I've posed this question to various people in the tire industry over the last few months. And like with just about everything, the answer depends on whom you ask.
One tire retail dealer I met in Utah laughed at the thought and responded, "It's always about price."
At the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Show in Las Vegas, I asked around the South Hall, and mostly was told, "No, people don't care what a tire looks like."
If the consumer cares about looks, one person said, he or she will buy new wheels.
One woman looked at me like I was from another planet.
Certainly, it would be foolish to pick tires solely on looks. Tires are an investment, and most buyers are going to seek the highest quality they can afford.
But, if product A and product B are similar in ratings, price and warranty, then looks could be the deciding factor.
We all know a person who is obsessed with his or her vehicle and spends time and money customizing their rides with aftermarket products. If you care what your shocks look like, wouldn't you also care how your tires look?
"Absolutely," said George Lugo, sales manager at Atturo Tire Corp., when I stopped by the company's booth at SEMA. "For some people, you have to have that right look."
I stopped at the booth because of the unique sidewalls of Atturo's Trail Blade Boss MT off-road tire. The tread design is based on the Quartermaster Boss Hog knife, with aggressive side lugs, which the company said add protection and grip when used at low PSI off-road. And, it looks cool.
"There is definitely a showroom appeal (to the Trail Blade Boss)," Mr. Lugo said. "That's one thing that helps us stand out."
Certainly, with an M/T tire, it's easier to add flare to the sidewalls.
But as Andrew Hoit, vice president of sales and marketing at Tireco Inc., whose value brands include brands like Milestar and WestLake, explained, while price and quality are part of the buying process, some customers are looking for something specific for their custom car. He said filling those niches is how his company has grown.
He pointed to the Milestar' StreetSteel line of passenger tires, designed with a retro look but modern engineering. The tire retails for around $100, far less than other classic-style tires available on the market.
"If you're building that classic muscle car, you want to find that period-appropriate tire," he said.
So, do consumers care about how a tire looks? Yes, but only some of them. Even those who see appearance as a factor for consumers admit it's niche thinking. More tire buyers want quality and durability. They want tires that are quiet on the road. They want a good price.
Most of them anyway. But we all know someone who will always pick the coolest looking ones.