Rubber meets road with tyre-delivery service

PHILADELPHIA, US – Philip Pifer concedes this: He’s not only in a business that isn’t “sexy, glamorous, or romantic.” It’s also something most people don’t want to think about.

Which is precisely why he thinks it will be a hit here. Or, in the vernacular of his trade, why it won’t go flat.

Only time will tell how right he is. TireVan’s rubber has only begun to meet the Philadelphia area’s roads.

The privately owned company opened seven years ago in Sterling, Va., to serve those around Washington who would rather not waste precious work hours or playtime waiting in a garage for new tires. TireVan comes to the customer.

In December, the firm quietly moved a fleet of trucks into a warehouse/depot in Broomall, Pa., to test the appeal of TireVan’s unique mobile-installation service, with its low-price guarantee, in the land of SEPTA buses and parking-kiosk critics.

More than 1,000 service calls later, Pifer, TireVan’s president and chief executive officer, was feeling confident enough last week to talk publicly about the company’s decision to expand into what he called “a tough market.”

“There are a lot of tyre options here,” he said during a visit to Philadelphia, where, those in the business say, demand is stronger for used tires than new ones.

Times also have been tough in the $30 billion replacement-tyre industry overall. Because of rising costs for oil – synthetic rubber’s feedstock – and limited supplies of foreign-grown rubber because of development of forests, U.S. tyre prices have gone up 30 percent in the last 12 to 18 months, Pifer said.

Flats aside, tyre buying is “very deferrable,” he added. Indeed, buyers seem to be doing a fair amount of putting off as the economy continues its recovery struggle.

“The tires we take off are far more worn today,” Pifer said, than the ones TireVan saw in 2008.

In the Washington market, overall tyre purchases are down 10 percent to 20 percent this year, he said. TireVan bucked that trend with an increase in sales, though he would not say how much.

Around Philadelphia, industry sales are down 15 percent to 25 percent this year, Pifer said. “If we could prove successful in Philadelphia, then there is no market we can’t be successful in,” he said.

Reaction was anything but alarm from two business owners who stand to lose customers to a competitor that offers something they do not.

At Aaron’s Side Saddle Auto Repair & Tyre Centre in Philadelphia’s West Oak Lane neighbourhood, Aaron Garrison, in business 21 years, said he welcomes TireVan’s arrival.

“They’re creating jobs,” Garrison said. “There’s enough work out here for everybody.”

At First Choice Automotive in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., owner Chris Huslin was not as gracious, shrugging off TireVan as “just another Johnny-come-lately” that does not have a chance of siphoning off his regular customers.

“After 18 years (in business), my customers are my customers,” Huslin said.

AAA need not worry.

“We’re not emergency road service,” Pifer said. “AAA is the best option to get your spare tyre on.”

TireVan customers can schedule service up to 30 days in advance. Technicians will return to address any problems with installation, including manufacturer defects.

Along with the tyre price, customers are charged a $25-per-wheel installation fee for a standard-size tyre and a $20 mobile-service levy.

Technicians are equipped with top-of-the-line tools, including computerised diagnostics. And they only do tyres. They will not try to sell customers on an oil change or new brakes, Pifer assured.

Given the size of the tyre market, thanks to all those folks with something parked in their driveways or garages, Pifer said success here for TireVan does not mean “a terribly large share.” The company’s goal is to have 5 percent to 10 percent of this area’s tyre business within five to seven years, he said.

Franchising is a model TireVan is considering for future growth as it looks to establish a national presence, Pifer said. Within six months, the company will open in a third major market – one he would not identify.

Russell Mayall is just glad it is here now.

About three weeks ago, the Bensalem retiree awoke to discover someone had slashed a total of six tyres on the 2011 Chevrolet Equinox and the 2002 Monte Carlo parked in his driveway.

“Both have aluminum wheels, so I didn’t feel like having them picked up and dragged on a trailer,” Mayall recalled last week. TireVan “came out and changed them right there in the driveway. It turned out real well.”

He had heard of TireVan from television commercials – “not thinking I would have to use them at all,” Mayall said, wryly adding:

“Someone decided I was going to have to do that.”

Source: New Observer