When a global tire manufacturer began developing a mobile site for consumers last year, it thought its greatest usage would come from roadsters in distress — those with a flat tire. “Our original expectation was that consumers were more likely to use mobile to get a tire replaced, get a tow truck, and so on,” says a marketing manager at the company. But that hasn’t been the case. Since launching the mobile-optimized website, the company has found consumers are using its mobile site more to determine what kind of tire to buy, and less to get roadside assistance.
That has opened the eyes of the company to wonder whether it could play a larger role in shaping the consumer’s buying decision than it does today. The firm traditionally has its retailers be the entity that helps consumers to purchase the right type and size tire for their vehicle. But with 20% of its website traffic now coming from mobile devices, the question about who should educate the consumer in the research stage of his buying process is no longer clear. “The ability to take a consumer all the way into a purchase is a huge open question that we have to answer,” the marketing manager says.
The company does not plan to sell direct over the Web. Its website today explains its tires, prices them, helps consumers determine which ones they need, but then directs them to nearby retailers.
Recently, the company launched its first customer-facing mobile website, enabling consumers with mobile phones and smartphones to learn about its tires and locate retailers that sold them. Tire selections and recommendations are by vehicle, tire size or tire name. Through a mobile device’s GPS capability, the shopper can find the nearest retail locations. The site also provides the manufacturer’s suggested retail pricing (MSRP), access to promotions and discounts, and click-to-call functionality. At the dealer location, the consumer’s research is either validated or the retailer recommends the right or better tire for the consumer’s car and driving habits.
Prior to launching the mobile website, 6% of the company’s website visitors accessed the site via mobile devices. Now 20% do so from mobile devices that are redirected to the mobile website.
The company believes today’s tire buyers need and want expert advice before pulling the trigger on a tire purchase, and most also want installation services (since they require expensive tire balancing equipment). It wants to make absolutely sure it puts customers into the right tire for their vehicle.
The company’s research has found that consumers buy tires when a friend, family member or an event points out the need, such as having a flat tire. “People rarely say, ‘Oh, I think it’s about that time, I think I will buy new tires.’” So the company modeled its mobile site on how desktop computer users were using its corporate website. The company developed a simplified mobile site, gearing the content and navigation to a consumer who is not spending as much time and doesn’t have the same screen format as a desktop user. Both sites are purpose-built to fulfill the needs of customers who are in the market for tires.
Three months after launch, the company’s mobile website usage peaked at 20% of total website visits and has stayed relatively flat since then. Unless the company were to make a huge shift in advertising dollars, it expects consumer usage of its mobile site to remain around 20% by the end of this year.
The tire company tracks the percentage of consumers who go on its websites and their “purchase intent” – that is, use a site feature that provides local retailers for a user. If a consumer goes on the website and doesn’t try to find a retail locator, for example, the company assumes that the consumer is less likely to buy its tires. It uses key performance indicators such as site satisfaction and purchase intent to determine where it should put its advertising dollars. If the traffic is more efficient on mobile than on the desktop device for any given time, it pushes more search advertising to mobile and less to the desktop.
Although the tire industry has trailed the pioneers of online retailing, very few online companies are selling tires online. “It’s a lot harder [to buy and sell tires over the Internet],” the marketing manager explains. “It’s a hardware thing. Somebody has to put those tires on your car.”
Data isn’t available on how many tires today are being sold online in the U.S. Very few tire companies sell online. Reports are that online sales for tire dealers are very small. The closest company is Tire Rack. Around for a long time, it was a catalogue company and has adapted the catalogue to the web.
Amazon sells tires online but it can’t tell a customer what tire will fit its vehicle. Even retail chains like Costco and Walmart don’t have the market share in tires that they do in other product lines. The tire company marketing manager attributes 80% of this to consumer confidence and 20% to inadequate technology. “No one has optimized the experience to drive a consumer through an online purchase for tires. They try to make it feel like books, and it doesn’t work.”
But he believes that younger tire buyers will ultimately find it unacceptable not to be able to purchase tires online. It just isn’t happening now. “The newer demographic expectations will be totally different,” he says. “I think we must be able to fulfill their purchase and their inventory desires online in the future. But now, it’s small – it goes back to there is no Expedia in this space and nobody is rushing to figure this out.”
As a manufacturer, the company has not been involved in the actual consumer selling process. It made the tires, sold them to retailers and let the retailer do all the work in getting the consumer into the store and making the right purchase. However, the web has changed the company’s views on what consumers expect of it. Tire manufacturers in the past produced marketing content largely for retailers; they now have to produce content for consumers as well as retailers, and the firm wants to continue writing that content.
“The ability to take a consumer all the way into a purchase is a huge open question that we have to answer, but we have to figure out how we play a role in the actual tire transaction,” he says. “When we figure that out, we will be hell-bent on trying to get consumers through our online experience. That would change everything for the industry.”