A moment of reckoning is the first time someone points out to a vehicle owner that his or her tires need replacing. You keep that customer if it is your service staff that notes the need. You lose if it is somebody else.

Often spurred by their manufacturers for customer-retention reasons, many dealerships sell tires to keep customers from slipping away.

How can dealers do that more successfully? Advice comes from “Successful Tire Dealers Share Their Secrets,” a seminar at this year's Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Assn. annual show in Las Vegas.

Independent tire dealers do a lot of marketing, give customers some added value and let them know their business is appreciated.

The independents face increasing competition from big-box retailers such as Costco and Wal-Mart, repair-service chains and, to a lesser degree, new-car dealerships.

Independent tire shops provide a range of services that car dealerships do, including air conditioning and brake repairs, alignments and battery and exhaust system replacements.

One seminar panelist says that most consumers view independents, more so than car dealership service personnel, as experts in tire care and repair.

Still, he and others panelists agree that tire dealers fight for more customers. To do that, they use an arsenal of marketing techniques.

That includes sending mailers with coupon “specials.” But the panelists say the marketing that works best for them builds goodwill and a community reputation.

Those programs include free car-care clinics, repeat customer punch cards, partnerships with classic car shows and the like and referral programs that reward the referring customer and the referred prospect — all designed to create a special image so consumers remember the store.

Tire dealers agreed that free programs can be powerful word-of-mouth advertising. Several of them offer a free flat-tire repair service. The program is available to anyone, whether a customer or not.

The dealers say the service helps retain customers who might otherwise defect to big-box tire retailers — and it attracts consumers who find that getting a simple flat repaired at the big box stores can take a while.

Of course, this free service is to build awareness of and preference for the store so consumers return when they need tires or other services.

While many car dealers conduct owner clinics, one tire dealer takes it to the next level.

At its owner clinics, experts point out key vehicle systems such as brakes and exhaust. Here's the twist: When clinic attendees return to the store for service, the vehicle is put up on the lift so that the owner, in the company of a service technician, can inspect the tires, wheels, brakes and other under-vehicle systems, putting to use what he or she learned in the car clinic.

Independent tire dealers at the seminar say they do not see car dealerships as threats to their business. But borrowing some of their creative marketing tips could change that.

Former Ford salesman Jim Leman writes about automotive retail from his base in Grayslake, IL. In his spare time he restores old Chevrolets and Plymouths and writes a bi-monthly newspaper column about collector cars.

Tire-Selling Tips

Here are some of the marketing techniques independent tire dealers use to enhance their reputation and foster business:

  • Free car-care clinics.

  • Free flat repairs.

  • Repeat customer punch cards.

  • Partnerships with classic car shows and the like.

  • Referral programs that reward the referrer and the referred.