Jim Spoonhower grew up handing wrenches to his father, an avid shade-tree mechanic who loved working on hot rods and muscle cars. He developed the same affinity for cars, and over the years has owned and restored a number of vintage cars including his newest project, a 1965 Mustang.
Spoonhower also possesses “a curiosity about almost everything,” he says, which led to a career in market research. For 13 years he combined both interests as head of SEMA’s market research department. Over the course of those 13 years his research team generated at least five dozen major reports on various niche markets as well as a number of studies that SEMA members used in maintaining their businesses.
Today he heads Riverside, Calif.-based Fast Lane Research and provides similar insights on the facts and figures of a recession-adjusted automotive aftermarket to a growing number of clients. Recently, Spoonhower shared some of those insights with Restyling.
RE: What have you learned in the aftermarket industry that would benefit the restyling industry?
JS: Probably the single thing that stands out is that it’s all about niche markets. The little guy can compete against anybody as long as he stays focused on the niche he’s serving. Obviously the car companies can’t. The big manufacturers can’t. But the restyler, staying focused on who his customer is and the niche that he’s working on can compete against anybody.
RE: How can you identify niches in the restyling market? How many niches do you think are out there?
JS: You can identify niches based on groups of enthusiasts and groups of customers. As far as how many, there are seven or eight major ones that everyone talks about, but within those there are fragments that you could call niches. Look at compact performance. A lot of people are inclined to say compact performance isn’t there anymore. I think it still is; it’s just broken into a bunch of sub groups. It’s not this big, singular niche that it used to be: The kids have gone into drifting, they’ve gone into time attack, they’ve gone into road racing -” all these various flavors of what they were doing before. All of these markets are significant enough that if you’re paying attention, you should be able to serve one and make a profit. Another unique thing is there are a lot of enthusiasts who find a way to make a living within the industry. They tap into their contacts, their passions, and they use that to make a living.
RE: How would a small restyling shop find and then use market research in order to make decisions to stay in front of the curve?
JS: Obviously events and publications like yours are one way. I think staying connected with the niche they are serving in whatever way makes the most sense. It was quite a revelation to me when I studied the restoration market to find it all revolves around swap meets. So, going to swap meets is their way of staying connected and knowing what’s going on. Within restyling, I think there are similar things. I think it’s a particular event, trade shows, that type thing, or particular publications, car clubs, whatever, that are focal points for things as they change and as they go forward. Staying connected to that is obviously the first point of early warning for things that are changing in the industry.
RE: Do you think there is a restyling market for, say, smaller, lower-mpg cars?
JS: I think it is limited now, but could become very big. Obviously, folks who are downsizing their transportation still want some of the amenities and styling they had in their previous vehicles, so there’s an opportunity there. There’s also a way to create excitement with a line of what could be seen as boring cars that have pretty much the same looks.
RE: What should restyling shops look forward to in 2010?
JS: One is, as I said, just staying focused on the market that they serve and watching for the changes that are coming. Two, don’t be afraid to look at cars. I think in a lot of ways, restylers have limited themselves to pickups and SUVs -” the truck side of the market -” for a number of years. I think, now, being creative on the car side is probably a good thing going forward.