Confessions of a Tire Salesman

When you're talking tires, consumers often stand to lose a lot of money. You want to drive safely, but don't want to break the bank just to put a new set of tires on your car. To keep you informed about how the tire business works, we talked to a tire industry expert. This insider's account will help guide you through this important automotive transaction.

My first job was bustin' tires for Firestone here in L.A. I started from the very bottom, changing tires and belts and doing oil changes. I went to work for another tire store and the service manager took a shine to me and said, "Come on up front, and when it's slow, I'll show you how to deal with customers."

Since then, I've spent about 20 years in the business and worked in a lot of different stores — some of which I didn't like much. But I learned a lot about that all-important moment when a customer comes up to the counter and says, "I need a new set of tires but I'm not sure what I want. Can you help me out?" What I know can help you get the right tires on your car and make sure you don't pay too much for things you don't need.

How the Game Is Played

To me, the tires are the most important part of the car. You only have four patches of contact between the vehicle and the road, and each one is only about the size of your hands. That means there's a lot of liability for the tire store. A good tire salesman, who knows his stuff, wants to help keep you safe. Another salesman might use this to scare you into buying a new set of tires before yours are worn out.

Tires are a low-margin item, so it's hard for a store to make much money just selling rubber. So it's important they make money other ways: mounting and balancing, oil changes, brake jobs and alignments. So when you come to the counter and ask for tires, the tire salesman is going to look for every way he can to make money.

Most of the chains are commission-based, which changes the motivation of the salesman. Where I worked, you had quotas you had to hit. If you didn't hit your quotas, you'd get written up. So many write-ups and you're out of there. We had salesmen who waited in the parking lot for people to show up so they could be the first to grab customers who came in. The whole store had to hit a certain amount before everyone got bonuses. So there was friction between the salesmen — if you weren't selling enough, they held you responsible for not helping them make their bonuses.

My point of view was that I wouldn't sell someone anything they didn't need. That got me in trouble with the other salesmen. But it also got me a lot of loyal customers. They've followed me through the years, from store to store. Walking through parking lots, I'd spot some worn tires and leave my business card on the windshield of cars with a note that said, "Please take a look at your tires." I got a lot of sales from that.

Insider's Tips on Tire Buying

Buying the right tires means looking at what and how you drive. Once you have a type of tire picked out, you can shop around for the best price. Keep in mind that everything you do is "times four." That means that the cost of mounting and balancing might not sound like much for one tire, but you're talking about four tires. An easy way to keep control of costs is to ask for the "all in" or "out the door" price. This quickly gives you a look whether you can stay inside your budget, and it also reveals all the costs.

One way to cut costs is to look for a shop that includes mounting and balancing and provides the valve stem. These costs vary a lot, and since it's "times four," it's a big savings. While a store might negotiate on the price of the tires (some stores will match an online quote), they will be looking at making money on the labor so they are less likely to haggle about that.

Consider the Extras Carefully

When the tire guy has your car up on the rack, it's a perfect time for them to sell you a wheel alignment, brake job or shocks. Alignment is important, but your tires will tell you if you need an alignment because they will wear unevenly (and the car might "pull" to one side or another, too).

Trying to sell a brake job is a favorite in tire stores. Sometimes all it takes is saying, "We put your car up on the rack and we noticed that the brake pads were pretty low. Do you want to get that taken care of now?" If you've kept records on your car, you should know how many miles it's been since your last brake job. If you're still in doubt, ask to look at the brakes yourself or at least ask the mechanic to tell you the percentage or amount left on the pads.

Also be ready for the tire salesman to pitch an oil change. Again, you should know the oil change intervals for your car and when it is needed. Don't do it just because you are there and they are pushing it. The more stuff you add into the work order, the more complicated it becomes and the easier it is to lose track of the real cost of each item.

Here are some tricks I noticed over the years:

"Standard alignment": In some stores I worked in, the salesman would try to present the alignment to the customer as being included or "standard" and then put it in the bill and hope they didn't notice.

"Free" tire patching: The chain stores will sometimes offer a free tire patch service, which can be a good thing. But this gives them a chance to call the customer and say, "We inspected your tire, and we can't fix it because you drove on it and ruined the sidewalls." Now they get to overcharge you by matching a single tire since you don't want to waste your investment of the three other good tires.

Bait and switch: Sometimes, on the phone, the salesmen will promise they have a certain tire even if they don't. The customer arrives only to be told that they will have to order the tire from the warehouse but they do have another (more expensive) tire in stock that they can install right away. Again, remember that, if the per tire price is only $10 more than the tires you had in mind, that will be a total price increase of $40.

"You have a dead battery": We had a salesman who used to call the customer after they dropped off the car and say, "Your car battery just died. We had to push it into the service bay. Do you want to get that replaced?" Of course they would say yes since the car was dead without it. And batteries can make the store a lot of money.

Scare tactics: On rainy days, I knew a salesman who would use this as a way to scare customers who wanted to have a tire patched. "This tire would never stop you in this rain. You're better off going with a set of new tires." I was surprised how often this worked with people.

"You can't mix tires": Often, a customer would come in with two good tires and want to replace them. Some of the sales guys would say, "We can't mix tires" even though you can. If money was no object, I'd like to keep all the tires matched up. But for people on a budget, this is a big hit to the wallet.

Slush money: If there was a little ding in your car, the tire salesman might say, "My friend at such-and-such body shop will fix that for a special price." What they are looking for is some slush money for referring you to the body shop. You'd probably be better off taking it to the body shop on your own rather than thinking you're getting an inside deal.

Buying Club Tires or Buying Online

The club stores have more buying power, which can mean cheaper tires for you. But watch out because they'll grab a box boy off the line and say, "Now you're a tire installer." This means the tires might not get mounted and balanced properly.

When I ran a tire store, I had a policy that you have to start the lug nuts by hand. The other thing I did was hand-torque every lug nut so it wasn't too tight. The air wrench could either cross-thread a lug nut or torque it down so hard you couldn't break it loose with your car's tire iron. That's why I tell people to keep a breaker bar or a pipe in the car to give them extra leverage to break the lug nut free when changing a flat.

Buying from an online tire store can be a really good idea for saving money, but the tires still have to be mounted and balanced. And if the store isn't going to make anything on the tires, they'll try that much harder to sell you an alignment or an oil change. Don't be misled. Twenty dollars per tire — or $80 for the car — is pretty good money for the half hour to 45 minutes it takes to get the job done.

Read more articles in the Edmunds Confessions Series.