A young man no more than 14 greets customers at the Williams Plaza and Auto Center on Richmond’s South Side. He sizes up one customer’s car, and by association its driver. So does everyone else at the combination workshop / parking lot.
“What do you need?” he asks.
But then he finds out the driver is this reporter. He lowers his head in disappointment.
He was hoping to make a sale.
It’s a tough time to be in the car business. Manufacturers like Ford and GM are trying to avoid bankruptcy while dealers are struggling to unload SUVs. The automotive accessory shops that line sections of Jefferson Davis Avenue and Midlothian Turnpike say business is never booming. But now there are more shops competing for the same customers.
“In the rim business, people come in waves,” says Gary Ford, co-owner of Williams Plaza with Reggie Williams. Ford says he sometimes goes weeks without making a sale.
“Then, boom, you sell 3 or 4 sets of rims in a week. The bottom line is, you’re not gonna sell every single week.”
Ford says that he sees the most business after tax season, when people are eager to unwind and spend some money on “bling” for their ride. Much of the rim clientele is Black and Hispanic.
But rim stores around Richmond say there has been a proliferation of the accessory stores in the last five years, and that’s made business even harder. To stay alive, many shops must also perform more routine repairs or other modifications.
Ford and Williams opened their store, located at 812 Jefferson Davis Highway, six years ago in 2002. When the shop first opened, the products that were too expensive for Richmond’s market. And the owners recognized immediately that they could not survive on selling rims and tires alone.
So Ford and Williams expanded their list of services. Now, they do a little bit of everything.
“We sell and install rims and tires, we do detail work and we do audio upgrades. Pretty much anything that you can do to your car, we can do for you,” Ford says.
Think of it like MTV’s “Pimp My Ride.”
“If somebody gives me a picture of what they want their car to look like, we can do that,” Ford says.
Rim salesmen around Richmond say their clientèle is often bad at managing their money. Many customers can’t afford high end products. Some will buy a set of rims, wait a few months, and then buy a set of tires to go with it, since the combined price of rims and tires is too high for them.
“We had top of the line products, like Dubs and D’Vinci, but people just couldn’t afford them,” Ford says.
Dub and D’Vinci are two of the highest profile custom wheel makers in the United States. A single Dub Dropstar rim can cost up to $1,200, bringing a set of four in at just under $5,000.
“People want rims that they can pay for and install today,” said Williams, putting an extra emphasis on today. “They want to be able to ride out on them.”
So Ford had to stock replicas of the big name rims. They look the same as their high-end counterparts, but they lack quality and will wear out more quickly.
“The replicas are dipped in chrome once, but the top shelf products are dipped two or three times, making them stronger and more detailed,” said Ford.
Employees at Hick’s Tire Service, located at 300 Jefferson Davis, agree with Ford’s assessment of the rim business.
“It’s hard. Even when we sell them for less than everywhere else, we still don’t see a lot of customers,” said Eric Robinson, a manager at Hick’s.
Robinson, who has been with the company for a little over a year, doesn’t think any specific trend is making business particularly slow. He denied that high gas prices or the sluggish economy were having effects on auto shops.
“It’s just the reality of this business. It’s always slow.”
Hick’s, like Williams Plaza, offers body shop services (such as wheel alignment or frame and axle repair).
As does Mauricio’s Tires and Rims at 5000 Jefferson Davis Highway. According to Jose Mendez, who works in the body shop there, providing other services helps keep the business afloat when rim and tire sales are doing poorly.
“I don’t think it’s the gas prices or anything; we just don’t sell a lot of rims,” says Mendez.
“It’s not any different than in the past few years,” said Williams. You just have to find ways to keep customers coming, says Ford.
“Jefferson Davis is known as a huge rim and tire corridor,” says Ford. Because of that notoriety, rim and tire shops have to expand their products and services to stand out.
“You have to offer everything.”