Big Business Going On In The ‘Board’ Room

Jun 1, 2012

Sales of nerf bars, running boards and steps continue to make big strides in today’s economic climate.

One of the very first aftermarket accessories that buyers of new trucks have added to their big rides is the running board. Why? Well, our panel of truck aftermarket retailers tells you why in their candid, real-world responses below.

Restyling surveyed these installer/retailers to give us all a snapshot of how the running board market, specifically, and by extension, the overall truck accessories market, is faring so far in 2012 – especially as prices at the pump have steadily risen to early-recession levels not seen since 2008. These shops represent a snapshot of truck aftermarket accessory installers from various regions of North America.

Although small-car sales certainly have experienced a strong growth, America’s thirst for pickups hasn’t extinguished, despite the cost of fuel. Call it pent-up demand, replacement of aging vehicles or more fuel-efficient trucks being manufactured, but truck sales continue. Fleet sales are strong, as you’ll see from these aftermarket specialists’ comments. As are individual-owner purchases.

Restyling (RE): Running boards, steps and nerf bars are one of the main aftermarket staples people add onto trucks and SUVs. Is it still a major-selling item for you? And are the fold-up, smaller bedside or hitch-mount steps selling well?

Yes. Pickups and SUVs are coming in with tall rims, such sizes as 17, 18, 20, from factory. Fold-ups are increasing, even though they have been out for years.
– Teddy Reeves, Southern Truck Outfitters, Enterprise, Ala.

We still have a very good demand for step bars. The warehouse brands such as Trail FX [through Keystone Automotive] and ProMaxx [through Meyer Distributing] sell the best. Wide, oval bars, 4″, are increasing in demand. Fold-up bedside and hitch-mount steps make up less than 1% of our step sales. We also sell Aries, Westin, Owens and Raptor.  If the customer asks specifically for a certain line then we will do our best to order it.
– Josh Ullrich, Restylers, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

We still sell quite a few running boards, as well as nerf bars. Since many of the roadways here are still gravel, including the haul road to Prudhoe Bay, running boards protect the rockers, as well as provide a step. Also, since we are covered in snow and ice for seven months out of the year, hopping up or out of a truck/SUV can be dangerous, making safety a good selling point for running boards and nerf bars. We are selling the slide-in/fold-up steps, but not in great quantities.  We don’t sell many hitch-mounted steps, primarily because the tailgate of the truck is usually down when the step is needed.
– Steve Vincent, Auto Trim Design of Alaska Inc., Fairbanks, Alaska

[Running boards are] still a major seller for us, because trucks today are taller than in years past, and guys’ wives need them to get in, according to the guy. Bedside steps are going to become more popular in the future with the new styles of steps available in the aftermarket. Hitch-mounted steps seem to be going down, with the Ford Superduty tailgate coming out.
– Craig Olmstead, Prestige Truck Accessories, Olympia, Wash.

Running board and nerf bar sales are still one of our leading product lines. Sales have remained stable on those lines. We have favorable pricing on these items and are able to price them favorably to our customers. More and more trucks are coming in with lift kits, so nerf bars and running boards are essential. The hitch-mount and bedside steps, however, are not a major selling line for us.
– Mike Pettibone, Creative Auto Designs, Pueblo, Colo.

RE: With regard to fleet and commercial sales how important are they to your business? Because many fleets have gotten older and seem as if they’re being replaced, are you experiencing any uptick in fleet sales? Also, do you have specific dealer expediter relationships that keep a steady flow of incoming business?

Fleet sales are very important. Because some fleet and commercial trucks sit up taller, people have become aware of what happens to the seats by having to slide in and out of the vehicle. We’ve seen a big increase in state, city and county vehicles adding steps.
– Teddy Reeves, Enterprise, Ala.

We have a very good relationship with a dealership that sells fleet trucks. We do a lot of business with them, but rarely do they require steps.
– Josh Ullrich, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

We still do a lot of fleet work for the oil and oil service companies as well as GSA (U.S. General Services Administration). We have a dedicated outside salesperson that deals with our fleet and commercial accounts including new- and used-car dealers.
– Steve Vincent, Fairbanks, Alaska

Fleet and commercial are important to our business. We do a lot of sales to the state departments and are seeing an upside to fleet sales, given the state has more money available to them than they did three or four years ago. Commercial is picking up, as well. The economy is getting better and people are spending money more than a couple of years ago.
– Craig Olmstead, Olympia, Wash.

Fleet sales and commercial sales are important to us. We have seen a reduction in commercial (car dealership) sales in the past three years. We have only been developing our fleet business the past three years. It is a sales channel we want to do more prospecting in for the future. We can never have enough fleet and commercial accounts, and we have a strong marketing strategy in place to encourage growth in that direction. These commercial accounts, and the steady income they produce, help us through the slower retail periods.
– Mike Pettibone, Pueblo, Colo.

RE: Gas prices have been going up again, and many people have turned to buying smaller cars. Have you noticed – or do you expect – any decrease in pickup or large SUV sales? If so, is that impacting your own running board sales?

Our sales are better for the first quarter of 2012 compared to 2010 and 2011 first quarters. We have seen an increase on full-size pickups. It seems people are buying them more for travel trailers.
– Teddy Reeves, Enterprise, Ala.

We have a very good relationship with a dealership that sells fleet trucks. We do a lot of business with them, but rarely do they require steps.
– Josh Ullrich, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

We still do a lot of fleet work for the oil and oil service companies as well as GSA (U.S. General Services Administration). We have a dedicated outside salesperson that deals with our fleet and commercial accounts including new- and used-car dealers.
– Steve Vincent, Fairbanks, Alaska

Fleet and commercial are important to our business. We do a lot of sales to the state departments and are seeing an upside to fleet sales, given the state has more money available to them than they did three or four years ago. Commercial is picking up, as well. The economy is getting better and people are spending money more than a couple of years ago.
– Craig Olmstead, Olympia, Wash.

Fleet sales and commercial sales are important to us. We have seen a reduction in commercial (car dealership) sales in the past three years. We have only been developing our fleet business the past three years. It is a sales channel we want to do more prospecting in for the future. We can never have enough fleet and commercial accounts, and we have a strong marketing strategy in place to encourage growth in that direction. These commercial accounts, and the steady income they produce, help us through the slower retail periods.
– Mike Pettibone, Pueblo, Colo.

RE: Gas prices have been going up again, and many people have turned to buying smaller cars. Have you noticed – or do you expect – any decrease in pickup or large SUV sales? If so, is that impacting your own running board sales?

Our sales are better for the first quarter of 2012 compared to 2010 and 2011 first quarters. We have seen an increase on full-size pickups. It seems people are buying them more for travel trailers.
– Teddy Reeves, Enterprise, Ala.

Large SUVs are a decreasing part of our step business, but we have seen the smaller CUV market pick up where the SUV has been lacking.
– Josh Ullrich, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

[Smaller cars?] Not so much up here. The extreme conditions limit the life of smaller vehicles, and over 50% of the vehicles on the roads up here are trucks – would you rather be driving a Yaris or an F350 when facing a head-on with a light truck or moose?
– Steve Vincent, Fairbanks, Alaska

We have not noticed any decrease in truck sales, but actually an increase. I do not expect gas prices to influence truck sales at all – unlike they did three to four years ago when fuel went through the roof. This time I think people have experienced it and realize it will not last just like last time.
– Craig Olmstead, Olympia, Wash.

In our locale, folks love their trucks. We don’t anticipate a significant decrease in our running board sales. While our customers are purchasing cold-air intakes and performance programmers to get the best fuel economy possible, they’re unlikely to part with their trucks.
– Mike Pettibone, Pueblo, Colo.

RE: What types/styles of running boards or steps have you been installing during the past six months?  Do you see that trend holding or shifting?

We sell stainless steel; they cost more, but customers want something that will last – along with the high-price pickups and SUVs. This trend is going to hold. We see [OEM] adding more sidebars at the factory.
– Teddy Reeves, Enterprise, Ala.

Stainless steel, 3″ round steps are No. 1 due to their economical price with a lifetime warranty.
– Josh Ullrich, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

Mostly wheel-to-wheel, extruded Owens boards or ICI (Innovative Creations) nerf bars. The Deflecta-Shield TrailBack two-piece boards were very popular, but (for reasons unknown and unfathomable to me) [the manufacturer] has cut way back on this model. We used to install a lot of [another popular] product, but for the last two years their backorder situation was so bad that we were losing customers. In stainless we carry the Luverne product, and their new expanded metal board is being seriously looked at by a couple of our fleet accounts.
– Steve Vincent, Fairbanks, Alaska

Our most popular [running board] is the 3″ round step bars in stainless steel. I have seen retractable [steps] increasing in sales since there is competition and the pricing is competitive. I think the trend will hold steady. We sell and install several brands, with Westin, Dee Zee and Big Country brands coming to mind.
– Craig Olmstead, Olympia, Wash.

Three-inch-round stainless steel nerf bars have always been, and will continue to be, the best seller, bar none. With that said, there is a steady market for models that provide a better foot-hold such as 4″ and 5″ ovals. We do sell some running boards for our “well-aged customers.” The power running boards have been picking up in sales since they are standard equipment on the Ford Platinum edition.
– Mike Pettibone, Pueblo, Colo.

RE: What’s the marketing/sales/publicity tactic(s) that works best to bring in sales?

We use cable and TV ads.
– Teddy Reeves, Enterprise, Ala.

Radio advertising works best for us. With three, large military bases in the area, and troops constantly coming and going, we must keep our name out there.
 – Josh Ullrich, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

The best publicity is word of mouth, which is cultivated over decades of honesty and integrity – by doing the right thing, even if it cost us financially to do so. For instance, at times the mounting hardware for a specific running board application may seem flimsy, so we will add an extra bracket or fabricate different ones without adding an additional cost to the customer. We also do “branding” advertising on TV and radio on a continual basis in addition to the seasonal product or special-event advertising.
– Steve Vincent, Fairbanks, Alaska

We do advertise in the phone book, but by far our best advertising is word of mouth. We have been in business for 17 years and also have two military bases nearby. We strive to succeed on customer service and quality products.
– Craig Olmstead, Olympia, Wash.

Word of mouth. Without it, you can’t stay in business.
– Mike Pettibone, Pueblo, Colo.

RE: Do you easily locate qualified technicians to install running boards?  What’s the learning curve in training someone to handle these installations?

We are fortunate our people have been with us for years. When we hire new technicians, one of our qualified techs shows them and lets the new tech do hands-on, and they work side by side. New techs are watched closely when they are on their own. Every truck is inspected before leaving, no matter what tech does the work.
– Teddy Reeves, Enterprise, Ala.

Running boards are a fairly simple install anymore. We try to stay away from universal applications. The biggest lesson we must teach a tech when installing especially on GM trucks is to not use an impact wrench and to make sure the metal brackets do not touch the frame mount – or else the bars will squeak.
– Josh Ullrich, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

I try to hire hard-parts installers that have a little fabrication background because I want them to be able to problem-solve on their own and fabricate parts if needed. I dislike the term “technician” because I believe it conjures up a mental image of a person in a white smock running a machine. That’s not what we are paid to do. We are blue-collar craftsmen that are paid to install a huge variety of aftermarket parts on a huge variety of brands, models and types of motor vehicles and ensure their performance in one of the most extreme climates in North or South America. Many times I’ve seen my guys toss out a parts pack full of Grade 3 hardware and go to the parts bin for Grade 5 or better just so our reputation stays in place a few years down the road.  My guys – and gals – are not just technicians, and they are proud of that.

For the second part of the question [regarding the learning curve], it takes about six months to a few years, depending upon the trainee’s background to become competent, in my eyes.
– Steve Vincent, Fairbanks, Alaska

We hire our installers, basically green with some type of mechanical skills. We train them to install running boards and step bars; the learning curve is probably six months, and they should be able to install anything.
– Craig Olmstead, Olympia, Wash.

We prefer to train our own technicians. Taking someone with no experience, we find that within a year, they’ve gained the proper experience and confidence to install anything the industry throws at them.
– Mike Pettibone, Pueblo, Colo.