Four options? The whys and wherefores of winter tyres in the UK
There is no question that winter 2010/2011 was a great success when it came to the sales of cold weather tyres. Many wholesalers and distributors found that their projections were far too low; some wholesalers reported that they sold three to four times more than they expected, while tyre manufacturers said they would have supplied more if their factories could produce them fast enough.
The fact that it was the second consecutive “severe” winter in the UK really helped drive home the issue. And the combined efforts of retail chains; car dealerships and the industry mean that there is still momentum in this pre-season before the mercury drops. ATS Euromaster for example bought in £3 million of winter tyre stock last season and are doubling it this year, (see separate article for more details). Meanwhile Mercedes and BMW began promoting tyre hotels, making the two-sets-of-wheels model a reality. But what about this winter and the winters to come? Tyres & Accessories asked Bridgestone North Region sales and marketing director Andy Lane, who has the unique responsibility of overseeing sales in the classic winter markets of the Nordic countries and the more complex and temperate conditions of the UK.
Last year around 400,000 winter tyres were sold in the UK in an annual car, van and 4×4 sector that Bridgestone counts at 28 million tyres. This may not sound like much in the grand scheme of things but to put it into perspective, this figure has grown to 10 times the size it was in 2003 (40,700 units). According to Lane, this figure could continue to swell to 500,000 in 2011, but the realities of our temperate climate means there is always a degree of uncertainty attached to such prognoses. And as long as countries like the UK (along with the Republic of Ireland to give another example) are connected to the Gulf Stream this will continue.
All weather tyres central to Bridgestone’s ‘common sense’ approach
As a result, and in spite of the recent growth of this segment, some manufacturers are maintaining a measured approach: “We need to behave responsibly,” Andy Lane told T&A, explaining that when it comes to the fitment of winter tyres in the UK, Bridgestone’s policy is to recommend three key options to consumers seeking to replace their tyres during the colder months:
- New standard tyres, properly inflated with at least 3mm of tread
- Winter tyres
- All season/all weather tyres
Bridgestone’s first option is presented as a common sense approach to people driving relatively low mileages and for whom car travel is non-essential. The thinking here is that, due to economic climate, the purchase of a complete set of winter tyres and wheels could be prohibitive. In this instance the year-round benefits of a new tyre and correct pressures are seen as the key positive rather than risking scaring off a consumer that may otherwise drive on bald tyres. It’s not the first choice, but it is better than illegal tyres.
Option two is the targeted presentation of a dedicated winter tyre product. Below seven degrees Celcius and especially in ice and snow coated conditions these performance of such tyres. However, due to the logistics necessary and the investment involved Bridgestone plans to present these products primarily to high mileage drivers and those for whom mobility is essential – those living and working in remote areas, emergency services personnel and utility company employees.
As we have seen option three is particularly useful for those in severe weather and who need guaranteed access to the roads. But there is still significant hassle and expense involved that may price low to mid mileage and low to mid budget motorists out of the market. And it is on this point that Bridgestone is making its clearest promotion yet of its all-season offering.
Tyres & Accessories late put to Andy Lane that there is a fourth option, which perhaps could be described as a realist scenario: that of the year-round winter fitment. Bearing in mind the combination of harsh weather for the last two winters and tough economic conditions isn’t it likely that some of the category one or three consumers that purchased winter tyres during the last downfall of snow may still be using them now? True these tyres’ performance is not at its best as long as it is over 7 degrees – treadwear and wet braking are adversely affected too, but judging by low levels of general tyre awareness amongst the populous, isn’t it more than likely that they haven’t noticed these subtle performance drop offs?
And it is in dealing with this group of consumers that Bridgestone has come out particularly in favour of all-season tyres (although the Japanese-based tyre manufacturer prefers the term all-weather tyres, opting to associate the selection of its products with actual conditions rather than varying imprecise seasonal variations). The thinking is that while the tyres are not as good as summer or winter tyres in dry of snow weather, the all-weather tyres offer the best all-round solution for the majority of drivers over here.
Bearing the snowflake that actually qualifies it to be called a winter tyre if it wants to, Bridgestone’s A001 all weather product is at the forefront of the company’s actions. Sales of this tyre are said to have been satisfactory during the last year, but there is the clear expectation that they will grow with executives forecasting that volumes will triple in 2011. “If the snow comes it could be extremely positive, therefore I believe the best approach is to offer good, solid advice to consumers,” Lane commented.
Confusion in the legislature
If you look at the tyre markets around Europe, something the strongest winter tyre sectors have is legislative support – apart from more consistent weather that. So is legislation, or even official recommendation, likely over here?
According to the Hansard database of official parliamentary records, on 13 January 2011 Steve Baker MP asked the secretary of state for Transport what assessment he has made of the merits of (a) mandatory and (b) voluntary adoption of winter tyres on British roads. In response Mike Penning, under secretary of state for Transport said: “The Department for Transport has not undertaken a formal assessment on the merits of a mandatory requirement for drivers to fit winter tyres when driving on British roads.” Good to know that our elected representatives are well-placed to avoid the winter tyre clangers transport minister Phil Hammond dropped in 2010. That fiasco aside, which also saw the perpetuation of misunderstandings regarding winter tyres’ apparent propensity to tear up tarmac – err, that’s studded tyres Phil, not winter rubber – aside, it is at least good to have some official clarity on the government position on the subject.
In answering Steve Baker’s parliamentary question, Mike Penning continued: “It is appropriate for drivers rather than government to make that decision about tyre choice and factors such as the costs of purchasing winter tyres, storing the original set of tyres, and refitting them when the conditions improve will be part of their consideration. The tyre industry provides advice and guidance to help people make that choice.” Good to know that motorists are empowered to make their own choices about tyre selection. But it doesn’t seem like the government is going to be very forthcoming when it comes to explaining or promoting the benefits of these products. So the ball’s very much back in the industry’s court.
With this in mind it is probably fair to say that no laws are likely in the short term, but Bridgestone could well do something to promote appropriate tyre fitment of its own volition. While plans are yet to be confirmed, it looks likely that we can expect a British equivalent of the Dutch “R” in the month campaign. This could take the form of a “time to check, time to change” publicity campaign based on reminding people to see if their tyres are appropriate to the weather conditions at the two times a year that the clocks change.
With run-flats, TPMS and labelling there is every sign that “people are getting more interested in tyres,” Lane explains. It might be economically driven, with fuel and tyre prices increasing across the board, but anything that helps raise awareness of the benefits of good tyre selection have got to be a good thing. And it seems clear that Bridgestone believes that raising standards in general will also have a positive affect on winter tyre sales in particular.