“The name is Little but the service is BIG,” that’s the motto around Little Tire Co. After more than 50 successful years in business, there’s no doubt that Little Tire has created a hometown brand that customers can depend on.
F. Raymond Little, a former sales representative and store manager of a local B.F. Goodrich store, established Little Tire in Fredericksburg, Va., in 1959.
Little’s sons, Mike and David, eventually joined him in the business and through the years the family expanded from one to three tire stores in the Fredericksburg area.
Ray, now 82 years old, officially retired 12 years ago, handing the reins over to his sons. The family-centered business has experienced the good, the bad and everything in between when it comes to the tire business.
“David came to work in 1983 and that’s about the time passenger retreading starting going downhill so we got into the mechanical business,” explains Mike.
“When I started working for my father in 1983, he had to create a spot for me, so we got into the exhaust business,” explains David. “We always did alignments but we did more mechanical work. We added the exhaust and then we got into doing more brakes, and then we saw our customers going down the street to our competitors to do their oil changes and state inspections so then we got into doing those. All this while we were building our mechanical business, passenger retreading was falling off the map. It just went downhill.”
In 1989 they completely closed the passenger retreading aspect of the business. “We sold the equipment for scrap metal because no one wanted it,” says David.
In 1992 they built a second location from the ground up, connecting to a strip mall on Route 3. “We built that one from scratch so it’s our pride and joy store,” says David.
Around that time, precure truck retreading was booming. “In 1993, we had a small four-tire chamber and we expanded and had them put in an 11-tire chamber because they we’re having a hard time keeping up,” says Mike. “That was one of the good moves for us at the time. That stayed strong until about 2000. We were hitting a little bit of a recession and that slowed back and we never quite got the retreading back.”
They stopped all retreading services in 2005.
In 1998 they opened their third location, taking over and remodeling an old Merchant’s Tire store.
Meeting Customer Needs
Through the years, the Littles have learned to adjust and strategize through industry and economic changes, offering a variety of tire and automotive services and creating a loyal customer base.
Today, they carry a variety of BFGoodrich, Michelin and Uniroyal tires as well as some Continental and Capitol tires. They also do commercial truck tire work out of their original location on Princess Anne Street.
“We have two service trucks, fully equipped to go out on the road to change tires, and we have a big delivery truck,” says David.
On the service side, they do brakes, alignments, scheduled maintenance, tunes ups, shocks and struts, and transmission work.
In 2011, Little Tire joined the Tire Pros group, a decision the Littles say they’ve been very happy with. “The biggest reason was for supply and availability of products,” explains Mike. “They offer a great deal.”
Tire Pros also offers a national network of experts in the business to help with business and marketing plans. “We used to handle all of our marketing and we still handle quite a bit of it but now, we have a marketing team that we can bounce things off of,” explains David. “Being able to talk to other dealers like us across the country, you can bounce things off different people when you’re trying to make tough decisions.”
David says the company uses a mix of advertising and marketing initiatives. “We do radio advertising, we do newspaper because dad thinks everyone reads the paper, even though I’m not sure about that anymore,” says David. “But we run an ad every now and then to keep him happy.”
He says they’ve also been “testing the waters” with direct mail.
“The problem with that is you have to offer coupons,” says David. “We have a problem with coupons. I have a hard time selling someone something at the counter and them not having the coupon and me knowing that there’s a coupon out there so I’m giving them whatever that deal is anyway.”
The owners keep the company website freshly updated and are working on increasing their search results on Google.
“People don’t use phonebooks anymore,” says Mike. “They get on their computer and Google anything, so we we’re trying to get our name higher on the searches.”
The company is also starting to embrace social media such as Facebook.
The Littles say competition in the area comes from a mix of big box stores such as Costco and BJs, as well as other local tire shops popping up across town. “We’ve got Merchant’s and AutoZone and a Goodyear that just opened,” says Mike. “A lot of new places have opened in this area, we’re feeling that part of it.”
They also compete with the car dealerships that offer regularly scheduled maintenance on new vehicle purchases. “Because they offer that maintenance, the car dealer is getting that first chance to sell the first tire replacement, as well,” says Mike.
However, the Littles say they’ve built a solid customer base and customers know they can count on Little’s Tire for a job well done.
“We went through the ‘School of Ray Little,’” says Mike. “We just treat people the way we want to be treated.”
He says many shops scare customers away because they oversell and overwhelm the customer. “If you would do it to your car, that’s what you need to talk to the customers about,” he says.
The Littles three stores have all gone through changes over the years, including adding on service bays and upgrading the showrooms. “All three are nice, clean stores, they have nice new tile floors put in. We’re proud of them,” says Mike.
The waiting areas feature Wi-Fi, but the Littles joke that they don’t want customers to have to get too comfortable. “We try not to make our customers wait around too long,” says David. “We want to get them in and out quick, we know that’s what they really want.”
Last year, the Littles received a $10,000 match grant from the City of Fredericksburg’s Economic Development Authority to upgrade the façade of their Princess Anne Street location.
“We remodeled the exterior of the main store this summer,” explains David. “It’s a historic area they’re trying to clean up a little bit.”
With all three stores just miles from one another, a Little family member is always present at each of the stores.
“There’s a Little in each store at some point of the day, every day,” says Mike, whose daughter and wife also work in the family business. David’s son and wife also work in the business and every once and a while Ray likes to stop in and check in on things.
“He still comes in and we bounce ideas off him,” says Mike. “It’s a very family centered business.”