Hidden strength: Is the UK becoming an all-season tyre market?
For a decade or more the case has been made for the development of winter tyre market in the UK. While there have always been residual levels of winter tyre take-up in the most northerly and mountainous parts of Britain, in the past 10 years or so tyre manufacturers have invested considerable time, effort and resources in making it a relatively normal part of the UK tyre culture. In recent years there has been development in the winter tyre market and it seems clear that this has far from peaked. However, at the same time there is now evidence that sales of all-season tyres have matched and overtaken these. With all this in mind Tyres & Accessories spoke with representatives of Bridgestone, Falken and Hankook and asked what is the right tool for the job in the UK? And is the UK becoming an all-season tyre market?
While there has been talk of introducing winter tyres to the UK since the turn of the millennium, efforts to develop a British winter tyre market really gained pace around 2004/2005. And while research from the obviously winter-based Nordic and the now majority winter German markets were certainly not discounted, the Netherlands was held up a as the most comparable case study. Despite a similar climate and relatively small overall size, the Dutch winter tyre market had grown first to low double digits before reaching a fifth of the market. This was reportedly achieved by a three-pronged attack – a unified pro-winter industry position, pro-winter legislation and fleet integration. Indeed in some ways this kind of three pronged attack can also be seen as a three phase plan. Either way the idea was to try and incubate the embryonic British winter tyre market through the same development process.
By 2006 and with the serious entrance of additional new tyre manufacturers such as Michelin the market was beginning to take shape outside the ranks of the existing leaders Continental and Vredestein. Apart from its typical long-term outlook, which was shared by the other premium players, what Michelin brought to the table was access to fleets, with a pilot scheme beginning with selected customers the year before (2005) in the north of England. Full-year 2005 figures that Tyres & Accessories, in 2006 show that all this pushed winter tyre sales up to around 54,000 non-truck winter tyres; still this only represented roughly half a per cent market share.
Communications were centred on the below seven degrees message, which argues that winter tyre compounds are designed to operate best in temperatures experienced by many of us in Britain (especially commuter drivers) for most of the year. This took the emphasis off a direct correlation with the falling of snow and brought with it a slight change in nomenclature, with several PR and marketing departments switching to the term “cold weather tyres” for the same reason. However, this approach has not been consistent and thus the market is now a patchwork of such terms (something that is also due to the varying approaches to winter tyre marketing we will encounter latter). Nevertheless it should also be said that evidence still supports these arguments. Last year alone, the Met Office recorded 147 days between the end of October and March where the temperature dropped below this level.
Nevertheless three winters of significant snowfall in the 2009 – early 2011 period combined with increased fleet sales, and the adoption of tyre hotels by a number of leading car dealers and tyre retailers all helped push the market up to new heights. A lack of a full-blown snowfall in 2011 meant the growth that had been accelerating year after year was tough to continue. However, at the start of 2012 T&A reported that annual demand for winter tyres in the UK had grown to around 450,000 units – something like eight-times its 2005 levels. As good as this is, it is still some way off the three million unit (10 per cent share) target market influencers had said was a long-term goal back in 2005.
Source: T&A research courtesy of Goodyear
Source: T&A research courtesy of Goodyear
Are all-season tyres are a hidden strength?
The latest sell-out data shows that winter tyre sales fluctuated somewhat between 2010 and 2012. 2011 marked the peak, according to one source, at around 330,000 units. What has not been publically discussed until now is that all-season tyres seem to have been the market’s best kept secret. In all three years all-season tyre sales outperformed winter tyre sales virtually doubling them in 2010. The relative stability of all-season sales – especially when compared with winter sell-out volumes – suggests that sales of these products are also a safer bet for UK manufacturers and distributors alike.
In addition we have to take stock of the fact that the combined winter and all-season sales reported suggest that total “seasonal” tyre sales represent a much bigger piece of the pie than anyone has been prepared to admit publically before. Of course all these conclusions are fraught with difficulty due to problems defining what an all-season tyre actually is. For example the Hankook Optimo 4S is pitched and marketed as an all-season product, but also bears the snowflake insignia of a bona fide winter tyre. Of course this just one example, but there are others, and yes this is largely to do with the fact that this categorisation is only dependent on the successful attainment of a particular straight line ice grip co-efficient. Magazine tyre tests have repeatedly demonstrated only out-and-out winter tyres perform the best in snow and ice conditions. And with unclear definitions the risk of double counting is higher. But it is still hard to argue away the simple facts that a) significant numbers of all-season tyres are being sold on a relatively consistent basis; and b) more all-season tyres appear to be sold each year than winter tyres.
Nevertheless Mark Grace, marketing manager at Hankook Tyre (UK) Ltd remains optimistic about winter tyres, but firmly backs both options: “British drivers are more aware than ever of the benefits of fitting winter tyres and, in recent years, demand has been so high that dealers have sold out of stock. This usually happens during icy spells, suggesting that UK consumers are reacting to conditions rather than planning ahead for the colder months.
“Whilst dealers should be prepared for increased demand year-on-year, those opting for winter tyres are still in a minority and there is continued confusion as to whether all-season tyres are actually more suited to UK conditions. Hankook has experienced positive sales results for both winter and all-season options, as more people begin to understand the importance of choosing the correct tyre.”
There is also room for further communication and education about what winter tyres really are, according to Grace: “Many people mistakenly believe that winter tyres are only for use in snow and ice but that simply isn’t the case.” And this combined with the perceived expense of winter tyres is said to be “off putting to many consumers.” The thinking is that although winter tyres are usually priced similarly to their summer counterparts, the initial outlay can seem too much. And for those without the space to store spare tyres through their respective off-seasons, winter tyres may simply not be an option.
And here’s where all-season tyres come in, Grace explains, pointing out the limitations of each option: “For those that still feel winter tyres are too inconvenient or costly, all-season tyres can be a good compromise, but they are just that – a compromise. Most all-season tyres will perform much better in cold weather than summer patterns and will usually handle well in warmer months too.”
Nevertheless, economic factors remain key from Hankook’s point of view with recent company research showing that two thirds of UK drivers are influenced by price when choosing tyres. However “as more people begin to understand the benefits, we do expect sales of winter tyres to rise significantly”, Grace concluded.
Like Hankook, Falken pointed to the challenging economic climate still as a reason why drivers may be reluctant to purchase a second set of tyres for seasonal use. This financial pressure on consumers is reinforced by recent research into customer tyre wear undertaken by Micheldever. The results revealed that 58 per cent of the vehicles surveyed had at least one tyre below the legal tread depth of 1.6 mm; over 95 per cent of vehicles had a tyre below 2 mm.
“Without a doubt, swapping to winter tyres is a sensible approach for any motorists planning to drive even moderate distances in weather where there is a risk of winter weather,” says Matt Smith, UK and Ireland director of Falken Tyres. “But, encouraging drivers to purchase a second set of tyres that are only practical for a limited timeframe can be difficult when cash-strapped consumers are already opting for part-worns, or purchasing individual tyres per dealer visit.”
Yet Smith accepts that some are choosing all-season tyres, “merging the benefits of winter and summer tyres into one, all-season tyres present a cost-effective solution to retaining grip, handling and tyre life throughout the year”. He pointed to Falken’s recently announced EuroAll Season AS200 as an example.
“Falken now offers consumers an affordable tyre that’s usable 365 days a year, to take out the worry and inconvenience of swapping between summer and winter tyres,” continued Smith. “Our engineers created an all-new rubber compound, comprising of enhanced silica content and a high proportion of styrene groups. This delivers exceptional wet handling and shorter braking distances.”
To help extend the lifetime of the AS200 against a range of environmental influences that the tyre will be required to endure, an anti-aging mechanism has been added to the lower reservoir tread. From there, it continuously permeates to the outer tread providing protection against premature wear of the running surface.
“Innovations such as the anti-aging mechanism allow Falken to produce tyres that meet and exceed motorists’ expectations for performance and endurance; yet can be sold at affordable prices. This can help to ensure that consumers are offered safe and reliable tyres regardless of the season,” concludes Smith.
Bridgestone affirms pro-all-season position
Bridgestone’s North Region communications manager Andy Dingley said that the most suitable tyre for winter months depended on the climate itself, but admitted that all-weather tyres might represent the most compelling proposition for motorists in the UK. Of course in his view the brand’s Weather Control tyres are ideal for motorists when conditions are typically British.
“The Bridgestone A001 Weather Control has been developed for specific European regions with moderate climates and wet, light winters such as the UK, Ireland and Belgium. The new Bridgestone A001 Weather Control is designed to give drivers in these regions a confident, safe driving experience all year round without compromise.”
The company also sought to “balance” the advice offered by several other tyre makers: “Many motorists are being given inaccurate advice about winter tyres in this country. We feel that a balance must be struck where families can drive safely in all road conditions in the UK without breaking the bank, and Weather Control tyres could be that balance for many motorists.”
So with the numerical evidence appearing to suggest that there is more demand for all-season demand than we might have previously thought and with some of the leading and growing tyre manufacturing ranging from supportive to outright promoting all-season tyres, it seems clear that this part of the car tyre segment is now well and truly part of the UK tyre markets.