Local news

Cold-weather gear in short supply

SATURDAY, DEC. 27, 2008

Soaring demand has chains, tires, blowers flying off the shelves

If you are still looking for snow tires, here’s a shopping tip: Try Quebec.

A new law in the Canadian province that all vehicles have four snow tires on by Nov. 15 completely upset what was already a tenuous balance of supply and demand, said John Tompkins, regional manager for Alton’s Tire-Rama.

“That has severely taken up a lot of tires in the world,” he said Friday.

Not to mention the Inland Northwest, which has been swept clean of almost anything with “snow” in the name: tires, chains, shovels and blowers. Even shovelers.

Emily Sanchez, customer service representative at Labor Systems Temporary Services in Spokane Valley, said she had 43 day laborers shoveling snow – and could have used 10 more.

“All of our job orders are snow shoveling,” she said.

Turns out projecting demand for snow stuff is as tricky as predicting the weather, and must be done much further in advance.

Tire market forecasts, for another example, were twisted out of alignment by motorists who last summer decided to jettison gas-guzzling trucks and sport-utility vehicles in favor of more fuel-efficient models.

Those mostly smaller cars need smaller tires, batteries and chains, said Robert Engelen, manager of the Les Schwab Tire Center at 101 W. Second Ave. Dealers were not stocked to handle the shift in demand, he said.

Scot Anderson, general manager of the Tire Factory outlet, said snow tires in all but a few odd sizes are sold out, as is every set of chains in the store. Another shipment of tires and chains is due next week, he said, but he does not know what will be on the truck.

“A lot of the common sizes are going to be all gone,” Anderson said.

Hardware stores are also awaiting trucks that may or may not have what they ordered, or in the quantity they need.

At Spokane Valley Power Tool, manager Laura Parks said her stock of snowblowers sold out, as did a delivery of more – almost before they were off the truck. She said she expects a second shipment next week, but all but four were already spoken for by noon Friday.

The store’s repair shop has a two-week backlog, Parks added.

Miller’s Hardware employee Richard Shaw said a truck due Tuesday was expected today, but how many shovels, rakes and snowblowers might be on board was anybody’s guess.

He said the Lincoln Heights store will not reserve machines.

“The list got so long it just got absolutely insane,” Shaw said.

Forget about renting a blower. Employees at Sun, A to Z, and Cheney rental centers said they stopped carrying the machines because customers abused them so badly trying to get them to chew through icy berms.

The only shovels at The General Store on Friday morning were in the hands of employees tossing snow off the roof, said co-owner Bruce Barany.

He expected a truck to arrive Tuesday from Ace, his supplier, but could not be sure what shovels, chains or other snow gear would be aboard.

Barany said the store sold three pallets of chains – about 250 pairs – all of which had to be picked up in his Chevrolet Suburban because the distributor could not make a delivery. His employees reported that, weighed down with two pallets, the vehicle never lost traction, he said.

Tompkins, who has been with Billings-based Tire Rama for 24 years, said snow tires will likely remain scarce and expensive. And he had words of caution for drivers who drive on chains the way they would tires: Chains should be used only for short trips and at speeds between 15 mph and 20 mph, he said, adding that anything more than that and the chains break. Drivers are throwing away the $80 a set might cost, he said.

Tompkins said snow tires are a specialty market served by a very few manufacturers. And dealers had been cutting back their orders because winters had been mild for more than a decade, he said.

Now, with the severe winter conditions across much of the nation’s northern tier, motorists do not understand why they cannot get tires, he said.

And when they look at the cost, Tompkins said, possibly running to more than $600, they have second thoughts if they are weighing a tire purchase against Christmas presents.

“It becomes a monetary question,” he said.

Tompkins said the supply situation could worsen if more provinces follow the lead of Quebec, which acted when insurance studies found a much lower highway fatality rate when drivers used snow tires versus all-weather or regular tires.

“They’re not going to tolerate that anymore,” he said.

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