Coast 2 Coast: Bedside manners

May 10, 2010

At a time when sales of new pickups are unreliable at best, dealers and installers of bed protection systems are getting creative in their sales approach to bring stability to their bottom line. Knowing this, Restyling talked with shops from Virginia to Washington state to get a read on this dynamic and changing market.

What we learned is that these businesses are taking advantage of consumers’ desires to maintain their vehicles’ conditions for longer periods of time, and they’re finding a new mix of retail and wholesale work to keep their install bays buzzing. Most, but not all, are starting to see some light at the end of the economic tunnel.

And finally, many recommend that shops today be prepared to ask – and answer – a wide range of questions in the process of closing a deal.

New-truck sales have taken a hit in recent years. How have you felt the effects? Do you anticipate that conditions will change in coming months as we move into spring and summer sales period?

“New truck sales are way off at this point (April), but we’re now seeing a recovery. People are more willing to spend now, just not to the level of a few years ago. But the last couple of months have significantly improved, especially since February.”
– Alan Krasne, – Alamo Auto Supply, El Paso, Texas

“Truck sales have [affected our business] to some degree. We’re not seeing as much dealer work as in the past, but being in business for 17 years, we have a great customer base and we stay busy.”
– James Moore, – Auto Definition of Claremore, Claremore, Okla. 

“Things have certainly bottomed out and now we’re seeing a slight uptick in Phoenix since November. 2009 was mediocre, but we started seeing improvement in late fall of last year. We have a lot of optimism in our sales force heading into 2010. But will it be like 2006? Probably not for a while.”
– Dave Morgan, – Quality Bumper Co., Phoenix

“We were rocking and rolling through last summer, but that dropped off dramatically in the fourth quarter. We have a great relationship with one of the largest Ford dealerships in the Southeast and we do a tremendous amount of work for them. They’ve struggled like most did at end of last year, from May of last year. But as of January, we’ve now seen it really start to rebound.”
– Greg Connole, Rhino Linings – of the Triangle, Raleigh, N.C.

“At the end of ’08, start of ’09, everyone was hurting. Now the retail business is coming back, and people are finally willing to spend money on their vehicles. The Dallas-Fort Worth market was flooded with small, one-guy-and-a-cheap-machine type of shops, and those guys really closed up shop quickly. By natural selection, that helps. We’re extremely positive heading into next year, though. We just opened second location and we’re negotiating on a third.”
– Tim Rose, Truck Toys, – Dallas and Arlington, Texas

“There’s no doubt that there’s an upswing coming. In January and February I was up 10% on tuck accessory sales. The first full week of March, I was up 22% over last year. We’re really optimistic about 2010. All my suppliers, everyone, is seeing an uptick. For someone like me, who has about two years in business, I’m ecstatic.
– Keith Willis, Mountain Valley Truck & Trailer, Staunton, Va. 

“We’re feeling [slow truck sales] in a big way. We’re mobile, thankfully, so we’re probably 80% residential and commercial applications and about 20% in the truck market. I’m going on three years in business. First and second year were fine with trucks, but we started relying on mobile applications. I’m glad I did, because I’d probably be out of business.
– Allen Reed, – Rhino Linings of Seattle, Seattle

“Less trucks being sold means less coming in to the shop, and that means less bed protection sales. We’re seeing an upturn coming. From outside sales we know the dealerships are seeing more excitement and sales. We’re seeing more sales into our business. The phones are ringing are ringing more, and those are all hopeful signs.”
– Charles Matocha, DFW Camper Corral, Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas 

What about late-model used-trucks? Are you seeing customers with these vehicles coming in to have their trucks get new or replacement bed protection systems?
“Normally about 75%-80% of our business was new vehicles. Now that number is somewhere around 60%-65%.”
– James Moore, – Auto Definition of Claremore 

“I watch our sales every day, and customers are definitely fixing up older trucks. They’ll put the money into accessories on an 8-year-old truck.”
– Dave Morgan, – Quality Bumper Co.

“We’ve seen an increase in 1- to 3-year-old trucks that either had no protection or are replacing drop-in liners with other products. People are holding onto the vehicles longer.”
– Keith Willis, – Mountain Valley Truck & Trailer

“We’re seeing that people keep their vehicles longer today. If they have a drop-in, they’ll want to get that out over time if they plan to keep it. They’ll opt for a spray-in, which is more impact- and corrosion-resistant. Because they’re planning to use them longer, they want to do things to make them more durable.”
– Greg Connole, – Rhino Linings of the Triangle

Where are you seeing the market over the next 6 months? Do you anticipate more demand from the retail side or from wholesale and fleet sales?

“Things are most positive on the retail side of things. I had one of the best Februarys in years last February, and usually that’s one of the slower months, and we did close to 20% better than that month in the past eight or nine years. Retail customers were a big part of that.”
– James Moore, – Auto Definition of Claremore 

“Growth will still be at the retail end. We’re still reeling from the decline in housing and commercial construction markets, so I don’t see that [improving] this year -” the municipalities either, because they have revenue shortfalls. It’s interesting that the retail has sustained our small growth for five or six months.”
– Dave Morgan, – Quality Bumper Co.

“In terms of retail or wholesale, they go hand in hand. As the construction industries go, so does the work truck market. If you see an uptick in construction, of course the bedliner sales get better, as well.”
– Greg Connole, – Rhino Linings of the Triangle

“For us, we’re going beyond trucks altogether and focusing on other applications for now. We use our coatings to do decorative garage floor coatings, condo buildings, sealing decks, things like that. We’re not a just a bedliner product.”
– Allen Reed, – Rhino Linings of Seattle

“A lot of contractors buy in the first quarter, after their CPAs add up the results of the year before. We’ve been through most of those, and now we’re focusing on the retail market. We also have fleet customers who are pretty consistent. They’ll buy every quarter.”
– Keith Willis, – Mountain Valley Truck & Trailer

“Fleet sales are hard to predict. I came back from the NTEA (Work Truck) show and people are anticipating strong fleet sales as existing fleet vehicles are getting older and need replacement. There is some extra demand as companies have put off replacing them.”
– Charles Matocha, – DFW Camper Corral

“We have seen a lot of retail business. It definitely hurts when wholesale business takes a downturn, but you couldn’t survive on retail business alone.”
– Tim Rose, Truck Toys

What kinds of questions should an installer or salesperson ask a customer before making a recommendation on which bed protection system is most appropriate for them?

“We have a great core of salespeople with high product knowledge and experience. They know what to ask – about how they use their vehicles and what qualities they’re looking for – and know the differences between products. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason, and you have to listen more than you talk.”
– Dave Morgan, – Quality Bumper Co.

“I’ll ask what they’re using their truck for. Is it a daily driver? Or is it a work truck? We offer different products with different qualities, including durability, grip and appearance; and we talk with them until we find a good fit.”
– Allen Reed, – Rhino Linings of Seattle

“Selling bed protection at retail is the same as selling a TV or anything else – the same rules apply. We suggest that our salespeople get out from behind the counter and go visit the customer’s vehicle: What do they like? What do they know about liners? How do they use their vehicle? It’s a personal touch.”
– Tim Rose, Truck Toys

“Is it a casual user? Is it a work truck or courier truck? What outdoor activities do they do? What will they haul? All those answers guide what product they need. All trucks need bed protection. It’s just a question of which kind. Keep talking and working down until you determine what is best.”
– Charles Matocha, – DFW Camper Corral

“What will the truck do for them? Do they drive it to the grocery store and want to cover the bed? What is their lifestyle? Do they do gardening and landscaping where they’re hauling stone? Or is it just softball practice or even an older couple that travels? I try to best associate their liner with their lifestyle.”
– Keith Willis, – Mountain Valley Truck & Trailer

“What are they using it for and what are they looking for out of a protection product? Do they want appearance or durability or both? Are they concerned with functionality and skid resistance? If you spend $40,000-$50,000 on a truck you may want matching color. You need to know this to make a great recommendation.”
– Greg Connole, – Rhino Linings of the Triangle

What kinds of questions should installers be able to answer from customers?

“While discretionary income is certainly improving of late, people are shopping around more to find a good value for their investment. It’s up to us to make them understand which products provide the best value in a given application. There’s a reason you carry more than one product line, and that’s because there are different solutions for different situations, and our job is to communicate that to our customers.”
– Alan Krasne, Alamo Auto Supply

“The concerns we hear most are the cost of product and the effect it has on the bed for a drop-in. There will be questions on the process for spray-ins and the lifespan of the product, as well.”
– Charles Matocha, – DFW Camper Corral

“For our product (spray-in), they often want to know how long it will take to install. They’ll also ask about warranties and if they can get it in colors. They’ll ask, ‘What do you recommend in terms of durability? What chemicals will it resist? What are the corrosion characteristics? How do I maintain it and clean it?'”
– Greg Connole, – Rhino Linings of the Triangle

“I tend to find that most people already know they want a liner of some kind. At this moment in time, everything is more price-based. It’s different marketing. Now people want the cheapest price, and sometimes that’s still not enough. It’s exasperating.”
– Allen Reed, – Rhino Linings of Seattle

“What does each level of protection do for them? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each major option? And now, more than ever, people want to know about price versus value, as well.”
– Keith Willis, – Mountain Valley Truck & Trailer

What are the most important benefits of a bed protection system and how do you sell those benefits?

“Using a pickup truck bed is going to cause wear and tear on the bed – that’s a fact. You need to put something between load and painted finish. You wouldn’t put a sack of concrete on the hood and expect to maintain your resale value. These products ensure a clean look, with no scratches or dents.”
– Charles Matocha, – DFW Camper Corral

“Today, people are very price conscious and very well educated about the products that are available on the market. We’re there to talk to them and educate them about installation and care. And they know we’re not going anywhere if something goes wrong. Something about that experience and knowing the salesperson inspires confidence in the consumer.”
– Dave Morgan, – Quality Bumper Co.

“The biggest selling point for my customers is resale value. If the bed is in decent condition, you’re going to get a better return. In our area, a spray-in [liner in a used truck] will bring a $300-$600 premium at the time of resale. And more importantly, whoever is buying it knows that somebody took time to protect it.”
– Keith Willis, – Mountain Valley Truck & Trailer

“Most guys know what they want when they come in. It’s not a hard sell by any means. We’ll sell on anti-skid properties and maintaining the appearance of the vehicle over time. On average, in our market, most people keep a vehicle five-plus years, so resale is a good selling point.”
– James Moore, – Auto Definition of Claremore

“If a customer has a new truck, we let them know to protect it upfront when it looks perfect. It really bonds the very best to new vehicles while there are no spills or anything. And, with spray-in products, we also sell them on the fact that they’re more environmentally friendly than drop-ins because they don’t end up in a landfill.”
– Greg Connole, – Rhino Linings of the Triangle

“The valuation of bed protection has come a long way recently, so that’s a big part of the sale. It’s even a benefit on NADA resale value – 10 years back that wasn’t necessarily true. A bedliner is a $250 upgrade at the time of resale, so you’re retaining about 60% of the original price.”
– Tim Rose, Truck Toys