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Meet the “Playahs” in Today’s Tuner Market

Adapted from Mary Aichlmayr’s article in Tire Review

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As you begin your career in the automotive aftermarket, you could be a member of the most profitable customers repair shops and tire dealers ever see. This unique group of customers – tuners, enthusiasts, restylers, whatever you want to call yourself – is often left frustrated trying to deal with dealers. Why? Because the aftermarket may not yet understand you.

Of course there is no such thing as a “quintessential tuner.” As performance customers, everyone is different in one important way or another, especially in buying habits and brand/store loyalty.

But tuners do have some common denominators. As a group, 18- to 25-year-olds have far more disposable income than their predecessors. They are not rich kids spending dad’s money; they have jobs and work hard for every dime.

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Bombarded by so many marketing messages over their lives, they tend to be less brand loyal than their parents, but will become rabid supporters of brands and stores that demonstrate a willingness to develop a relationship with them.

In a world that markets sameness, you strive for individuality – in your dress, hair, attitudes and, most importantly, your rides. Those brands and stores that respect you as individuals earn your support.

Another common point: Tuning is less about customizing than it is about individualizing; it is an intensely personal hobby, and tuners will spend countless hours – and thousands of dollars – enhancing their rides.

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What You’re Buying
There’s no denying the opportunity. According to research from the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), the tuner segment generated $3 billion in sales in 2003, including appearance accessories, suspension components, performance/racing products, and of course, ultra-high performance tires and custom wheels.

But that’s only scratching the surface. That’s not the only reason tuners are lucrative.

The tuner market has been growing at a 35% annual rate, says SEMA, with performance tires and custom wheels taking a large share of the business. And because more than 65% of these enthusiasts buy their cars used, they’re big buyers of replacement parts and service.

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So why is your group sought after? Consider this: the average tuner, being around 20 years old, has at least 40 more years of tire and service buying ahead. Capture them now, and they are captured for life.

Tuners also purchase tires and wheels more often than everyday customers. And, tuners spend large amounts of money on appearance accessories and vehicle modifications – everything from exhaust and suspension upgrades to underbody lights, neon pedals, bodykits, spoilers, stereo systems and racing seats. The profit potential is endless.

So let’s look at some of the Tuner Myths about the future aftermarket buyers.

Tall Tales Debunked
Ironically – and unfortunately from a profitability standpoint – your most fruitful set of customers are arguably the most misunderstood. So, to describe tuners accurately, we’ll need to bust a few well-worn myths.

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Myth One: Tuners are inexperienced, uneducated “kids.”

Not so. Take 19-year-old Harry Perrette of Cocoa Beach, FL, for example. Perrette did all of the custom bodywork on his 1992 Toyota Celica himself and even owns his own vehicle customization company called Twisted Image East Coast Customs (www.tiecc.net). Perrette and his business partners created the custom taillights and vertical doors for his Celica. They also shaved the door handles, and Perrette says he’s getting ready to install a fiberglass interior.

As for tires and wheels, Perrette runs P205/60ZR15 Sigma tires on Motegi MR-7 15-inch wheels, but he wants to go up to 18-inchers soon.

Not only were the tuners we interviewed experienced and knowledgeable, they were extremely passionate about their hobby. Everything that college student Chris Darafeev in Upland, CA, learned about cars he learned through raw experience. Like Perrette, Darafeev also owns his own business, but his is devoted to custom lighting.

Darafeev’s car started life as a 1997 Hyundai Tiburon with an automatic transmission and about 90,000 miles on the odometer. With no experience whatsoever working on cars, he “stripped the car down to the bare metal and pulled everything out, including the wiring harness,” Darafeev says.

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“There was nothing but the actual frame. And, from there, I implanted a five-speed transmission to replace the automatic. I put in a brand-new engine and the whole wiring harness.”

Everything from the 1997 model – from the headlights, taillights and shifter cables to the fuel tank and lines, emissions equipment and the entire interior – was replaced with parts from a newer 2000 Tiburon.

Once the car was driveable, Darafeev then spent another $10,000 on bodywork and custom paint over a five-month period. “In the next few weeks alone,” Darafeev says, “the car will receive a full turbo kit, new exhaust, new sway bars, a new intake manifold, a new throttle body, stainless steel brake lines and new rotors and pads. Also in the works is the rest of my bodywork, including a vertical-door kit and full race cage.”

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It’s glaringly obvious – Darafeev is no ordinary 20-year-old. Still, he says that when he walks into performance shops, he is often treated, in his words, like a “typical inexperienced kid who wants to fix up his car.” That perception couldn’t be further from the truth.

Myth Two: When tuners decide which tires and wheels to buy, looks always come before price. Good looks are the end-all-be-all for these customers.

Though looking cool is integral to the tuner scene, these customers are, in fact, smart shoppers, weighing their options carefully and practically. While it’s true that some tuners have “sponsors” who subsidize their modification efforts (or “mods,” as they call them), most of the ones we spoke with paid for every accessory on their car – including the tires and wheels – out of their own pockets.

When 23-year-old Peter CT Pang from Toronto, Ontario, was shopping for new wheels for his 2000 Toyota Corolla, he looked for the best product at the best price. Pang bought his tires and wheels at the same shop, but it wasn’t originally a package deal. “I was just going to get the wheels, but then they offered me four tires for $200,” he says. So, he jumped on the deal.

And Pang wants his tires to last. “Tire wear is important,” he says, “because I don’t think most kids have money to buy tires every year.”

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Because Darafeev lives near congested Los Angeles and logs a lot of miles, he ends up replacing his tires more often than he’d like, so he looks for a good price. “I end up replacing tires often because my car is a street car, so I stick with the lesser brand,” he says. “Really, what I want is something with more grip that’s a lot softer, but when I’m using it as a daily driver, I can’t spend the extra bucks when it only takes one pothole to kill the whole thing.”

That said, however, tuners are still familiar with the old adage that you get what you pay for. Mark Calayag of Elmhurst, Ill., the 20-year-old owner of a tricked-out 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer OZ Rally, uses his car for racing and so is willing to spend more on tires. “The cheap ones might wear out after two laps,” he says. “A cheap tire at a cheap price is good for all-season, everyday street tires, but if I need a performance tire, I’ll spend more.”

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Myth Three: Tuners are predominantly male, so the industry should tailor its marketing to young men.

“Predominantly” is the key word here. We found female tuners who were just as into their cars as their male counterparts.

Twenty-year-old telecommunications assistant Ashleigh Scott calls her 2000 Ford Focus her baby. “Why have kids when you have a car?” she jokes. Unfortunately, Scott doesn’t feel she gets the respect she deserves from most automotive shops. “It’s how they treat me,” she explains. “I’m a girl.” But she doesn’t let that get in her way of getting a good deal. “If I think they’re trying to rip me off, I say, ‘Whatever. I don’t need you.'”

And, she knows when she’s getting ripped off. “I hang out with some people on racing teams, and I run the deal past them,” she says.

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Scott got her 17-inch Velox rims and 17-inch Falken tires from a small tire shop in Richmond, VA, close to her hometown of Woodbridge. She originally went to that shop because her stepfather referred her, but when the technician who installed her tires and wheels left the shop and got a new job with another dealer, her confidence – and her money – followed him.

She’s now a regular customer at that dealership. “He lets me watch him work on my car,” she says. “I want to trust people. I don’t want a cheap price from someone I don’t trust or don’t like,” she insists, adding, “I would prefer to pay more to feel comfortable.”

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It also bothers Scott when shop owners she hardly knows say they have to keep her car for long periods of time. “I want to feel like I know the person and can trust that person before I just hand over my car,” she says. That’s only natural for someone like Scott. After all, what kind of mother would just hand over her baby with no questions asked?

Myth Four: Tuners do most of their shopping online, so in-person, good customer service is basically moot.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. While it is true that tuners spend a lot of their time on the Internet – researching their next great mod, communicating with other tuners in chat rooms or posting and reading comments on Web forums – each and every tuner we talked to values good customer service.

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Tire dealers and shops should give tuners good service. “Just a friendly environment would be enough for me to keep going back,” says Pang. It’s the simple things that add up. For instance, Pang says he’d be happy if, each time he came into a shop, the dealer would simply look at his tires and check to see if his wheels are dinged. “It costs them nothing, but it’s going to build a good customer relationship,” says Pang.

Ty Carrigan, 20, a technician at a stereo-system retailer, does most of his mod shopping online – but not because he prefers it. On the contrary, he feels he has no other choice because of his location. “I’m in Stevens Point, WI, which is well away from the big city,” he explains. “You can’t really just walk into a local shop, so online, it seems, is where it’s at.”

Carrigan knows that big cities such as Milwaukee and Madison probably have more to offer him when he wants to spruce up his 2002 Acura RSX, but it’s not convenient for him to travel to those cities on a regular basis.

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An online resource does have a slight edge over a brick-and-mortar tire dealer; a Web site doesn’t have the overhead of a retail shop and so it can offer lower prices. Sixteen-year-old Jordan Feldman from Yorktown Heights, N.Y., ordered his Exel gunmetal DL-46 wheels and P215/35ZR19 Pirellis as a package from Wheelmax.com because the online shop offered free shipping and special package deals.

Besides the obvious ability to mount and balance tires and wheels, brick-and-mortar shops have something else online shops don’t – personal customer service. Carrigan bought his Axis Spider wheels online but purchased his Yokohama Parada Spec 2 tires from a brick-and-mortar shop.

“I do value customer service,” Carrigan says passionately. “It plays a huge part in my decision to buy something.

“Most of the time, it’s the little things,” he says. “I talk to people all the time who say they got their mods off the Internet. But, I wonder, what happens if they have problems? What if they need service? What are they going to do then?”

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So, how can tire dealers attract you as a customer and keep you for life? Impressions of tire and wheel dealers were generally not positive among the tuners we interviewed.

Ben Harrison, 18, from Wadsworth, Ohio, is fed up with the tire dealers he’s dealt with in the past.

“They think that, because I’m a young kid, I don’t know anything, and they’ll try to take advantage of that and shoot out high tire prices,” he says.

“I get ripped off a lot,” he says. So much, in fact, that he’d rather buy tires from a friend than go to a tire retailer. He just can’t find one that will be upfront and honest, especially about price, he says.

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And Harrison knows immediately when a price is too high. Like other tuners, he learned just about everything he knows through experience. He swapped the motor in his 1990 Honda CRX Si with another car’s and did all of the modifications himself – including a full body kit, ground-control coilovers and custom interior. He’s been into the tuner scene since he was 15 and is on his fourth CRX.

Currently, Harrison’s Honda sports Firestone Firehawk Indy 500 tires in size P195/50R15, but he hopes to go larger. He bought the tires used from a friend. Harrison says that, if he finds a tire dealer he likes dealing with, he’ll “definitely stay with that same person for everything,” he says.

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Feldman can relate. “There are a couple of tire dealers around here, but they are really expensive and nobody trusts them. Everyone thinks they try to rip people off,” says Feldman, the owner of a 2003 Toyota Celica GT-S. “Most of the time, the shops will tell you one price, then you go online and see another price. A lot of stores don’t even have the right parts in stock, so you might as well order online.”

Lance Nelms, 21, from Kingsport, Tenn., feels the same way. “When I go to buy tires or wheels, I want someone to talk straight with me,” he says, “someone who is into the aftermarket scene and knows about irregular tire wear, chrome peeling and other things. I want someone who is not afraid to say that a big brand of wheels almost always peels within two months of mounting them.”

A friend referred Nelms to an automotive shop that was more than an hour away from where he lived. He drove there anyway and says it was worth it. “There are a bunch of places near me, but they are all overpriced,” Nelms says.

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Use Kid Gloves
Most tuners just want tire dealers to care. As simple as that sounds, it’s still worth noting. A tiny scratch could be a tuner’s worst nightmare.

Calayag once had a tire and wheel assembly mounted and balanced at a local tire dealership, and the technician accidentally scratched the wheel. “I’m a patient guy,” Calayag admits. “But I was annoyed when they told me that no one would see the scratch anyway. I know what I want.”

There’s no denying it: Tuners are perfectionists when it comes to their cars. “I am pretty picky about my vehicle and love showing it off,” says Carrigan. “I want everything on it to be perfect.”

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That’s one other thing to understand. Tuners want to personalize their rides. The cars are extensions of their personalities. And they want to share that with others, whether informally in a parking lot or at more formal settings like local shows or races. Image is important, but so is the look.

“I won’t let anyone touch my car,” Harrison says proudly. He makes exceptions, though, for exhaust work and tire and wheel service. Like Ashleigh Scott, Harrison also calls his car his baby, and anybody who touches it had better be gentle.

There’s good reason he’s so protective: He appreciates his car more than others might because he worked various summer jobs to pay for everything himself, right down to the neon gas and brake pedals.

Tara Spencer, a 21-year-old from Lawton, OK, recalls a good experience she recently had with a tire dealer. “I had an issue with one of my tires, and I needed to get in contact with the person in charge of my sale,” she explains. “He was able to fix everything for me and was very good about keeping me up to date about the situation.”

When Spencer hands over her 1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse, she wants the person on the receiving end to give it a lot of TLC. “I don’t like to be just an order number,” she insists. “I like to establish a business relationship so that in the future, I can deal with them again or recommend them to other people and not worry that I will regret it.”

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Good communication is important to Spencer. “A lot of times, once the transaction is over, that’s the last you hear from them,” she said.

Stock Smartly
Granted, a typical independent tire dealer may not have the physical space or financial resources it takes to carry every new tire size and accessory that hits the tuner market. Tuner trends can fade away within a few weeks or months, rendering that shiny new inventory useless. So besides convenience, another reason tuners shop online is because they simply can’t find the tires, wheels or performance products they want, often because the local dealer just doesn’t carry them.

Spencer bought her 19×8 Motegi DPK wheels online only because she couldn’t find that size locally. “Those were really hard to find,” she says. “I went to every wheel place in town.”

Making matters more difficult, Spencer had a tight budget and a limited time frame – she was planning to go to a car show and wanted to get the wheels in time.

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Spencer remembers a particularly frustrating experience. She found the wheels she wanted advertised on a shop’s Web site, yet when she called, they weren’t in stock. “I had to start all over again,” she grumbles.

Stay Savvy
Additionally, it’s essential for any tire dealer that wants to sell to the tuner segment to keep up on the latest tuning trends. “I pour money into this hobby, and it’s important for a dealer to know the brands, know the import scene and be familiar with car shows,” says Calayag.

Most of the tuners we talked to attended events such as the SEMA Show, the NOPI Nationals, Hot Import Nights and Import Revolution, as well as local and regional car shows.

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A restaurant manager, Nelms says he would entrust his prize-winning 1998 Honda Accord (He won the People’s Choice award at the first car show he attended.) to a dealer that is open to new mod trends and concepts, such as spinners. Nelms rides on 18-inch FX M70 wheels and Nankang tires in size 225/40ZR18.

High-tech tools and an up-to-date showroom are also important to tuners. For example, Nelms was impressed with a software program a dealership used to “try out” different mods.

“The shop had this computer program where you could put wheels on your car and lower it and tint the windows. It was a pretty neat program,” he says.

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For most run-of-the-mill customers, buying tires is a “grudge purchase,” some tire dealers complain. Customers just don’t appreciate or understand tires, they say. For tuners, though, buying tires is important. It’s their passion. They know a lot about it, and they’re happy to spend the money.

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