUVs more like light trucks.
"It will be interesting to see if these trends of Tier 2 tires being the preferred selection continue with advancements in technology versus people buying premium names-brand tires," Mr. Fox said.
"However, it's possible the Big 3 tire companies (will) continue to try and sell more direct to the consumers to keep their margins up and reduce the sale price of the tires.
"But I'm not sure how happy tire dealers will be or how expensive tire installation will become if premium tire manufacturers only sell direct to consumers."
Geographical locations can also play into the types of tires consumers purchase.
Mr. Austin said with Arizona's climate, some of the higher-end tires are just not holding up anymore.
"I'm sure in different climates they're not bad, but we're out in the desert," he added.
"It's really hot and dry. And you're lucky to get (some tires) to last four years out here because they start dry rotting out. That's something that we see almost on a daily basis.
"But a lot of people are looking for a decent deal, something that's actually going to hold up and last for them."
The LT customer varies more than the average car customer, "depending on how he uses his vehicle…. A lot of people never put anything in the bed of the truck," Mr. Pennington said.
"They use it as a passenger vehicle," he added.
"So, we have a lot of customers who want a good all-season, highway tire that's going to last a long time. We have a big chunk of customers that need something that's rugged, that's going to carry a lot of weight because of heavy duty, more for commercial application."
"People are asking for more choices, more sizes, up sizing options, tires that have the 'off-road' look, but still have good handling and ride characteristics," Mr. Gill added.
Price and durability often outweigh brand.
"(We) have either some customers that want the cheapest thing, or some that want a long-lasting tire," Mr. Auten said.
"Forty percent or so are brand loyal, and some are looking to try something new or better."
Mr. Taylor said he sees about 25 percent of consumers being brand loyal, 50 percent are open to an alternative and 25 percent are just looking for the best deal.
"Working LTs want a tough tire with deep grooves, while the private consumer likes a long-lasting quiet ride," Mr. Taylor added.
Consumers can be broken down into three categories — brand conscious, price conscious and those that trust dealer opinion.
"We used to believe that about 70 percent of our customers just wanted our opinion," Mr. Pennington said.
"Now I think that segment has diminished a little bit. And the segment of the price conscious customer has gone up a little bit, but I think the brand conscious customer has stayed the same. Probably about 20 percent."
Mr. Sigman said he sees demand change based on consumer need.
"If it's for a customer who uses the truck for transportation, then it's ride and good mileage," he said.
"If it's a work truck, then durability, and in some cases, mileage."
Other consumers are specifically looking for value at a reasonable price.
"A lot of times people just tell us they want to get a new tire, but they don't want to spend a fortune on it," Mr. Austin said. "The price is a big factor still.
"But a lot of my customers, they have trust in us. If we tell them it's a good tire and it's going to hold up, then they kind of go with what we say."
Some customers will make their decision with input from reliable outside sources.
"It's just built off confidence, whether they get it from us or someone they know," Mr. Austin said.
"You're always going to get someone who comes in and asks for the top of the line, but that doesn't always mean they are going to leave with it either."
While there are occasional customers who come in and just want the job done, that's a rarity.
"The bulk of our customers, probably the 80 percent, are the ones looking for something economical and something that's going to last," Mr. Austin said.
Mr. Gill shared a similar sentiment about consumer loyalty. He said brand loyalty among consumers is not what it once was.
Additionally, most manufacturers focus on LT tires, giving consumers more choices of quality products than just a few years ago.
"With the age of the Internet being at our finger tips, customers are more informed and are more aware of the choices that are available to them when they to come into our shop," Mr. Gill said.
"Most want a tire that gives them the look they want at a price that fits their budget."
Mr. Fox said most customers are not brand loyal but concerned about the features and benefits of the tire.
"They are looking for the best value," he added.
"Customers seem to always be looking for new and innovative products, and I think that's why you see so many new tires every year. Most customers don't go for the cheapest product but will usually ask our advice and perform their own research before choosing something in the middle of the price spectrum."
Mr. Sigman noted, "The 'experts' say that 30 percent of the consumers ask for a specific brand, but 58 percent of those will switch brands based on the sales person's suggestions. About 45 percent buy exclusively on price."
Looks are still important to some consumers.
"(The truck) may never go off the road, but he wants it to look like it could if he wanted it to," Mr. Pennington said about some consumers.
"We see a lot of customers asking for off-road tires and some are commercial applications. We have a lot of gas and mining in our area, and a lot of those trucks have to get off the road for work regardless of weather conditions. They need something that's going to deliver."
Some customers prefer the look of an off-road tire and will deal with noise and perhaps less wear as a trade-off, he said.
"There's a cost to looking good."
For others, it might not be the biggest contributing factor of purchasing.
"I feel customers are looking for a great buying experience as well, instead of just a low price," Mr. Fox said.
He said looks are important to consumers, and it's been beneficial for him to have the tires on display for consumers to see and feel the tires.
"When people are looking for a good light truck tire in Montana, it needs to have a limited tread life warranty, it needs to have the severe weather designation, it needs to be durable for on/off road use, quiet on the highway and have a nice aggressive look," Mr. Fox added.
Other tire dealers see a similar trend.
"Looks (are) big nowadays," Mr. Gomez said. That has changed dramatically.
"The tire needs to look good and aggressive. The off-road look is a must to some people."
He added that he believes performance and durability take a back seat when it comes to tires for the younger generation, but other consumers are looking for a tire that performs and has good mileage and handling.
Beyond just looks, other attributes affect purchasing.
"Most small businesses and consumers see the value in buying a quality tire," Mr. Taylor said.
"At Titan Auto & Tire, we have demand for Michelin Defender LTX and Firestone Destination LT…. We find that most consumers are less concerned with the look than the performance."
Off-road tire market
The off-road tire segment continues to grow.
Mr. Sigman said Community Tire Pros sees a certain number of its customers who are strictly off-road enthusiasts, with some belonging to 4x4 clubs.
While some consumers use off-road tires for their designed purpose, others just enjoy the look.
"Many are asking for off-road tires to get that look even though the truck they drive will never leave pavement," Mr. Gill said.
Mr. Auten said High Country Tire sells mostly all-terrain tires when it comes to the off-road segment.
"The off-road market availability has grown a good bit in the past few years," he added.
The OTR light-truck product offering has ticked up.
The off-road segment has changed a little by offering more options in off-road tires, Mr. Fox said.
"Some people ask for off-road tires, but the rubber compound is usually designed for mud, which makes the tire perform very poorly in winter conditions," he added.
"So, we tend to see most light trucks use aggressive all-terrain tires."
Mr. Austin said he sells significantly more all-terrains than mud-terrain tires.
"If you put it on a scale, mud-terrain vs. all-terrain, eight out of 10 would be all-terrain," he said.
"On the other end of it, it would be like 3 out of 10 asking for a highway tread vs. all-terrain. We're in a rural community, so there's a lot of off-roading."
The LT tire market continues to be a strong sector of the overall tire market.
"The tire industry is constantly changing and growing," Mr. Auten said. "It seems from week-to-week, tire manufacturers are either looking to merge, buy another one out or switch up who they use as distributors."
"Manufacturers seem to be getting more and more competitive with each other and tires seemed to be redesigned more often."
Overall, tire dealers are seeing light-truck tire sales being a significant portion of their overall sales. They see Tire 2 and 3 tire manufacturers with solid footing, but only time will tell on what the future holds.
"As you can see, the truck segment of the tire market has seen a lot of change in recent years, from the utilitarian tires of yesteryear to tires that have rugged-styled side walls and tread designs that are available in a multitude of sizes," Mr. Gill said.