Coast 2 Coast: Graphic Elements

Dec 3, 2009

A large number of restylers feature adhesive-backed vinyl products in their services to their customers. These products include well known items like premade vinyl graphic kits, a wide variety of vinyl striping, in-house produced decorative graphics and, of course, vinyl signage and lettering.

Like most things restyled, there are trends in what is hot and what’s not. Trend factors from within our industry include colors (both vehicle and vinyl), styles of graphics, interesting and unique pinstriping, and vinyl cutting and printing equipment advances. Factors that drive trends also come from the automotive world and include vehicle styles and the popularity of those styles, the marketing of particular vehicles, and the availability of factory installed accessories including vinyl graphics.

Complicating the trend topic is the economic temperature as well as the health of vehicle sales. Popular culture also influences trends through movies, video games and music.

And, finally, trends are cyclical; a look that was popular in the past may reappear with a refreshed presence in the restyling market. Sometimes a customer is a trendsetter with a cutting-edge request and sometimes a restyler is the trendsetter leading the way with a unique application that pushes the envelope.

Stripes vs. graphics

When talking to restylers for this article something surprising came up time and time again: pinstriping versus vinyl graphics. The questions posed to the shop owners and distributors were themed to elicit trends in graphics, but what was reported in many instances was that pinstriping is what’s hot. If this surprises some of you, it doesn’t surprise Mike Juif, owner of Accent Trends in New Paris, Ind., who installs an estimated 200 pinstripes a month. Juif reports that “pinstripes are hot because they are bread and butter, and they give a little bit of ‘pop.’ Pinstripes carry the lowest cost for a vehicle owner to enhance their vehicle’s image. With pinstriping, you aren’t trying to reinvent anything; you are appealing to the masses.”

Tim Thomerson, national sales manager of Auto Trim Dealers Group, Austin, Texas, agrees. “Most of the guys are saying that either small pinstripes or pinstripes with a logo in it, or a pinstripe with a small design or graphic in it is what’s trending right now. In other words, upper-line small things, a step above a basic pinstripe, but not a full-blown graphic seems to be what’s popular.”

“A lot of my guys within the network,” Juif continues, “are reporting fancier pinstripes or very small graphics installed along upper body lines. The printed or patterned pinstripes are popular. Some are using computer films and printed vinyl patterns like diamond plate on rocker panel areas to create a two-tone effect, trimming the upper edge of the vinyl panel with a printed or patterned pinstripe as a separator.”

And Vaughn Kendle, owner of Auto Trim Design, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, and a member of the Auto Trim Design Group, weighs in that “pinstriping with scrolls or a stand-alone garnish that is computer-cut in the same color as the pinstripe is popular.”

Many shop owners note that car dealers are expressing a preference for pinstriping as an affordable method of customizing their inventory, both new and used. As we are all aware, dealers are particularly squeezed right now with slumping car sales, and ringing even a mere drop of profit from a car sale while staying competitive in the hyper-price-sensitive market is all they are seeking. In hopes of moving inventory and directing buyers to the service and parts departments for dealership profits, many sales managers are holding back on dressing up vehicles for fear of losing a sale to another dealer with a plainer, less marked up vehicle.

Larry Yaggy, owner of Strypes Plus More of Hinkley, Ill., reports that his company has robust car dealership restyling business. He shares some thoughts on pinstriping: “For dealers, right now, they want as simple as possible. They want constant new stuff, whether it’s graphics or striping. What’s working for us is smaller to medium graphics paired with pinstripes. Also, pinstripes paired with accent graphics or nameplates, such as the car or truck’s logo.”

Graphical trends

So, it appears that the old adage “Different strokes for different folks,” proves true again. The popularity of a well located, sized and colored pinstripe is a nod to the forerunners of the restyling industry, and in many cases these pinstripes remind people of their first vehicle accessory.

What is clear is that pinstriping today isn’t always just a simple double-stripe pattern. Restylers report tremendous success using the combination of pinstripes with computer-cut accents. Some shops use a small, color-coordinated graphic merged with the pinstripe to give the accent line an extra flair.

Many others find a growing trend in using “nameplates” or “inserts.” This technique introduces OEM-style badging in the form of a computer or die-cut decal color matched to the stripe colors. These types of accents give the customer a more unique product. Dealers appreciate the opportunity to stand apart from other dealers, and retail clients are enthusiastic about customizing and extending their personality with their ride.

Historically the pinstripe has had a transformative effect on most any vehicle, and it continues to be a restyling foundation whether as a stand-alone installation or paired in a contemporary fashion with additional (and profitable) products.

Stripes as graphics

Karl Stearns, national sales manager for Auto Trim International, Mountainhome, Pa., sees this pinstriping-dominant scenario differently, though.

“Within the Auto Trim International network the members are very strong in vehicle graphics,” he says. “The reason for that is the high profit margin necessary to keep a restyling business going. If restylers don’t have the right product mix then they aren’t going to survive; and the right product mix has to include a substantial amount of vinyl graphic sales.

“I know that the market is down, but car dealers are still desperately looking for ways to make additional profit. And the use of vehicle graphics is still a way for them to get good profit margins with a product that people find pretty acceptable on their cars. If somebody is down on vinyl graphics then they may very well be selling the wrong kinds of vinyl graphics. If they are still trying to hold onto the designs we were selling in the marketplace five years ago, people don’t want that now.”

The importance of installing new styles and variations on the successful trends of the past is reflected in business success. Trending now on some of the most popular restyled vehicles is a hybrid of the stripe and the graphic where a straight line follows a hard body line before evolving into a shape, or breaking into segments or otherwise segueing into a subtle bit of visual drama. These installations stay true to a vehicle’s personality without an “added” look.

Ralph Wuebbling, owner of RJW Motorsports, Cincinnati, observes that “Customers choosing our graphics are looking for kits that are simpler and subdued: smaller body line stripes, rocker stripes. We design kits that accentuate body lines and give the feeling that the graphics were meant to be there. Some kits, when you install them, can look out of place.”

Back to the future

Racing stripes are a prime example of a retro look getting a new lease on life. Regardless of the region that restylers are working in they are universally reporting that certain newer car models have reintroduced the desire for the racing stripe look as a must-have trend. In particular, the Dodge Charger, Challenger and Avenger are leading the way in demand for new and old style rally striping. The newest body style Ford Mustang is also a high-volume racing stripe vehicle.

In the Upper Midwest, Juif’s shop has taken a notable approach to the restyling of the hottest Dodge cars: “With the Chargers and Avengers,” he notes, “we are finding that the matte black look is really hot. That color works on any color of car and the matte finish is an eye-catching look. Mustang packages are strong for us, too, but we’re doing real well with the Dodges.”

In Idaho, Kendle concurs that “Mustangs are still really hot, with the stripes on the hood and over the top. We’re seeing a lot of young people restyling the hot cars like Mustangs and Chargers, and we are using our vinyl cutting equipment to produce the racing style stripes in-house for good profits.”

Other shops also indicate similar vehicles trending toward the racing stripe look, with the Scion making a noteworthy entrance into the market. A lot of compact-import car owners are choosing a more European look with a single, centered wide stripe versus the traditional muscle car look featuring a pair of stripes slightly spaced apart. A variation on the European look is the offset single stripe running front to back and outlined in thin accent stripes.

Color trends

Regardless of what style of stripe is added to the project vehicle, restylers report that only the most basic and traditional colors are being used: black, white, silver metallic.

By far, restylers are reporting that neutral colors are the most popular in today’s market. Not just a regional trend, no matter where the restyler is, “risk-free” colors rule the look that customers are going for.

Junior Williamson, owner of Auto Specialties in Albertville, Ala., notes that “blacks, charcoals and golds continue to be our biggest sellers. Neutrals are just what works; my dealers like the basic colors.”

Juif also finds that neutrals are working for his clients. He says titaniums and silvers “with just a little bit of pop don’t offend anyone.” He favors reds and blacks for a classic look, saying “You’ll never get rid of red and black looking good”.

Wuebbling is finding that “we still see a lot of the base colors like black, silver, and white. Although, we have seen an up tick in some yellows.”

Kendle’s predominantly retail business reflects more of the same when he reports that “Neutrals and earth tones are still the most popular colors. There are still customers that choose louder or riskier colors, but those are the exception to the color trend.”

Pre-made graphics

Pre-made vinyl graphics offer significant opportunities to enhance the appearance of your customer’s vehicle and generate profits. Effective for wholesale and retail clients, often pre-made graphics are the fastest and most inexpensive route to a restyled ride.

RJW Motorsports is enthusiastic about premade graphics for its customers.

“We’ve seen a steady increase in our use of high-dollar, high-definition graphics from Image Works and Speed Graphics,” says Wuebbling. “I’m really impressed with some of the new stuff that Image Works has come out with. Illusions/GFX has also been coming out with some stuff that pushes the envelope without breaking the bank. However, the midrange-priced graphics are still a mainstay.”

Wuebbling goes on to comment that, “I’d say that the colors and themes in the market are heading in the right direction. Our market can change fairly quickly, and manufacturers seem to anticipate it and update their designs to reflect the ever-changing environment.”

Premade graphic sales have a number of tools meant to assist you and your customer. While the manufacturer’s catalogs have grown ever more sophisticated in the way their graphics are displayed as installations on the hottest vehicles, the real trend is in showing the customer the graphic image of their choice – on their vehicle. Kendle explains how his shop uses a Restylers’ Choice marketing tool, V.I.G.O.R., which allows his shop to show a variety of graphics superimposed onto the actual customer vehicle, greatly improving sales efforts.

“What we found,” Kendle says, “is that we used to have to stock various graphics and take them outside and hold them up on the customer’s vehicle to give people a good idea of what the graphic is going to look like installed on their vehicle. Now, most of them want to just sit there and click through the various graphics and play with the look; they go through the selling experience themselves and you see the ‘wow’ factor on their faces.”

In-house designs

In addition to pre-made graphics, restylers are offering their own take on the vinyl graphic. Auto Trim’s Stearns on the industry: “The thing that I think should be considered in the restyling market is that vinyl cutting and digital printing equipment are really prolific now, and I think that has changed the scene somewhat. I know that there are a number of shops in my networks that are designing their own graphics and selling them particularly to the retail customers who want something different and who can customize their vehicle exactly the way they want it.”

Stearns notes that while this custom in-shop design work is being done extensively, he also indicates that this work is being done exclusively for retail projects: “I can almost guarantee that there’s nobody out there creating custom vehicle graphics for car dealers. It’s too labor intensive and too expensive to do it, and car dealers certainly don’t want to pay for it. The retail customer will pay for it.”

What drives a shop to produce its own graphics? Is it ego? Is it to fill a niche not addressed by existing pre-made graphics? Again, Stearns: “Profit, primarily – that’s No. 1. The profit margins are much, much higher if you produce graphics in your shop. The second big reason is that this industry is full of a lot of really creative people with the desire to offer something different and to use their own designs to create their own looks.”

Many of the restylers who participated in this discussion report that they use their own equipment to produce a variety of film-based products, not just vinyl graphics, for their clients; so the growing trend of using in-house equipment might allow your shop to add new products like window film, PPF and vehicle signage to your repertoire.

What’s most in evidence in talking with restylers is that trends come and go; but what never goes out of style is an eye for enhancing your clients’ vehicles on their budget.

Shop owners consistently report that quality products coupled with the ability to deliver what the customer wants is the hottest trend. Forming and nurturing distributor relationships while offering a broad range of products keeps you tuned into what’s new. Maintaining a blend of retail and wholesale clients is also an often-cited tool for trend spotting. Keeping your eyes and ears open and taking some chances will cement your business firmly in line with trends.