Of all the products one might buy online, tires did not seem likely. They need to be installed. They're big and heavy. I imagine them being shipped to stores by the truckload, not four at a time. People rely on the advice of the seller. Since you're stuck with the results of a tire purchase for a couple of years — and returning them is a problem — can an online retailer provide enough service?
I heard good things about the Tire Rack, the leading online seller of tires and a friend just reported an excellent experience. So I decided to give them a spin, so to speak.
I visited a local tire seller that is very near work. I have used them before. I read Consumer Reports. I checked Costco. I found a message board for Lexus owners and read the numerous threads on tires (including many messages about what tires people like on my exact model of car).
Ultimately, I bought at the Tire Rack. Here's why:
Information: Online wins, hands-down.
The Lexus drivers' bulletin board was an excellent start. It helped me narrow my choices to a few very well-liked models. Consumer Reports was helpful but did not include the Lexus users' preference, the Bridgestone Alenza. The Tire Rack's site was full of really good information. Their advisor pages let you describe your car, how you drive, your priorities (noise/comfort, performance, mileage). You can select by brand, size, and other characteristics.
Recommendations: Online wins, hands-down.
The Tire Rack's crown jewel is their customer ratings. They have accumulated comments from literally millions of customer miles. Many of their customers write detailed reviews. They detail the choices in comprehensive charts like this one:
This showed me that the Alenza, which the Lexus board owners preferred, was very close to Consumer Reports' top choice, The Goodyear Fortera Triple Tred. I went with the Alenza for $30 less per tire.
The local dealer I talked to was not even close. He recommended a tire that scored fairly poorly elsewhere. Other dealers would probably have done better but how can I assess their advice? In this case, the community's recommendations were reliable and mostly in agreement.
Price: Tire Rack wins, hands-down.
Even Costco could not compete. They were close, for the Michelins they carry, but their selection is very, very limited.
My dealer? Distant loser. Charged me more than the Tire Rack for a lower grade tire. From reading online, dealers vary widely and I could have done better — but shopping for tires is only marginally more interesting to me than being run over by one.
There is no sales tax and with shipping, the Rack wins easily. Installation is $125. The only downside is I will have to pay for tire rotations over the life of the tires.
Service: Local retailers win, but not by much.
I expected local dealers to win this category since they have the tires in stock and can install them for you. Their advantage was narrower than I thought.
When you buy from the Tire Rack, they identify local shops that will install them. One of them happens to be the auto repair place I always use (Don and John's Automotive in Sunnyvale, CA). I trust them completely, so that was a big plus for the Tire Rack.
The Tire Rack ships the tires directly to the installer.
In one business day.
Local dealers, of course, will sell and install the day you buy and generally include free rotation and inspections but add it up and the Rack stills wins, for me.
Bottom Line: The Tire Rack rocks.