NASHVILLE — Winters just aren't what they used to be.
Well, at least they have been different during the 10-plus years that Tommi Heinonen has been a sales executive in North America with Nokian Tyres P.L.C. And that's good news for tire dealers.
When Mr. Heinonen first arrived in the U.S. from his native Finland, winters here, he said, started earlier — October and November — and ended for most parts of the country roughly in late November/early December.
Today, he said, winter seems to be starting later and ending in February and, in some cases, in March.
And that means the winter-tire selling season no longer ends in November/December.
"When I started in North America 10 years ago, we hardly sold any winter tires in January and February," Mr. Heinonen said. "Let's call it a handful of winter tires."
In the last few years, he said, sales of winter tires have increased in January and February.
"It's not something that we have been pushing our dealers," Mr. Heinonen, Nokian's vice president of sales in North America, said. "It's natural consumer demand, and the trend is increasing.
"Ten years ago, we were saying (selling winter tires) is over on Thanksgiving or Black Friday. It's not true any more."
Data gleaned from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s environmental information seem to bear that out.
Generally speaking, average temperatures have fallen, while precipitation has risen in January in at least two winter-tire heavy regions of the U.S. over the last decade.
According to NOAA data, the average temperature in January 2010 in the Northeast region was 24 degrees F. In 2014 and 2015, the average January temperature had fallen to 18.6 and 18.7 degrees F, respectively.
Precipitation in the Northeast amounted to 2.82 inches in 2019. By 2013, that number had increased to 3.12, and after a dip in 2017, the amount of precipitation jumped to 3.54 inches in 2017, 2.66 in 2018 and 4.64 in 2019.
The numbers are even more striking in the Northwest region. The average temperature there in January 2010 was 33.8 degrees F; in eight of the next 10 years, the temperature failed to break that mark. In 2017, the average temperature bottomed out at 23.4.
Precipitation, however, was a mixed bag. In January 2010, precipitation in the Northwest averaged 4.32 inches. For three straight years (2013-15), the average precipitation fell to under 3 inches.
But from 2016 to 2020, precipitation was above 4 inches, with a peak of 6.82 in 2020.
Of course, weather is fickle no matter what region, but Mr. Heinonen said he believes a later winter provides opportunity for tire dealers.
"Winter is kind of shifting," Mr. Heinonen said. "It has shifted like a month later. … When it comes, it's harsh and it definitely lasts in February and March."
As evidence of that, Mr. Heinonen cited customer feedback, based on Nokian's sell-out to consumers. He said the trend is not reflected by the tire maker's available sell-in data, as most customers stock winter inventory before the season.
But, he said, U.S. customers have reflected a "remarkable" difference in January-February sales volume in the last 10 years.
"We don't see the same effect in Canada, since our biggest winter market is Quebec, which has a mandatory winter tire installation date of Dec. 1," he said.
Kent Olson, who operates Olson Tire & Auto Service of Wausau, Wis., is seeing that trend firsthand.
"We certainly see more snow tires now than previous years, and it does last well into and past the early winter (or Black Friday)," Mr. Olson said. "Part of that is when bigger storms hit, … and historically (consumers) realize again what tough traction occurs when they start to encounter those roads again."
He said those who purchase new cars have no idea that their low-aspect-ratio tires will not work well "when it comes to winter traction in many cases."
Eric Gill, who operates 30 Point S locations on the West Coast and East Coast, said a longer winter selling season seems to hold true, especially in the Northeast.
"Out West and in Montana, I would say maybe it's true as well," he said. "We feel that if we don't sell snow tires by Dec 15th, it will take a big event. Then by Jan. 10 or so, we will not sell many, even with a snow event.
"I think the general trend is not as many snow tires are being sold."
Bob Kellogg of Glens Falls, N.Y.-based Warren Tire & Service Centers, said he always has sold winter tires through mid-January. But, he said, winter tire sales have fallen off at his 15 locations.
One reason: "More 4-wheel-drive vehicles than ever before and many drivers feel comfortable with all-season tires," Mr. Kellogg said.
Overall, it appears as if consumers are buying fewer winter tires than before. According to data from the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association (USTMA), shipments of winter/traction tires fell 15% last year, for the fourth time in five years.
They now account for less than 2% of all replacement car tire shipments.
Mr. Olson experienced a drop in winter tire sales this year, as he said much of the snow and poor roads stayed south of his area.
"But generally I can say that the extreme trend towards lower profile fitments has increased the winter tire market to become a much longer and more robust selling period than years past," he said.
Nokian — the Nokia, Finland-based manufacturer that touts itself as the first manufacturer of a winter tire (1934) — bucked that trend, though, according Mr. Heinonen. He said Nokian's winter tire sales in North America grew in 2020, buoyed by continued strong sales in Canada.
"We already have been able to get remarkable market share in premium winter tires in Canada," Mr. Heinonen said. "Definitely consumers in Canada, when you think about the conditions up there, winter tires are much more important than for the average U.S. consumer."
Winter tires represent more than 35% of aftermarket car tire shipments in Canada, where one province, Quebec, mandates their use, and others offer insurance breaks and other incentives for their use.
The Tire and Rubber Association of Canada (TRAC) reports that 72% of Canadian consumers use winter tires, ranging from 59% in Alberta to 84% in the Atlantic provinces and 100% in Quebec.
Mr. Heinonen said Nokian sells roughly the same amount of winter tires in Canada as it does in the U.S. — even though Canada has one-tenth of the population of its neighbor to the south.
"We already have been able to get remarkable market share in premium winter tires in Canada," he said. "For consumers in Canada, when you think about the conditions up there, winter tires are much more important than for the average U.S. consumer. ... Our products are usually well received in Canada."