CUYAHOGA FALLS — When I call a tire shop, and the owner has plenty of time to talk, I worry that maybe the business isn't doing so well. Call it pandemic side effect.
If I call, and the shop owner politely tells me, "I would love to talk, but it is just too (expletive) busy today," I know that business is alive and thriving.
From March 15 to April 15, a lot of people had time to talk.
I've spent what seems like a pandemic sitting in my home office, talking tires with many great people throughout the industry.
It has been so long that the office in the house, most often referred to in the phrase, "oh, just throw that junk in office," became an actual home office with pictures on the walls, plants, a desk and two too many plugs plugged into one power-strip.
When the pandemic hit, I pulled up a map and started reaching out to tire dealers across the U.S.
In late April, I saw a dip in response, and by July, it was hard to get a minute of anyone's time. The most common response was, "I'm just too busy," and I came to realize just how grim things were for a minute there in the spring.
To be fair, I did reach many dealers at the right time to talk, and many also got back to me later.
The independent tire dealers I talked with this year have been great, straightforward and eager to promote the tire industry as a whole along with their own shops. I'd like to share some of the things I learned from them about the pandemic and what's coming in the future.
The pandemic impacted parts of the country in different ways at different times. Early on, a dealer in Seattle said he wasn't sure if his business would survive, and a shop owner in Philadelphia closed temporarily. That same week, a dealer in Montana told me life was unchanged, though he was selling an unusually large amount of trailer tires.
Three points I continually heard referenced were: the tire industry being deemed essential business; stimulus checks going out in April; and the sweet heat of summer.
Our story, "Homeland Security defines vehicle service and repair as 'essential,' " published March 20, broke every single website metric on TireBusiness.com. So many people read that story, I doubt another will top it for many years. The beginning of the pandemic was confusing, but when shops got the OK, they went to work.
In a column earlier this year, I joked about a couple of dealers who constructed barriers out of tires in front of the customer service desk to force people to social distance in their shops. It seemed so odd. Now, some customers may argue it would seem odd to actually go inside a service shop.
The industry took the pandemic seriously. Most shop owners I talked with were very focused on employee safety, most importantly out of concern for their health, but also because of the fear that they may have to close down if there's an outbreak in the shop.
Many dealers pinpointed April 15 as the day business started turning around after COVID stimulus money was sent out — one even saying customers brought in an estimate for work they previously couldn't afford.
And then summer hit. We all fired up the barbecues and headed outside. More people took to road travel or started doing outdoor activities that would require tires in some fashion.
We learned this year that while physical contact is out, communication is up. As the pandemic continues and as consumers become more savvy, how shops communicate with customers is going to be very important.
Convenience is a consumer trend that has grown throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so. And it will impact the tire industry. People shopping for tires online or getting them installed at their home are some ways, though both of those take up a small percentage of tire sales.
Most shops really will be affected by this trend in how fast consumers expect the work to be done, inventory to be on hand and how simple communication, vehicle drop-off and payments are conducted.
Of course the good part about the convenience trend is that people are willing to pay more for it. And if you can show them your business is worth it, convenience can become more important than price.
I get the sense from shop owners that if you get your customers in and out quickly and at a good price, and you are honest with them and your employees, business will be fine.
Hard work always is good business.
Want to talk about your shop? Email [email protected].