Alloy Wheel Aftermarket Report:
The alloy wheel aftermarket in the UK has seen a number of changes over the past decade many of which are continuing today. If we go back 10 years, the majority of the wheels sold were sold by tyre dealers.
Admittedly, not every tyre dealer felt comfortable selling alloys and many shied away from what they perceived as potential technical problems, but for those who did, it was a nice little earner. The market potential was not lost on the Auto Accessory stores and they began to make inroads.
What was worse from the tyre dealers’ viewpoint was that the Auto Accessory stores more often than not offered a wheel and tyre package, so not only was the tyre dealer losing the wheel sale, but the tyre sale as well. One of the people who supplied information for this article – and I pass on my thanks to those who contributed, whether they asked remain anonymous or not – estimated that nine out of 10 Auto Accessory store sales were wheel and tyre packages, with customers either fitting the wheels themselves, or going to local garages for fitment. Apart from the loss of business for tyre shops, fitting tyres at home offers potential for incorrect fitments, wrong sizes and so on.
A comment received when writing this article said: “It seems obvious that if a car owner wants to buy alloys, then the ideal place to go is a tyre depot which can also offer advice on the correct size tyre and carry out the installation.” However, our correspondent goes on to make the point that there are many tyre outlets that do not know what the correct size of tyre should be – particularly as in many cases, the fitting of alloys involves an upgrade in wheel size. This is enough to scare off many tyre dealers, but there are a number of companies willing to offer technical advice just a phone call away. Still, many dealers are reluctant to get involved in wheels. Whether this is because they cannot be bothered or because they do not feel comfortable about ringing up for advice with the customer standing in front of them, only they can say.
Many in the business are keeping a cautious eye on the Internet and wondering whether it will prove to be a blessing or a curse – will it exacerbate the trend towards buying and self-fitment, or will it encourage members of the public to source wheels from those tyre dealers who specialise in alloys? Only time will tell, but it seems likely that you ignore on-line purchasing at your peril, certainly in the long term.
Reversing the trend
Having painted this gloomy picture for the tyre retailer, at least one of our contributors believes that there is a ray of hope and that, over the past year or 18 months, there has been a trend back towards buying wheels from the tyre dealer. The main reason for this is the growing complexity and diversity of the car parc – with the number of sizes seemingly inexorably rising, it becomes physically impossible for the Auto Accessory stores to stock all the tyre sizes required and so they tend to restrict their wheel/tyre combinations to the more popular, mainstream sizes. After all, they have so many products on their shelves that there is only so much room for wheels and tyres so it makes sense to major in on those sizes that have the bigger shares of the market.
For the tyre dealer, however, it is different; tyres are what he deals in and his stock is more likely to include the rarer sizes. So we are looking at a fragmentation of the market, with the Auto Accessory stores dealing in what, for want of a better word, we can call “commodity” sizes, while the more specialised fitments are carried out by the tyre dealer.
What else is affecting the market? One factor is that more vehicles are being fitted with alloys as original equipment, although we are often told that fitting alloys is a fashion statement, so if your new Fiesta has the same style as all the other Fiestas, what does that say about your individuality?
In the tyre market, many of its problems have been laid at the door of cheap budget tyres, often manufactured in very low-cost countries. In general, our respondents did not seem to think that this was a major problem for the alloy wheel market, although one did concede that “spot buying from Asia” was having an effect. Another contributor suggested that in recent years we have seen a number of companies setting themselves up as importers of wheels. All too often, these lack any back-up organisation or technical expertise and the only way to make sales is by offering a low price.
A few years ago, it was very easy to be part of the wheel business; with the emphasis on cheap wheels, the entry level was very low. As the price of alloys fell, the size of the market increased as more people found that they could afford a set of wheels. Unfortunately, this is not sustainable and, it was suggested, these sales have peaked and we are seeing sales fall as distributors, manufacturers and retailers have exhausted the entry-level market. As a consequence, the market for cheap alloys is falling.
Part of this cheaper end of the market has been the “boy racer” and the UK has more of these than countries such as Germany, which are held up as examples of buoyant tuning markets. But while Germany may not have as many boy racers, it does have a significant tuning market, many of who tend to be a little bit older and prepared to spend more on their cars. What is more important, they actually have more money available to spend, which is our next important factor affecting the market.
Competition for Wheels
When a person buys a new tyre, it is usually a distress purchase and only done to make sure that the car can keep moving. For wheels, however, the purchasing motive is entirely different – we said earlier that alloy wheels are a fashion accessory and people buy them because they want to look good, or to differentiate themselves from the herd, or to win the approval of their peers. In short, alloy wheels are a luxury item and your car will still function perfectly well without them.
Kevin Greer, the sales and marketing director of Alcar Wheelwright, expressed this perfectly when he said: “We are chasing people’s disposable income and there are so many other new gadgets for people to buy.” It is true that a person only has so much money to spend on luxuries, so what comes first? Is it cooler to have the latest all-singing, all-dancing mobile phone that can send videos and take photos, or a set of new wheels for the car? An I-pod or an alloy? Choices have to be made as there is only so much money to go round and the number of new, must-have gadgets grows daily.
Consumer confidence is another significant factor – if people are worried about the future and their finances (and I write this as the Budget is due) then they will be more careful about their expenditure.
So what is the prognosis for the UK wheel market? Despite the slightly negative tone of much of this article, the general attitude is one of optimism. Firstly there is the seasonal aspect (“When the sun shines, people buy wheels,” says Kevin Greer) and there seems to be a growing feeling that the days of the cheap wheel are numbered as the market evaporates.
One phrase uttered by more than one contributor was “niche markets” and it would appear to be that this is where many companies selling wheels will be concentrating their efforts in future, selling quality products at the top end of the market.
Most people agree that the size of the overall market is getting smaller and, by aiming at the niches, volume sales look set to fall even further. However, niche markets tend to be profitable markets so, although volumes may be down, then at least the retailer can sell at a profit and, as one contributor put it: “isn’t that what it’s all about after all?”