With Economic Rebound, Off-Road Light Truck Tire Sales Begin to Climb - Tire Review Magazine

With Economic Rebound, Off-Road Light Truck Tire Sales Begin to Climb

Tire manufacturers agree that the off-road light truck tire segment was hit particularly hard during the recession – after all, what enthusiasts could afford extra sets of tires and related accessories for hobby vehicles, while fuel prices for their every day rides skyrocketed and household budgets became stretched?
The latest technology in off-road LT tires includes three-ply carcass technology, improved tread compounds, increased load ranges, and making off-road tires more on-road friendly for better gas mileage.
But after a strong 2011 and with an even more optimistic 2012 on the horizon, sales of off-road LT tires are expected to climb. And tire dealers who are willing to put in the extra effort and become a go-to expert for these loyal customers could see their profits soar, as well.

Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.’s Mike Stoltz, light truck product manager, sums up the dip in this segment, explaining, “When gas prices hit an all-time high in 2008 and the economy started to slide, the tire industry as a whole saw significant declines in all segments. The off-road segment was probably hit the hardest, as a large number of consumers in this segment fit into the enthusiast category and their vehicles are typically for recreational use.

“With the economic downturn, discretionary spending usually goes down and this off-road segment was hit the hardest.”

The off-road LT decline fit with the overall drop in sales of the 22-inch-plus size SUV market, added Falken Tire Corp.’s Conal O’Neill, senior manager of pricing administration.

On the recovery side, according to Rick Brennan, vice president of marketing for Kumho Tire USA, the off-road LT segment grew almost 9% in 2010 (RMA figures show 29.1 million units were shipped last year), and is “trending up significantly so far in the first half of 2011.”

The segment, Brennan notes, can be broken down to two main sub-segments: enthusiast/recreational and construction/light commercial use. Each sub-segment is trending differently.

“The ‘enthusiast/recreational’ sub-segment is comprised of the weekend enthusiast who spends money on lifting his truck, getting large diameter wheels and investing in larger, wider, more aggressive maximum traction tires,” Brennan says. “This enthusiast spends some time off-road but the majority of the driving occurs on the highway. The high price of the components (lift kits, new wheels, tires) and high gas prices has made this person more price conscious, and he shies away from larger tires.

“The ‘construction/light commercial use’ sub-segment is seeing a revival as construction starts are steadily increasing and the economy is slowly recovering,” he continues. “These commercial vehicles use off-road LT tires that are higher ply with heavier load ranges for heavy-duty pick-up trucks and larger vehicles.”

Representatives for each tiremaker polled for this article – Continental, Cooper, Falken, Hankook, Kumho and Michelin – forecast further growth in 2012. Travis Roffler, director of marketing for Continental Tire the Americas, notes, “We simply cannot keep up with the demand for products like the General Grabber line of light tuck tires.”

“With 2008 and 2009 behind us, we have seen strong sales growth in our off-road tire lines in 2010 and 2011,” explains Cooper’s Stoltz. “Earlier in 2011 we also launched our new Discoverer S/TMaxx product…early sales exceeded our expectations and continue to be strong.”

Driving Performance
According to Hankook Tire America Corp. product manager H.J. Kim, the latest technology in off-road LT tires revolves around construction, specifically three-ply carcass technology. He adds that the tire’s aggressive looks and durability in this segment, combined with price, are a hit with consumers. “Price is always important for consumers, but they are also concerned about style and performance,” Kim notes.

Cooper’s Stoltz agrees, saying, “Three-ply reinforced tires are very popular with the hard core off-road enthusiasts who demand a high level of performance from their tires. Our three-ply Armor-Tek construction is a very popular feature found in our Discoverer STT and Discoverer S/TMaxx product lines.” He adds it increases sidewall strength by about 33% over a traditional two-ply tire.

Michelin North America’s Steve Calder, product marketing for the BFGoodrich brand, says the tiremaker continues to refine and improve tread compounds in all BFGoodrich tires, which have been proven through success in multiple off-road racing programs.

“Specifically for off-road LT tires, there are new compounds that continue to deliver outstanding off-road traction and wear, but with improved wet and snow traction,” he explains. “There also has been a trend to increase load ranges in LT tires, moving from Load Range C and D to load range E with more robust carcass construction.”

He adds that consumers in this segment seek a healthy balance of extreme capability and durability, proven performance and authentic off-road looks.

Kumho’s Brennan says the latest technology involves making off-road tires more on-road friendly for better gas mileage, lower noise levels and reduced irregular wear. As an example, Kumho’s Road Venture MT offers “a combination of great street manners, remarkably low noise level and very good off-road capabilities and excellent off-road traction…it has the ultra aggressive look of an off-road tire for large rim diameters but also is the perfect choice for the street-bound 4×4 driver,” he notes.

New on the technology front for Continental’s General brand is its patented “strake and chamfer” technology, which optimizes off-road traction while increasing durability and reducing noise to class-leading levels, according to Roffler. He adds, “We have also developed DuraGen Technology, which increases the strength of the casing by 17% vs. competitors and therefore increases durability and reduces downtime.

“The off-road enthusiast is very demanding these days. If you leave one of three key items – price, performance or style – open, they will call you out for it,” he adds. “Unfortunately, we have only been guilty of a lack of supply, which we are currently addressing through expansion of current plants and a new tire plant here in the U.S.”

Falken’s O’Neill says performance, reliability and value are what off-road LT customers seek. “Most off-road consumers are not buying based on need, but on desire. The same consumers who buy aftermarket vehicle modification parts are the ones buying off-road tires…they are willing to pay for performance and reliability, which ultimately equate to value.

“Our Falken Wildpeak A/T performs exceptionally well in almost every condition,” O’Neill adds. “Built in sizes up to 37 inches in diameter, it has proven it can ‘hang’ with any tire in off-road conditions, yet on the road its manners exceed expectations. It is an impressively smooth and quiet ride compared to the competition.”

Dealer Know-How
As with most segments, dealers need to stay on top of market trends and specific application knowledge in order to impress and earn the business of these loyal consumers.

“Understand your product options and consumers’ needs,” Falken’s O’Neill says. “Consumers are often sold mud terrain tires that will not ultimately fulfill their needs. The consumer wants a tire that will perform in every imaginable condition, and they do most of their driving on paved roads. An all-terrain tire lasts longer, costs less, and rides smoother with less noise than a mud terrain tire.”

Michelin’s Calder recommends digging a little deeper to understand and satisfy the underlying consumer need, whether it’s on-road, mainly on-road with light off-roadability, or an all-terrain tire that’s perfect for more extreme off-road situations.

“Dealers need to speak to consumers to determine exactly what type of tire a consumer needs for his or her vehicle,” Hankook’s Kim agrees. “Will the vehicle be used primarily off-road, on-road or on all terrain? Will the tire be used for recreational or commercial purposes? Durability requirements factor into what consumers need for their vehicles.”

Conti’s Roffler also spells it out: “Study! Become a true product specialist. The off-road enthusiast knows what he or she wants; make sure you can provide the right tire for those needs. Learn the technology as well as the features and benefits of these tires to avoid misapplication.”

Along those lines, Cooper’s Stoltz adds, “In the off-road community, consumers typically are very well-informed and knowledgeable on the performance of their vehicle and tires. A dealer who supports this segment also must be very well-informed and knowledgeable. Understanding the market and consumers’ wants and needs is critical to success, along with understanding the product features that can meet those needs.”

Roffler and Stoltz each cited their companies’ online training programs – Conti’s Engage 360 and eCooper University, respectively – as great resources for keeping apprised of the latest products in this segment.

Lastly, ensure your shop’s equipment is up to the task of servicing these larger tires. “Off-road LT tires are big and heavy – the key is to have the right mounting equipment and machinery to lift and mount the tires,” Kumho’s Brennan explains. “The increased weight of these tires makes changing them very difficult with old equipment. Also, the larger size of off-road LT tires and the infrequency of purchases per size makes inventory management crucial to having the right tires for the right customer.”

In the end, just as these hard-working tires are capable of attaining great heights, so, too, can dealers who are willing to put in the extra effort.

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