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Survey: Car tire shoppers satisfied with retailers, but their research falls flat

Consumer Reports News: November 04, 2010 02:08 PM

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Car tire buyers are a happy lot, with 95 percent reporting they were satisfied with their retail experience, according to a new Consumer Reports survey. However, more than half of tire shoppers did not research their purchase, especially when buying a different replacement tire than the vehicle was originally equipped with. With only four hand-sized contact patches connecting a car to the road, choosing good tires is critical to performance, safety, and even your bottom line.

To learn more about how consumers shop for tires, the Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a random, nationwide telephone survey. In speaking with 2,028 adults, the respondents were filtered down to those who owned a vehicle, bought a tire in the past year, and were involved in the tire purchase. A total of 878 full interviews were conducted.

We found that 44 percent of respondents researched to find the best tire for their needs overall. However, just 39 percent of those under 35 researched, compared to 49 percent of those aged 55 and over. Significantly, the quality of research varies widely. Women were far more likely to ask a mechanic for advice, while men favored magazine ads for information.

Research sources Percent
Mechanic 46
Online reviews/articles 44
Online ads 32
Friends/relatives 30
Newspaper reviews/articles 20
Newspaper ads 18
Magazine ads 9
TV ads 8

Most shoppers purchased fresh rubber at a dedicated tire store (51 percent). Ranked at a distant second place was car dealerships (11 percent), an option favored more by women. Warehouse stores (9 percent) and department stores (8 percent) round out the popular options. Despite the ubiquitous multi-page ads in car magazines, the online shopping they encourage accounted for just 2 percent of sales.

We found that men (69 percent) were more likely than women (41 percent) to purchase the tires themselves, as were consumers 35 years or older. Satisfaction was stellar across the board. An interesting distinction here is that among those who were very satisfied with the experience, there was a 10 percentage point advantage to those who had done their research. Reflecting on their purchase, 94 percent said they would buy again from the same location.

Tire shoppers 35 years and older, and those who did not research, were more likely to choose the same tire model they were replacing. Shoppers who changed models were swayed most by price and availability.

Reasons for changing tire models Percent
Price 29
Availability 18
Tread life 13
Winter grip 9
Dry and wet grip 6
Handling 6

Practical and performance concerns were the leading influences in choosing a new tire model. Just one in 50 respondents was motivated by improving fuel economy. There seems to be some confusion as to the tires’ contribution to overall fuel efficiency. While low-rolling-resistance tires can make a measurable difference, it falls well short of the 8 mpg average that survey respondents expect. In fact, tire rolling resistance accounts for about 4 percent of a car's fuel use in city driving and perhaps 7 percent on the highway, according to government estimates. In our tests, we have found that low-rolling-resistance tires can save one to two mpg. (Read: “Can tires improve fuel economy?”)

When consumers replaced their tires, about two-thirds (65 percent) replaced all four tires at one time, with 22 percent swapping two, and 11 percent buying just one tire.

The ideal tire upgrade is to replace all four, thereby ensuring balanced performance at all four corners. If you must replace just two, we recommend installing the new tires in the rear and placing the (older but still decent) rear tires in the front. This may help prevent a spinout or oversteer condition on slick roads. If you own an all-wheel drive vehicle, read the vehicle’s owner’s manual. Many makes of all-wheel drive vehicles stipulate that all four tires must be of the same size, brand, model, and state of wear. Any deviation could result in an all-wheel drive system failure due to the stress placed on it from rotating dissimilar overall diameter tires.

Bottom line:
Consumers are satisfied with their retail experiences, and no doubt the tires they buy feel better than the worn-out rubber they are replacing. However, car shoppers should focus more on quality tire research to ensure they are getting the best tires for their specific needs and application.

When you buy replacement tires, we recommend sticking with the same size and speed rating as the original tires. First, check our Ratings (available to online subscribers) for models with good overall scores and high marks in braking, handling, and hydroplaning resistance. Those factors can help you avoid an accident. Then look for models that scored well in other areas that are important to you, such as tread life, ride comfort, or rolling resistance. The best tire choice for you depends on how and where you drive.

Should you expect inclement weather this winter, note that we recently updated our all-season tire ratings.

For more information, visit: consumerreports.org/tires

Jeff Bartlett and the Consumer Reports National Research Center

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