Tire dealers I've spoken with throughout the pandemic — and there have been many — pinpointed mid-March as the time when the COVID-19 pandemic really hit home.
Every time it was mentioned, I couldn't help but think of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, when a soothsayer tells Caesar he is going to be assassinated no later than the full moon (the ides) in March.
"Beware of the ides of March," the warning went.
Of course, Caesar thought the soothsayer foolish, and when the full moon came he joked to the seer that "the ides have come," and he still stood.
And the seer replied, "Well, it's not over yet, buddy." (My words, not Shakespeare's.)
When 2020 rolled into the ides of March, coronavirus cases spiked in the U.S., and everything shut down. Safety restrictions kept people indoors and off the road.
Retail foot traffic to service shops dropped. People needing maintenance on their cars decided to wait. Few, in any, driving, and the severe drop in vehicle miles driven meant tires were not getting worn down.
In 2019, drivers racked up 3.25 trillion vehicle miles traveled. Remember that number, because it's increased just about every year on record. …
Demand for tires dropped so quickly, it was like a light switch was turned off.
At the time, I spoke with an auto technician in Florida who was "hoping this will all blow over in a few weeks." He said that despite the automotive service industry's being deemed "essential" by the federal government, it didn't mean much if there were no vehicles to work on.
He said when he looked across the service bays, technicians were just standing around — not enough work for everyone.
Some shops closed temporarily, and some furloughed or laid off employees. Everyone tightened their belts.
Many shop owners said they cut hours for employees so they could keep everyone on staff — shared pain.
There is a level-headedness about the tire industry that I highly respect.
So they bought extra cleaning supplies and facemasks — when they could find them — and they taped off the showroom floors to show customers where to stand. Some shops went so far as to stack tires to act as barriers between the front desk and the customer.
We learned the phrase "social distancing," which prior to the pandemic I would have thought meant to move to a farm or unfollow toxic people on Facebook.
In March, we were socked in the face. In April, everyone prepared for the worst.
Tire dealers we talked with said April 15 was a day when things started to turn around. That was the date when most Americans received their part of the government's initial $2 trillion stimulus package.
One dealer said on that day customers showed up with service estimates they had gotten earlier in the year ready to get the work done. And while recovery is slow, business really started to pick up for a number of states — thanks to a combination of stimulus money and the easing of stay-at-home restrictions.
While the belts are still tight — and may have even gone in a few notches — there is a sense among those in the industry that the consumer wants to get back on the road this summer, and business could be strong.
And I certainly hope so.
A positive from the pandemic is that people have become much more tech savvy. Even my wife's 94-year-old grandfather has been joining her and her sisters for weekly Zoom conversations about his life — he spent his career at Ford and worked in Detroit at a time when it was the center of the automotive world.
The pandemic has improved the way we communicate, and at tire shops this can be advantageous from a few perspectives, like say a technician explaining vehicle issues to a customer over a video call rather than in the shop.
As for what the "new normal" will look like, I think, ultimately, it will be more organized.
More people will be making appointments. While shops will still see regular visits from tow trucks hauling in vehicles, I think you'll see a decline in those customers who drop by to see if they can get their car serviced.
Instead, many of those people are going to make appointments, which hopefully helps to makes shops more organized and, ultimately, run more efficiently.
And I believe if we face a COVID-20 or a COVID-21, the industry will be prepared because it has heeded the warning.
David Manley is the managing editor of Tire Business. Reach him at [email protected]