Just as the fashion industry is dependent on people wanting to wear the latest clothing designs, the aftermarket wheel industry exists because vehicle owners want to add a flashy look to their rides.
"Custom wheels aren't needed. Every vehicle comes with a set of wheels," said Brian Moyer, category director, wheels and accessories, for American Tire Distributors Inc. (ATD).
"So it is a fashion sale. I guess there are some cases where it is more of a utility type or required purchase if the vehicle has been in a wreck or crashed the wheel, but that would be such a small segment of the market. We wouldn't have an industry if that's all there was."
Mr. Moyer said the aftermarket consumer wheel business has been fairly robust this year, up a little bit from last year, and dominated by light trucks and off-road styling demand.
"Wheels are a discretionary spend, so a healthy economy produces a healthy industry as it would for any industry that drives off of discretionary spend for a luxury item like a custom wheel," he said.
He noted that the resurgence in new vehicle sales isn't negatively impacting aftermarket wheel sales.
"Wheel replacements typically occur at two points in time — one at the point of purchase for the vehicle when the consumer is likely to do something right away when they buy the vehicle; and then after that, it's typically the second owner or the third owner who tends to engage in replacement.
"So the pool of vehicles that are out there today is large, and that certainly is not going away, regardless of how many new vehicles are sold this year. Obviously it has a ripple effect downstream eight to 10 years from today, maybe, but no imminent change in the near future."
After the Great Recession in 2008-09, there was a slow recovery among tire dealers to get back into selling custom wheels as a luxury item amid the popularity of upsizing.
"In that time period, I think it was a little more complicated business in the applications. Every day was a little more extreme, a little more intimidating for a typical tire dealer," Mr. Moyer said.
"But today it's very much OE size applications as OE sizes have enlarged in the last 10 years from 16-inch and 17-inch wheels to 18- and 20-inch wheels. Those are the same sizes we use in the aftermarket, so it's not as intimidating. It's more normal, in comparison with the type of work the tire store does day in and day out.
"The number of vehicles, the ease of installation, comfort level of the product, good economy — I think those are the four drivers that are helping push the business forward right now."
In addition to larger OE tire sizes, there is the growing popularity of light trucks, SUVs and CUVs at the expense of passenger cars.
Vehicle registrations mirror what consumers are driving, and right now CUVs are leading the way, Mr. Moyer said.
"And so I think over the next four, five, six years, you'll see more products developed for them, not just wheel products but aftermarket in general, from light kits to lift kits."
Since CUVs tend to be built on a passenger car platform, they often sport passenger-sized wheels.