Coast 2 Coast Rack Sales Hold Steady

Dec 3, 2009

You can’t escape rising gas prices these days. In every part of the country, higher fuel costs are prompting drivers to purchase smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. The smaller the vehicle, though, especially for families and active sports or outdoor enthusiasts, the more space they need in their new compact or mid-sized vehicle.

Enter the cargo rack: Allowing drivers to haul bicycles, strollers, groceries, luggage, sports equipment or just about anything else they need, racks are in growing demand. Whether they’re roof-, trunk- or hitch-mounted, cargo racks are a hot market across the country.

Ladder racks on trucks are holding steady, as well. Contractors can’t haul their equipment in a crossover utility vehicle, and truck racks are still an important part of their business.

Retailers across the country say that finding the right rack for your customer involves listening to their needs, and showing them options. Beneficial partnerships with sporting goods suppliers can point customers to a restyler, where they can find knowledgeable sales staff, professional installation and a wide range of options.

As prices at the pump ratchet upward, poise your company to cash in on what people need: Extra room for their gear in smaller vehicles

Scott Grim, store manager
Rack ‘n’ Road Truck and Vehicle Outfitters
Seattle, Washington

“As far as the rack market goes, Seattle is the best market for our chain of stores. It is an active community for biking, kayaking, snow skiing-a great region to be in. We do a lot of vehicle accessories, but as a store our focus really is on roof racks, trailer hitch racks and all the gear to get people from point A to point B.

“What we see a lot of are the rooftop cargo boxes, because you get four seasons of use out of them. In the middle of winter it’s a lot of ski and snowboard racks. This is a funny time of year, and we’re doing a lot of different things; people are kayaking, getting set up for bicycles. A lot of folks are starting to travel as the weather gets nicer. It’s not really just one thing; it’s a group of them.

“We’re seeing a lot of Subaru Outbacks and Foresters, and a lot more hybrids like the Prius and Highlander. A lot of people are downsizing right now, and we are outfitting a lot of smaller vehicles instead of the big SUVs. That used to be the most popular category, but it’s coming down a little bit.

“If I were to try to put our customers in a demographic, it’s going to be 28 to 55 year olds; we have a little bit older demographic, with a lot of successful professionals. They are college grads, married with careers. A lot of them have a dual income. It’s a little bit older, more professional person who’s established themselves with a career, and has the means to support extra activities.

“We focus a lot of time and effort on Internet marketing, like Google search engines with keywords like kayak or bicycle. That’s our strongest effort. We also do grassroots things like taking part in local events and offer our company vehicles for bike races. We network with other companies like Burton snowboards, and outfit a vehicle and have them hand out flyers at events. We do a lot of networking; we get out and talk to related businesses like auto dealers, ski shops and bike shops, so they refer their customers who need a way to carry their gear. We’ve gone out with coupons in the past, visited a bike shop, and gave them something called Rack Bucks, which is a $10 or $20 coupon to give their customers to use in our store. We do hand out a lot of business cards, and we go in and talk to folks. It’s a little bit of phone, and a bit of getting out on the pavement, shaking hands and meeting people.

“Our sales are not so much based on technique as on good customer service. We mention things that we do different from other retailers: we sell used and buy used back, so if someone had a system on their car previously, they can trade in the old gear for new gear. We offer installations, and we are an authorized service center for Thule and Yakima. During the course of a conversation with a customer, we  mention ways we are different from big box chains. All our employees get training, so everyone who works in the store can install and service racks.

“It’s a fun business; most customers are great, really active, fun people, who are buying things to support their hobby. They’re usually in a good upbeat mood, because they’re finding ways to enjoy themselves.”

Lucille Gillie, owner
Gillie’s Truck Caps and Accessories
Holden, Maine

“I would say we’re doing more cap racks than ever. We put racks on top of fiberglass and aluminum truck caps. In our area canoeing and kayaking are extremely popular; we install a lot of rack systems on top of fiberglass and aluminum racks to carry canoes. It’s a varied market with contractors and recreational buyers.

“The market has been really strong until the latest gas crunch, which is affecting us like everybody else. The biggest truck selling in our area is the new Tundra. Most people who come to our business have trucks. Commercial racks have stayed about the same through the years.

“We advertise in the Maine Sportsman, and sporting type magazines in the state, and we do television advertising. We’ve been here 30 years so we get a lot of repeat business, too. Old Town Canoe [a large kayak and canoe shop] will certainly refer people to us, and we certainly would refer our customers to them.

“Listen! That’s the number one thing: listen to what the customer is looking for. Don’t tell him what he wants. Listen to what he wants, then direct him to what he’s looking for. So many salesmen just talk, talk, talk and don’t listen. We have catalogs on the different racks that we sell, and when we find out what a person needs, we price it, show it and give them a catalog about it.

“Sometimes contractors come in and when you talk to them, you realize that what they’re looking for is overkill for what they really need. Find out what they need, how much weight capacity they need for what they need to carry, listen to them and then decide what product to put them in. That’s where you need to find out the weight and load capacity, what people are carrying and what they are using it for.”

John Condon, owner
Topper Town
Cocoa Beach, Florida

“We probably stock more racks than anybody around. I carry ProRac Systems, Hauler Racks, Rack-Its, US Steel, Thule, International Aluminum Products, Yakima, Kargomaster and more.

“A lot of our customers are truck owners. That’s our main focus. Trucks and vans; SUVs are dying, and CUVs are taking their place due to the $4 per gallon gas. Most trucks are down other than Toyota. We’ll probably come out of that, though.

“Our customers cover a pretty wide range; a guy came in yesterday with a Nissan Frontier with the factory rack on the cab, and wants to carry a kayak. He was looking for a single rack, and ended up getting a bed extender. The majority of people are working, but some of our rack market is fun stuff like canoes and kayaks. We don’t get a lot of skiers in Florida, though.

“Some people will get a topper with racks. We do a decent percentage of the toppers with racks. A.R.E. puts Yakima racks on at the factory.

“We have a sign on our billboard by the shop that says, “Racks New and Used.” We’ve been pushing the fact that we have racks in stock. One little niche is the cable installers; they go through a class of 40-50 guys a couple of times per year, and when they graduate the cable company tells them, ‘You can go and install cable, but you need a rack to carry a ladder.’ They have all kinds of vans, cars and trucks; the cable company sends them here to get racks, but they usually want cheap stuff. Contractors want something sturdy and higher quality.

“This last year we’ve really brought our advertising down, especially in the Yellow Pages. We’ve been here for 36 years so most people know where we are. We’ve been doing a mailer for quite a few years, but it’s pricey enough that it’s one of the things we are cutting out. Florida has been hit pretty bad by what’s going on in the housing market.

“Selling is really simple; the best advice I’ve ever gotten on selling is shut up and listen. A lot of our stuff is functional. There is some pretty blingy stuff, but the majority is functional for one reason or another so I just tell my sales people to listen. Ask questions like, “What are you going to carry? What are you going to do with it?’ ‘Do you need side access?” Listen to what their needs are, and then go find them what they need.

“It’s definitely a changing market. Truck sales are down; people used to buy a truck just because it’s fun, but not anymore. A lot of people still want trucks, and they need them, so they’re not going to go away, but they are still down.”

Jerry Monaghan, sales manager
Spillar Custom Hitches
Austin, Texas

“We’re mostly into bolt-on truck accessories, toolboxes, headache racks, grille guards, running boards, step bars and trailer hitches. Ladder racks we custom build in our fabrication department, per the customer’s request. We sell Weather Guard cargo managers and overhead racks and some car trunk carriers and bicycle racks.

“Racks have always been a big part of our business. They’ve gotten more popular over the last 10 years, because more people are using cargo racks on cars instead of using a truck to carry things around because of gas prices.

“We see mostly mini and mid-size sedans, wagons and SUVs such as the Toyota, Honda and Hyundai, but mini and midsize SUVs are the most popular vehicle I see these days.

“The customers are a wide range; we get a lot of construction and commercial workers, a lot of housewives getting trailer hitches put on SUVs and cars, for bicycle racks and cargo racks to carry strollers and everyday stuff they need.

“We run a couple ads in the local Yellow Pages, and in a couple of local newspapers for the equine industry. They use a lot of truck accessories. Some of the magazines we receive, we put in the customer waiting areas, and distribute them in local businesses around town to generate word of mouth.

“Knowledge about the products you carry is important, and availability. When they come in to the store they are ready to buy. If we know exactly what they’re looking for and don’t have it but its available in a reasonable amount of time, they will wait. If you don’t stock it you can’t sell it, but most products are available on a next-day basis.”