Charge from the light brigade

Apr 22, 2010

Exotic, inexpensive accent lighting for vehicles-both functional and aesthetic-has become a sustained, multi-year trend in the aftermarket. And restylers are beginning to see the light.

For nearly anyone who attended last year’s SEMA show, one thing looked a little brighter than previous years, at least in a literal sense: the show floor itself, due to a wealth of vehicle accent lighting.

Following a larger trend in the aftermarket, a walk down nearly any aisle featured a car, truck or SUV with a blazingly exotic new lighting application. New products and applications ranged from styling accents like “eyebrow” lighting over headlights, and eerily lit grilles and wheel wells to illuminated step bars and spoilers. Other products applied existing technology in a new way, including functional hood- and roof-mounted light bars and truck bed and toolbox lighting systems, to name a few.

According to John Grote, vice president of sales and marketing for Grote Industries, Madison, Ind. – creators of LightForm, a thin-film, solid-state LED lighting device less than 1mm thick that is used in some of these new applications – developments in lighting technology are simply allowing creatiqve restylers to develop applications that weren’t possible just a few short years ago.

“We don’t see it so much as a fad or a trend, but an opportunity for restylers to apply lights in places they couldn’t before in an effort to further personalize a vehicle,” he says. “That’s not necessarily a fad, but that’s definitely a new breakthrough in what is possible.”

Prior to launching their product at SEMA 2009, the company conducted market research establishing a projected market size for thin-film lighting applications and products measuring well into multiple millions of dollars in sales annually, says Grote.

The increase in accent lighting options isn’t limited solely to new technologies, either. It notably applies to new applications for existing products.

In recent years, Bogdan Durian, CEO of Delta Tech Industries, Placentia, Calif., has noticed such a substantial trend toward accent lighting among restylers, both functional and aesthetic, that he has shifted his business model to better cater toward restylers. The company will soon launch a restyler-focused website showcasing creative lighting applications in custom vehicle builds. The company currently offers lighting products including a hood mounted-light bar (essentially a lower-profile version of a roof-mounted light bar installed on the hood) for Jeeps and trucks and corner-projecting cornering lights for sport compact vehicles, among many others.

“We absolutely see a trend towards more creative use in lighting, and we’re proud to be a part of that trend,” says Durian. “We’re really embracing the restyling community for that reason. Young people, especially, are looking for new ways to make their vehicles stand out, and lighting accessories are a great way to do that.

“We used to be a pretty boring light company,” he adds jokingly. “But the restyling industry is helping us to be more creative.”

Durian notes that sales of the hood-mounted light bar product, called the Hood Bar, have approximately doubled every year in recent years, further indicating a trend toward lighting products that combine both aesthetics and functionality.

“We believe that products like these are innovative and functional, and also well-incorporated into the vehicle’s original design,” he says. “And all of that is important to consumers in this market.”

Some lighting applications add new lighting products to existing accessories, creating a new effect and thus refreshing the accessory for its owner. Among them are a line of lighting products that fit within the center cap of aftermarket wheels, made by Key Colony Beach, Fla.-based GloRyder.

Kurt Bartels, a managing owner of GloRyder, says a trend toward accent lighting is obvious in recent years, and he credits much of the segment’s success to a sensory overload of sorts in the aftermarket.

“At car shows now, there are so many flashy products to see that a lot of wheels begin to look more or less the same,” he says. “This product is a way to change that. It’s a way to make them stand out from every other wheel on the aisle or on the street.

“People buy wheels because they like the way they look, but they inevitably lose a little of their interest in them over time,” he adds. “Our product allows them to refresh the wheels they’ve already bought – avoiding the cost of new ones – and make them more visible at times when people can’t see them.”

New tech for new applications

Another company seeing a clear trend both in their own bottom line as well as in the greater aftermarket is Boogey Lights, a Spring City, Tenn.-based supplier of a product called Cut N’ Click strips, which are flexible strips of 5mm LED lights that can be cut into pieces of three-light multiples to be hidden in nearly any mounting location.

The most popular application for these products has been in creating engine lighting kits for motorcycles, but Scott Maentz, the company’s owner, says that accessory retailers are showing interest in the products’ versatility, as well.

“Our business has grown significantly in the past four or five years, and that has a lot to do with the trend towards accent lighting in general,” he says. “Accent lighting is hot right now.”

Maentz attributes a great deal of the new interest in LED technology to improvements in the technology itself. In recent years, LEDs have improved both in the quality and brightness of light they put off, which makes the products that use them better, as well, he notes.

“As the lights themselves become brighter and give off a more even light, we’ve also noticed customers moving away from single-color setups towards multi-color solutions,” he says. “Two years ago, the multi-color applications didn’t look as good. They weren’t as bright as the single-color setups. Now though, our multi-color packages have colors that are each as bright and of the same quality as a single-color package, even when [in a strobe mode] or blending. That just wasn’t possible in the past.”

Like many products, automotive or otherwise, miniaturization is the overriding trend, he adds. Today’s LED chips are considerably smaller than those of years past, and often far brighter. Grote’s LightForm is an apt example.

That product is essentially an LED wafer that glows, doing away with the large reflector cups and housing that accompanied many LED automotive lights in the past. With a thinner product, more applications are possible, says Grote.

“It allows restylers to play with a completely new canvas,” he says. “Restylers used to be restricted by space. Our research indicated that both size and flexibility were restrictions with the old technology. With this product specifically, it applies like a decal. You just want to avoid placing it somewhere where there will be constant wear and tear.

“Now, for instance, you can install these in a door handle and light it without having to core out a piece plastic to do so,” he adds. “Time is money for a restyler, so to reduce the major work of doing something like that, and instead just route the power wires instead, that’s a big development.”

Broad appeal

An attractive aspect of the overall accent lighting industry is its appeal to a diverse group of consumers, according to Keith Korchma, vice president of sales for StreetGlow Inc., a Wayne, N.J.-based supplier of accent lighting for cars, trucks and motorcycles, as well as construction and emergency vehicles.

“Certainly, the economy is having an effect [on the lighting market], but much of the purchasing power is still coming from the 18- to 25-year-old population, a segment that might still be living at home and represents a bit more discretionary purchasing power,” says Korchma. “But as the company has begun to offer more utility type products, particularly in light trucks and [for] motorcycles, the age demographic might lose it relevance a bit.”

Smaller lights generally means more ways to install them, which is one of the reasons automotive shows of late have exhibited an explosion of creative placement ideas, and thus an appeal for a broader range of customers. Lights have been installed beneath rear spoilers, along step bars, in place of rear brake lights and turn signals, within trunk lids to illuminate logos, inside air vents and interior compartments, as well as around mobile audio and video components. Because most applications require a simple 12V power source, the applications have also moved into the marine and RV markets, as well as into the sign industry.

Applications certainly aren’t limited to any single vehicle segment, either. A quick Internet search reveals applications for vehicles ranging from muscle cars and hot rods to late-model SUVs and pickups, and literally everything in between.

And LED lighting has found its way into another logical and practical place: the enclosed bed of a pickup. St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M, is currently launching its trademarked Light-by-Wire LED lighting technology to create products for in-bed toolboxes and Truck Bed Lighting Kits for use underneath truck bedrails for functional lighting in low-light situations, according to Jeff Boettcher, market development manager.

By placing small, low-profile LED lights under the truck bedrails, customers are able to effectively light enclosed beds – including those with truck caps and tonneau covers – while virtually eliminating the possibility of the product being hit or damaged during loading.

“These are functional lighting products that allow use of the toolbox and the truck bed in low-light situations, so it’s not purely cosmetic,” says Boettcher. “Although it can be used as such.

“In these times, consumers see the value of products that have a functional element to them,” he adds. “And while we’re just launching these products, we have experienced strong interest from the marketplace for these types of products. It’s a natural fit for trucks with tonneau covers, toppers or any pickup with a toolbox. That could be a mom trying to find strollers or outdoorsmen trying to locate camping or sporting goods from a covered truck bed. It really spans a wide variety of demographics.”

Whether functional or simply aesthetic, this broad appeal and variety of applications bodes well for the future of accent lighting as a source of opportunity for restylers. The future appears bright, indeed.


Opportunities:

Most LED kits or applications could easily be considered DIY installs, requiring little more than routing power to a vehicle’s stock power source. But that doesn’t mean a creative restyler can’t create a great markup with an hour or two of installation time, says Boogey Lights’ Maentz: “Most LED applications are DIY, but also a good opportunity for a quick and profitable installation for a dealer. There’s some serious money in the installation of these types of products. If you look at what a dramatic effect you can achieve with just a $120 kit, it’s pretty amazing. You can easily sell that for a 50%-60% profit margin, and then add on an hour or two of labor.”


Regulatory concerns

While no federal laws relate specifically to accent lighting on vehicles, anyone who was around during the under-vehicle lighting craze of the late 1990s and early 2000s knows that many state and local laws most certainly do. For that reason, many of our sources made a point of suggesting that restylers check with local law enforcement or Department of Transportation to ensure compliance. “Local laws do vary,” says StreetGlow Inc.’s Keith Korchma. “As such, we label most products as being intended for off-road-use-only and we encourage consumers to check with local authorities.” “The laws do vary state-by-state, so we always suggest that customers – whether they be installers or end users – check with their local law enforcement for any applicable laws pertaining to accent lighting. As a general statement, blues and reds are the most problematic as those are emergency colors,” says Boogey Lights’ Maentz.


Display/Showroom

An additional benefit to selling accent lighting for restylers with physical showrooms is their inherent ability to grab the attention of customers, even in a crowded showroom. While few of the sources interviewed by Restyling currently offer POP or other showroom display, all said that displaying the products either on vehicles or in an easily viewed position within the showroom would help the products to essentially sell themselves. According to Delta Tech Industries’ Durian: “It’s great to have one installed on a vehicle if possible, but a close second would be to have one on display and powered on in the showroom. And if a large percentage of your customers own a specific kind of vehicle, say a Jeep, then it makes sense to have that displayed on one of those vehicles.”