Buying Tires in a Free Market

When I was a kid, the Fuller Brush man and the Avon lady used to come to the door to sell their wares directly. We got Sears and Spiegel catalogs. In every comic book were ads for xray glasses. So it wasn’t that much of a stretch to order stuff over the internet. I embraced buying books and dvds through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and even Chapters of Canada – when I wanted original text Raintree editions of the Harry Potter books. I’ve bought everything from mp3 players to a point-of-use water heater from Amazon – but mostly books.

With mail and internet orders, you saved on taxes but spent on shipping. Local governments have finally forced Amazon to collect taxes on purchases, but local retailers aren’t celebrating because Amazon is also preparing to offer same day delivery. So the dynamics of maintaining a storefront and keeping merchandise in stock are changing yet again.

A few years ago, when I bought our car from the retired mother of a friend in Connecticut, it had less than 20,000 miles but had been mostly been sitting at her nursing home for a few years. The sidewalls on the original tires were cracked, so I headed to the nearest tire dealer on the strip. I bought four Toyo Versados listed at $150 each, but discounted to $130 each. Assuming that the dealer’s cost was half of the list price, they were still marking up each tire about $50.

Adding in road hazard guarantee, computer balancing, premium valve stems, alignment, … the bill before tax was $160 each. They looked like ordinary valve stems to me. I also got free lifetime flat repair, rotation and snow tire changeover – none of which I would ever use because I was driving the car to PA to replace my wife’s old Hyundai. In her first week of driving the new car, someone pulled out of a side street right in front of her, but she was able to stop inches away. So we felt the expensive tires had been worth it.

After about 40,000 miles of use, the tread was awfully low, and the rear tires developed slow leaks. Our local mechanic said he could get Mastercrafts to replace the rear tires. My stepson is a talented mechanic who can take apart and reassemble an engine, and does so quite a bit. He advised us not to mix and match tires. He found two slightly used Versados on eBay, but I decided to replace all four tires. He ordered four Yokohoma Avids from the Tire Rack, and the bill came to about $72 each, plus $10 freight for each. My stepson said we should call either a shop in downtown Altoona or a shop off Route 22 for installation.

My wife called both places, told them we already had the tires, and the Rte 22 shop was less expensive. I had used them for towing before, too, and they were good guys. She made an appointment with them, but my stepson said the downtown shop fills tires with noble gases to save rolling weight. He’s a real car guy. My wife called downtown, and was told first-come, first-served starting at 8AM. So I stopped at Sheetz to get a Washington Post, then drove out Union Avenue.

One SUV was there. I told the counter guy I had tires, another guy came out and looked at the Yokohomas, and his attitude seemed to change. He asked if I was leaving the car, and I said I had planned to wait. He said he had to, “fit me in between his regular customers” who were buying tires from him and couldn’t guarantee a time. I told him that we had been told first-come, first served, and he rather densely repeated that he had to fit me in between his regular customers. I left him to his regular customers, who were presumably waiting for me to leave before showing up.

My wife called the Rte 22 shop, who said forget making another appointment, come right away. The guys behind the counter were businesslike. In the waiting room, two guys were gabbing while having tires put on their trucks. In less than half an hour, our car was up on the lift. Disposing of the old tires and mounting the new ones came to about $20 per tire. So all told, I spent about $102 per tire instead of $160 per tire. All of that came from tires that weren’t marked up.

At work today, a coworker told me her father had a quote of over a thousand dollars to put tires on a small Chevy. He walked out shaking his head.

I’ve mulled over that exchange a lot. There’s certainly an argument to be made for buying local products and services, and I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting anyone to be that thrilled to mount internet-bought tires, but by the same token economists, conservatives, libertarians and the wealthy are always crowing about the wisdom of the free market. After years of stagnant wages and rising prices, a lot of people in the middle class simply don’t have the resources to pay top dollar for a commodity. Direct marketing is a another choice for them in a free market.

If corporations can outsource jobs overseas, why shouldn’t I purchase commodities online to my advantage?

I’ve bought a lot of gear from the bike shop near my office. I could buy a lot of it online, but they make it worth it for me to be a regular customer. So I expect that people will have to evaluate brick-and-mortar shops, support the ones that actually deliver added value, and bypass the ones that just markup commodities.

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