SEMA News—February 2013
By Steve Campbell
Wheel and Tire Trends Update
A Look at the Marketplace With Industry Pros and Media
While the economy continues to influence the tire and wheel markets, the greatest impacts on the industry have resulted from the elimination of the tariffs on Chinese tires, the steady growth of lower rolling resistance tires, advances in technology and the proliferation of Internet research, according to knowledgeable wheel-and-tire pros and media. They shared their views for this latest look at trends in their segments of the specialty-equipment marketplace.
The hottest tire categories in the United States are entry-level, Chinese-made passenger and light-truck products, according to David E. Zielasko, who is the editor and publisher of Tire Business newspaper. The tariff on those imports ended in September, he said, and there has been a renewed influx, including tires, from some of the more than 50 Chinese manufacturers exhibiting at the most recent SEMA Show.
“Tire retailers are looking for entry-level products now that many of the domestic tire makers have stopped producing them,” Zielasko said. “That’s opening the door, and we have seen several Chinese tire makers looking to establish footholds in the United States with their own branded products.”
Hank Feldman, president of Performance Plus Tire and Auto Superstore, said that the end of the tariff is also placing increasing pressure on domestic manufacturers to adjust prices that had skyrocketed over the last three years. Overcapacity and surplus inventories have also contributed to the drop in prices.
“We are seeing growth with grassroots and niche marketing,” Feldman said. “Cheap tires from China are hitting our shores once again just as the crisis in Europe impacts their other important market. It will become a buyer’s market in the near term.”
Jim Smith, editor of Tire Review magazine, said that the prices of mid-line tires were decreasing anywhere from 6% to 12% around the time of the SEMA Show, and industry insiders are expecting to see those price drops to continue through 2013.
“While that is not all because of the end of the tariff, it had a domino effect in terms of pricing,” Smith said, “and the lack of business also played a large role. The propensity of the market right now is either entry-level, low-cost tires or the touring area, which is kind of a step up from there. Touring covers a broad range of minivans and upper-end sedans with primarily H and T speed-rated tires.”
Smith said that he’s seen a dramatic reduction in tuner applications. While sport compacts remain popular in some geographical locations around the country, as does the musclecar category, the tuner segment no longer exists as a broad market.
Meanwhile, ecologically themed tires are still selling, with reduced noise and reduced rolling resistance products driving tread designs in that realm, according to Feldman. But there is some question about how long that development will last simply because it is becoming less of a trend and more of an expected facet of tire construction.
“We’re starting to see a little softening of that whole concept among consumers,” Smith said. “It has become ingrained in the tire industry, so it is almost expected. But there are also economic pressures. People are questioning why they should pay more for a fuel-efficient tire, so you’re seeing some of the gloss come off that trend.”
Smith said that consumers are also questioning how efficient such tires really are, since there is no rating system that they can rely on. Manufacturers are thus free to say that their tires deliver 20% better fuel economy without saying 20% better than what.
Still there’s no denying that tires and wheels are being designed and constructed to be lighter to help offset stringent fuel standards, and tire compounds are being formulated for greater durability and wear.
“A lot of our readers are switching to commercial tires mounted on 19.5-in. wheels,” said Bob Carpenter, editor of 8-Lug HD Truck and Work Truck Review magazines. “It’s an expensive upgrade, but you can get close to 100,000 miles or even more on them once you’ve made the switch. A guy who hauls a heavy load all week usually gets only 20,000–30,000 miles out of a set of tires. If you use your truck to make money, you don’t want it sitting at the tire shop for half a day every few months.”
Rick Péwé, editor-in-chief of 4-Wheel & Off-Road magazine, pointed out that there is also an increasing demand for tires applicable to towing.
“Tow vehicles require a higher load rating, such as D and E,” he said. “Five years ago, there were not nearly as many tow offerings with good tread patterns in all-terrain, mild-terrain and even aggressive tires. Now we have tires that are made for trucks that tow, but the owners still want a lift kit and an aggressive stance. That can’t really be done on C-load-rated tires.”
As consumers make their choices, the search for lower prices and better wear characteristics is of paramount concern to tire manufacturers. Ken Warner, vice president of sales and marketing for Mickey Thompson Performance Tires & Wheels, pointed out that tire design includes a heavy focus on tread engineering, including tread blocks, circumferential and lateral groove design and depth, lug design and shoulder design.
“It’s important that attention be given to every aspect of the tire tread and shoulder design, depending upon the applications for the tire,” Warner said. “And, for better or worse, manufacturing tires still requires oil. Trends in materials and construction include efforts to conserve oil and use of alternative oils in the manufacturing process, along with a variety of ways to safely recycle used tires at the end of their life span.”
There is also a trend away from absurdly large tires sizes, Feldman said, with the aftermarket seeing increased sales of tires built for 16-, 17- and 18-in. wheel sizes. The exception to that trend remains in the niche markets, and he said that the truck-tire market is seeing a resurgence. Péwé concurred, noting that manufacturers are coming out with 38-, 40- and 42-in. tires with alternatives in tread patterns.
“Nitto just introduced a large tire that is available in both a soft compound for trail use and a different compound that is DOT-approved for the street,” he said. “People don’t stick with the stock 33-in. size when they replace their tires. They start moving up, and even the 35 is pretty small for a trail rig anymore.”
“Truck owners are trying to balance performance and aesthetics,” Burnside said. “They want a tire that will perform in multiple arenas, will withstand the tortures of heavy loads and towing and will provide longevity. The era of large, lifted, flashy trucks is gone.”
There has also been a shift in vehicle construction. Zielasko pointed out that crossover vehicles continue to gain ground over sport utilities. CUVs are built, for the most part, using passenger-car platforms while SUVs tend to be truck-based, and there are resultant differences in tire requirements.
“CUVs require tires that are quieter, are optimized for rolling resistance and need less off-road capability,” he said. “And we are also seeing trends toward tires with higher speed ratings—H and V—on more vehicles.”
Péwé noted that, regardless of market or vehicle type, tire dealers must acknowledge that retailing is changing under the influence of the Internet.
“People in the middle of Iowa can now get a set of tires and wheels sent to them mounted and balanced from any of the larger mail-order companies,” he said. “National Tire & Wheel has been doing that for some time, and package deals seem to be where it’s at.”
Warner said that Mickey Thompson encourages its dealers to create packages, with the focus on value rather than on trying to be the least expensive.
“Retailers should package the sale with options such as tires and wheels, tires and alignment service, tires with a free tire rotation service every 5,000 miles,” he said. “Be creative in packaging the sale to add more value and bring the customer back. Most manufacturers are developing programs that benefit tire dealers, and that’s good business. Things such as consumer rebate programs, incentives and referral reward programs for dealers create more opportunities for growth and sales.”
Dealers also need to maintain their integrity, even in the face of economic uncertainty and those wavering prices.
“Even when the economy is down and people are scraping by, retailers still have a duty to the customer and to themselves,” said Smith. “They have a responsibility to deliver the customer the best tires possible for the application and the situation. If the customer comes in with a performance vehicle with V-rated tires on it, the retailer is obliged to replace those with V-rated tires. Not an H, not an S. If the customer insists on something cheaper, the dealer needs to walk away from that business. It is just a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
Dealers should also be ready to address and service tire-pressure monitoring systems (TPMS), many of which have come due for maintenance. Checking the TPMS prior to performing tire work will help dealers avoid disputes with customers should issues arise after the work has been completed.
“The first TPMS sensors began appearing on vehicles in significant numbers five or six years ago,” Zielasko said, “and their battery life is now coming to an end. Tire dealers need to know how to service the systems, and they should check the batteries and the functionality of the systems themselves before beginning any tire work.”
Wheel manufacturers, distributors and dealers must pay heed to innovations that include not only TPMS, but also electronic stability controls and how wheels and tires might affect computerized systems.
Read the complete story in the February issue of SEMA News.