The Rimco salesman said he'd get her rental tires for the same price and almost no money down — so long as she paid them off within 120 days. What Collins didn't realize was that the cost would skyrocket if she missed the "same-as-cash" deadline.
She found out the hard way.
This spring, Collins, who owns a used-book store, made her 18th and final monthly payment of $164.10, bringing the total price for the tires to nearly $3,000. That works out to the equivalent of more than 120% annual interest, quadruple the highest credit card rates.
"We couldn't risk losing the job over tires, no matter what the cost," said Collins, 40, who has five children living at home.
Like other tire rental stores, Rimco is undergoing a transformation thanks to changing customer demand.
Four years ago, 70% of Rimco's sales were aftermarket rims and the rest were tires; today that ratio is reversed. The chain, a unit of Atlanta rent-to-own giant Aaron's, has 28 stores and plans to open seven more by year's end.
The market leader is Rent-a-Wheel. With $100 million in sales, the company last year ranked as the nation's seventh-largest independent tire dealer, according to Modern Tire Dealer. The chain operates 89 stores branded as either Rent-a-Wheel or Rent-a-Tire, including 13 in California, and has aggressive expansion plans.
"It's a very young industry, but it has a lot of potential," said Matt Seaburn, president of the Los Angeles chain that was founded in 2006. "But we have to be careful about where we operate, who we deal with and how we deal with them."
Customers and employees of tire rental stores said that often translates to aggressive collection practices.
When Birdie Smith and her daughter rented four tires for their Infiniti sport utility vehicle at the Inglewood branch of Rent-a-Wheel, they were reminded they had to pay $41.90 every Saturday, in person.
But money was tight and they eventually missed a payment. Smith, who lives in South Los Angeles with her daughter and three grandchildren, was shocked to see a squad car pull up to their house a few days later.
"The police said we owed Rent-a-Wheel money and we'd better pay up," said Smith, a retiree who lives off Social Security income. Smith eventually paid off the tires in full, she said. "Those Rent-a-Wheel guys drive a hard bargain."
Police involvement is rare. But since rental companies technically own the merchandise until the last payment is made, some in law enforcement consider failure to pay tantamount to theft. Some contracts contain clauses allowing the dealership to enter a customer's property to repossess.
In Texas, where state law is favorable to rent-to-own companies, the Fort Worth Police Department has a special form just for stolen rental property claims. One section of it reads: "Has renter been told that a police report will be made and criminal prosecution will be pursued if property isn't returned?"
Dealers say they're sympathetic to customers' financial struggles, but they defend their tough tactics. To rent tires to people with bad credit, they have to assume risk that traditional lenders wouldn't — and their collateral can drive away.
Eric Malone, who owns eight RimTyme stores in North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia, was drawn to the business by the high profit potential. RimTyme averages more than $1.4 million a year in sales across its 25 locations, nearly double the take at parent company Rent-a-Center's traditional furniture and electronics stores.
His employees make about three repossessions a week. Malone said some new customers file for bankruptcy protection soon after getting new tires, hoping to shed payments and dodge the repo man. But they quickly learn that because they signed rental contracts, not loans, those can't be modified or discharged in court.
"Bankruptcy is just another way to get over," Malone said.
Don and Florence Cherry, the North Carolina couple who rented their tires from Rent-N-Roll last fall, filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection after making just three payments on their tires.
A representative of Rent-N-Roll argued successfully in court that this was one debt that couldn't be negotiated: They could either "return the tires or pay them out."
They kept the tires.
"When you're working paycheck to paycheck, your options are limited," Florence Cherry said. "These tires were a lifesaver at any price."