Drivers are as excited as children waiting for the year's final school bell to hit the road and travel this summer.
And with much of the country opening up again as COVID-19 cases are decreasing and vaccinations increasing, the tire industry may be poised for a very good season.
"I think the volume of driving is picking up, and I think it's going to steadily increase over the summer months," Robert Clark, managing director of retail operations for Dunn Tire L.L.C., noted.
Clark expects the Buffalo, N.Y.-based dealership's 26 stores to experience strong sales this summer, both for tires and automotive service, as people prep their vehicles for road trips and vacations.
"With the vaccinations being where they are, and the mask mandates being (pulled) back, I think people are feeling like the pandemic is over to some extent. But I still think there is going to be a lot of people opting for road trips in the summer months as opposed to air travel."
American Tire Distributors Inc. (ATD), the largest independent tire distributor in North America, has been anticipating strong summer demand, and ATD's supply-chain teams "have stayed proactive in anticipation of these issues and have been dealing with each issue as they surface," according to Mark Chandler, ATD's senior vice president of supply chain.
"As COVID restrictions relax around the country, we anticipate families going on more vacations this summer, getting out of the house, and doing more driving. That should translate into a robust summer driving season," Chandler said.
"Regarding supply for this summer, while overall supply has been challenging, we've been building our inventory for the summer driving season to make sure we have ample supply for what our customers will need," Chandler said. "Given all the challenges the industry is seeing, we feel we'll be in very good shape with supply as we go through the summer."
AAA Travel predicts the rush for the open road will start Memorial Day weekend as more than 37 million are expected to travel 50 miles or more from home, an increase of 60 percent from last year when only 23 million traveled.
AAA said more than nine in 10 holiday travelers plan to drive to their destination.
"I really do think the summer driving is going to be very, very significant this year," Clark said. "I'm not sure that bump that we normally see in volume really got to the level that it could have last year with people not traveling as much during the pandemic.
"I really think there is some pent-up demand out there for getting out and getting back on the road, and I think it's going to have a significant impact in the summer months for us," he said, adding that he expects the dealership to have stronger sales for the year as well, compared with 2020.
Goodyear, in a survey conducted in April, found 73 percent of drivers plan to take a road trip this summer; 65 percent said the trip would be more than 200 miles.
The company surveyed 2,300 U.S. drivers in two surveys conducted April 14-21.
Goodyear said 80 percent of respondents said they are more comfortable—amid lingering COVID-19 uncertainties—to travel by personal vehicle.
When asked why road travel was the preferred mode of transportation, respondents cited cost, convenience—"being able to stop whenever I want"—and the ability to visit other destinations along the way.
A similar survey conducted by Bridgestone Americas Inc., also found around 80 percent of respondents said they feel safer traveling by car than other modes of transportation. The survey was conducted May 12-18 with a total of 1,068 responses.
While Bridgestone noted trepidation among those surveyed about attending large gatherings and continued worry about the pandemic, half of the people said they plan to take a trip by car this year. One-third of respondents also plan to travel more than 500 miles.
While drivers may be ready for the road, Bridgestone's survey found their tires may not be, as 43 percent of respondents said they haven't checked tire pressure in the last three months.
"Over the past year, many Americans have understandably delayed routine tire and vehicle maintenance, which is why we are urging drivers to take some simple steps to ensure their vehicle and tires are road trip ready," Robert Johnson, vice president of stores, Bridgestone Retail Operations, said. The company said drivers should check tire pressure, thread depth, oil and battery.
"A successful road trip starts long before you pull out of the driveway with proactive vehicle and tire maintenance."
Returning to normal
Even before the summer vacation season began, Hankook Tire America Inc., through its Hankook Tire Gauge Index, claimed Americans are resuming regular driving habits.
The most recent Hankook survey found about 45 percent of respondents said they are driving every day, which is more than twice as many as the same time last year (20 percent).
Driving habits are nearly back to pre-pandemic levels as 54 percent of those surveyed claimed they drove daily prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. About 44 percent of respondents said they are commuting to their offices or schools, the same as pre-pandemic.
The survey indicated an increased reliance on automotive transportation over public transportation and ride sharing. About 78 percent of respondents ranked the automobile as the mode of transportation they most likely will use through August 2021.
"Our latest Gauge Index indicates people are relying on cars more than ever as they resume daily routines, and demonstrates increased confidence in returning to school, work and social activities," JJ Park, Hankook's director of marketing, said.
"Understanding these shifting trends in Americans' attitudes and opinions about driving offers both the auto and travel industry important cues about consumers' plans as we emerge from the pandemic, further helping them to navigate the road ahead."
The Gauge Index also indicates Americans generally are more positive about travel overall.
More than two-thirds of respondents said they expect to embark on their next trip before the end of the summer. with 70 percent expecting to drive to their next vacation spot rather than getting on a plane. This is due to several factors, Hankook said, including personal preference (47 percent), an added feeling of safety (45 percent) and increased flexibility with travel plans (49 percent).
What's hot for summer?
SimpleTire.com said demand is rising for SUV/CUV tires, and last summer's popularity outdoor activities should have an impact this year,
The online tire sales platform connects consumers with more than 300 tire brands and a network of 20,000-plus tire installation businesses across the country.
"Right now, some of our top tire segments include all-season, all-terrain and mud-terrain tires. We see healthy growth in these areas likely due to the rise in purchasing of SUV/CUV vehicles," the company said. "Throughout COVID, we also saw an increase in the purchase of tires geared towards performing in off-road conditions. This trend could be from a new focus on outdoor activities during the pandemic or related to our availability of product that could be otherwise hard to find at traditional retailers."
Josh Simpson, ATD's senior vice president of proprietary brands, also said the SUV and light truck segments were up coinciding with the demand for those vehicles. He also noted a strong demand for delivery-truck tires.
"We continue to see a positive trend in our commercial applications, like the Hercules Terra Trac CH4, given the continued growth trend around mobile services and deliveries," Simpson said of the ATD-owned Hercules brand. "People are changing the way they shop and are relying more heavily on home delivery services, like Amazon, that rely on those commercial application fitments."
GB Auto Service Inc.—ranked as the seventh largest independent tire retailer in the U.S., according to Tire Business research—hopes to see a shift from lower-tier tires to Tier 1 and 2.
GB Auto CEO Frank Kneller said the company has seen demand increase for "open price-point" tires since the start of the pandemic. But, he added, as supply for those entry-level tires fluctuates, there will be opportunity to sell Tier 2 tires this summer.
"Even though this (lower-tier) segment continues to grow in demand, the Tier 2 tires, such as Kumho, Hankook, Nexen, Yokohama and even Cooper will be able to supply more tires, and with consumer rebates in place for summer, I am certain they will have a better presence," Kneller said.
GB Auto owns and operates nearly 200 locations (under a number of store banners) from Texas to California. Kneller sees continued recovery of the stores this summer.
"We have a strong focus in moving sales to our Tier 2 and Tier 1 brands as we are able to offer more consumer rebates and build confidence," Kneller said.
Tire Outlet Direct L.L.C., an independent retailer and automotive service provider in Northeastern Florida with a dozen location, is seeing the "usual" demand for UHP tires.
"High-performance and ultra-high-performance always trends in the late spring and summer, so we are seeing those two segments trending upwards right now," Robert Duckworth, chief operating officer at Tire Outlet, said. "All-terrain and mud tires—we anticipate to follow late summer when hunting season begins to kick off."
Two things that could hinder the uptick in sales for dealerships are shortages—both in product and employees.
Tire dealerships have been dealing with low fill rates on their orders due to temporary factory closures last spring and bottlenecks at the U.S. ports.
"We did bring in extra inventory to try and combat any supply issues that we foresaw coming, and I am glad that we did," Duckworth said. "We definitely saw shortages in select sizes, fill rates have been at an all time low, and the tariffs and price increases have disrupted the supply change as well.
"We saw major shortages in (truck tires) as well, and with the increased freight costs and workforce shortages, we haven't seem much relief in Q2 and anticipate the same in Q3. Luckily, we anticipated all this and adapted and brought in different lines and increased our min/max levels on our 'A' movers to ensure we had plenty of tires to make it through 2021."
Dunn Tire's Clark said his dealership, which also distributes on a wholesale basis to other retail dealers, has experienced shortages in some tire sizes and brands. He said he expects the shortages will continue throughout the summer.
"I am a little concerned that the factory shutdowns that happened almost a year ago at this point, those supply gaps are starting to catch up because our demand has been very steady, and I know that's true for a lot of dealers in the country," Clark said.
"Our demand has been pretty strong this year. We didn't see a big taper-off in demand in the first place," he said. "We had about six weeks during COVID where our demand was very significantly impacted but, outside of those six weeks, we've been pretty normal, actually, in volume. So those supply shortages when the different factories and production had to stop for days and weeks at a time, those are starting to catch up."
Chandler at ATD said the distributor has been in constant communication every level of its supply chain.
"We've been working with manufacturers using our data and analytics to give them a good view of what our needs will be and have shared our purchase forecasts with them so they can plan their production properly," he said. "We've also been working with our ocean carriers of our imported products to facilitate container availability and secure space on ships."
GB Auto service shops have been dealing with supply issues for months—in all segments, according to Kneller.
"With raw material on the rise, as well as logistics, even getting space on a vessel for imported tires has become very challenging," he said. "We have strong allies that were not impacted with import duties and although freight charges have increased we are still very competitive."
Shortages in job applicants are also a problem for many businesses. There has been a long-standing shortage of automotive technicians in the industry, but some dealerships, including Dunn Tire, have had a hard time filling all types of retail positions this past year.
Clark said the staffing shortage is "significantly worse" than before the pandemic.
"It's been a struggle and I suspect it's going to continue until September when some of the (unemployment) benefit packages might start expiring. I think that will be the first time we'll have a legitimate chance of building back up some of the work force that we need," Clark said.
Many business blame the extra federal unemployment benefits granted to those who were laid off during the pandemic, which some claim provide more income than a minimum wage job.
Tire Outlet's Duckworth said because of this, it is becoming harder to find skilled labor.
"We are forced to hire new 'green' help and train from within which takes a ton of time and effort," he said.
Jacksonville, Fla.-based Tire Outlet employs around 100.
"When opening new locations, we have to have a certain amount of staff that is not new to the industry to make an excellent first impression, and it is a very hard environment right now to find good experienced help."