I'm shopping for tires at my local store in Long Beach, California, when I say, "I need four 205/55/R16 Michelins. Tires, all the extras and tax, out the door. What's your best price?"
Standing in front of a row of service bays, Scott the manager says, "Who am I up against? Costco?"
"Yeah, and Discount Tires," I say. "Plus everybody on the Internet."
The Michelins on my 2004 Volvo station wagon are, put politely, shot. Rule of thumb in tire life is that the tread groove should be as deep as half your thumbnail. Having chewed up 46,253 miles' worth of road, my tread is maybe as deep as my thumbprint.
In a wildly varied price world where a set of tires that costs $700 at Tire Shop A can cost $900 at Tire Shop B down the street, tire buying is like a trip to Las Vegas — you can lose your shirt if you make the wrong bet.
The good news is that a decent set of tires today will last you half the life of your car. The bad news is that those tires can end up costing you twice their real value.
So, how not to get burned?
Plan for Extras
The first thing you need to know about tire buying is that it gets complicated. If you ask how much a tire costs, that's just the beginning of a string of charges and "upsells" for other services.
A tire isn't much use until it is mounted and balanced, a valve stem is installed and the old tires are carted off to their environmentally responsible reincarnation. All this can easily knock the price of a single tire up about $20 at such chains as Discount Tires.
That's not all. When you walk into your local tire store they know you are an easy mark for anything wheel-related — shocks, struts and brakes. So be ready for the inevitable upsell for these products, too.
To simplify things, try to get them to wrap it all up in one neat price — the "out the door" price — for four tires.
Bricks and Mortar vs. Online Tires
As Woody Allen once said, 90 percent of success is just showing up. If you want your tires done right, be there. Yes, it is simple to order online. My leased Volvo's Michelins are available at low cost — as low as $121 each — from Tiresavings.com. But buying tires online is a project. And I hate projects. Besides, who wants to cart tires all over town just to save pocket change? It's time-consuming, and time is money.
My Rx? Get a quote from Costco first. Costco stands behind everything it sells, from halibut to Hawaiian vacations. And it has notoriously affordable tires sometimes referred to as "club tires." Why spend a mortgage payment on new tires, have a flat on Dead Man's Curve and leave your surviving relatives with no legal recourse?
But, if you consider you are charging yourself for your own time, you must figure in the human factor, like what it will cost to keep yourself entertained while the tires are mounted. At Costco, the experience is linear, nothing but tires, tires, tires. But at Discount Tires you are vertically integrated into the wheel and shock absorber universe — eminently buyable examples of its "racing" wheels stand like Godzilla's coin collection in the waiting room amid catalogs for shock absorbers able to turn your buckboard SUV into Aladdin’s flying carpet.
Back to price. I can replace my Michelins at Discount Tires in Long Beach for $904.01 out the door — including all the extras: mounting, balancing, tire stems and disposal fees. (You used to get $2 apiece credit for your old tires as "retreads" — now you pay to get rid of them.) But if I go with Tiresavings.com I can get four of the MXV4 for $484, plus $91 for shipping for a subtotal of $575.
So, that appears like a huge savings. However, remember that you still have to taxi the tires from your doorstep to, say, your closest local service station where you will likely pay another $64 for mounting and balancing, stems and tire disposal. My advice if you decide on this route: Call your service station, work out an "out the door" mounting pact and have UPS "drop ship" the tires.
If, however, I go with Scott at my local place, I can split the difference at $675 — the price he charges for the Michelin package. This is a savings of $230 over what I'd pay at Discount Tires. First, though, I call Costco. Its verdict: "$625 and change." Now it is time to pit these reliable companies against each other. Wonder how that'll work?
Playing Two Ends Against the Middle
The devil is in the details. Remember that at places such as Discount Tire you have to tack another $20 on each tire for mounting, balancing, stems and a "disposal" fee for each tire, a $7 "state-required tire fee" you have to pay for the privilege of doing a tire transaction in California and, of course, sales tax. You are also invited to spend $59.96 on something called a "Life of the Tire Service Agreement" (but if you need to spend an extra $60 to warrant your warranty, you are purchasing the wrong product).
Again, this is a reason to be at the tire store to check out the details. But at the store you are vulnerable to spending a lot more money on "upsells." Things like new shock absorbers that can improve both your ride and your standing with your credit card company dramatically and make you wish you'd gotten into either crime or medical school.
More importantly, especially if you have an older car, a tire store can provide important, if painful, diagnostic information. The only thing more depressing than having a tire store manager lie to you about a need for expensive repairs like brakes and shocks is for him to be telling the truth. Which, sadly, he usually is. The main thing, however, is that before you sign off on the work, you know exactly what your final bill will be.
As a buyer, your chore is to triangulate at least three local tire venues and pit them against each other in a bidding war that'll save you money as you dig your way through retail topsoil toward wholesale bedrock. But take care, lest you work your way from unsuspecting rube to informed consumer, then past capitalist visionary to penny-pinching, stone-hearted jerk. I call back Discount Tires. The best it can do is $800, but it'll throw in a free alignment. So it's probably Costco this time. I'll be out the door as soon as I can find the $625 and change or...
Wait a second. There are lots of online tire sellers. I check out Tire Rack and not only does it have my Michelins for a very competitive $125 per tire but will ship them to Shoreline Motoring for only $44 and I can enjoy higher-quality loitering there for just $25 more than Costco.
The Score Card
It's hard to get each store to give a hard figure for four tires "out the door" since they know you will use this figure to cross-shop them against other cars. And there always seems to be some part of the puzzle you forget to include. For example, when ordering online there is shipping, which your local store won't charge you. But then again, sometimes you avoid the sales tax.
Still, we tried to add up all the prices we got for comparison's sake:
|Discount Tires (negotiated)||$800|
|Neighborhood tire shop (negotiated)||$675|
|Costco (wouldn't negotiate)||$625|
Tire buying is always about trade-offs. So it's either Costco, Shoreline Motoring or waiting 'til my lease runs out so I can turn my Volvo back to the dealer, the tread on its MXV4s as smooth as a baby's bottom. One or the other, whichever comes first.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.