Coast2Coast: Step Lively

Jul 1, 2010

Website-Only Exclusive: There’s More! 3 additional Questions and Answers — See Questions 4, 5 and 6

Retailers talk about how running boards and steps lift up the market

In the truck and SUV accessories aftermarket, running boards have consistently been an item in hot demand and have sold well. Restyling wanted to find out just how well this segment of the market has been holding up in light of the economic slump of the past two years. To find out we asked a group of restyling shops and accessories dealers in various regions of the United States what their take is on the running boards part of their business.

Here’s what we asked and what we found out:

1. Running boards and steps are one of the biggest aftermarket accessories put on trucks and SUVs. Is it still a major-selling item for you? Why is that?

Oh yeah. And you know it’s a long way from 25 years ago when you either had an aluminum running board or an aluminum running board. I started 25 years ago and that’s all you did. You had a choice of black aluminum, or gold, occasionally. Today they have so many different styles.

Guy Majewski
Leonard Buildings & Truck Accessories
Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Without pulling any kind of report, I’d say yes. Some kind of nerf board or running board would be one of our top sellers.

Jeff Lester
DFW Camper Corral
Fort Worth, Texas

For true function and appearance, a set of bars or running boards is going to be one of the first impressions. Then you go from there on: trim and flares, and all the other trinkets that you can put on a truck. But the most practical is the set of bars, especially now with Dodge and Ford coming out of the factory taller. A set of bars will set a truck apart.

John Ricci
MARS
Espanola, N.M.

Yes. It’s a lot of people with elderly family, trying to get up in trucks. That’s where we sell a ton of steps and things like that. I think it’s always going to stay there, whether it’s on trucks or crossovers or whatever. It’s always going to be a factor-some kind of assist step.

Brent Langston
River Valley Truck Outfitters
Fort Smith, Ark.

Running boards, at least on our side of the market, they’re long gone. Sidebars and steps are pretty much all we do anymore, like the 3″ tube style or the power steps that drop down when you open the doors. For at least the last three or four years they’ve dominated our market.

Todd MacDonald
4 Wheel Parts
Temecula, Calif.

It seems for us, the nerf bar market has really picked up. Guys like the offroad appearance that the nerf bar gives more so than the running board. Guys like the stainless steel without the rust. A lot of the OEMs are oval tube steps and they like that appearance of the OEM style.

We do still sell running boards for the folks that want the protection from the road slop coming off their tires.

Ken McMunn
Robert & Bev’s Truck Accessory Center
Indiana, Pa.

Oh yeah. We sell a lot of step bars, mostly so people can get up into their trucks.

Mike Riddick
East Texas Truck Equipment
Longview, Texas

Yes. Everybody needs something to get in and out of these trucks – they’re sitting so tall. A lot of people want something to help them get in an out. It’s a functional item, not just pretty; it’s something that actually works.

Eric Kirkland
Truck Supply & Outfitters
Tuscaloosa, Ala.

I’d say steps are still pretty much a standard in the aftermarket. We’re a little more of a specialty shop. A lot of the vehicles that we focus on have the suspension modified in one way or another, and in most cases they’re lifted applications. So a step is first and foremost, but not always for the vehicle owners: The wives and kids have to get in, the moms have to get in. So, absolutely, their practicality comes into play.

Casey Coughlin
SoCal SuperTrucks-¨
San Bernardino, Calif

Yes, step bars are in – running boards, not so much any more. They [step bars] just have a more modern look, versus the “old” running board look. Everybody wants to be more stylish nowadays.

Jeff Gerrits
Monroe Truck Equipment
De Pere, Wis.

2.  Since truck and large SUV sales fell off so much in 2008 and through 2009, did you find that people were either replacing older running boards or adding new ones on their currently owned vehicles?

We’ve done more of the older step bars and aluminum running boards than we usually do because people are fixing up their old vehicles. But we haven’t seen too many replacing older boards.

Guy Majewski
Leonard Buildings & Truck Accessories

Over the last year or two people didn’t buy new trucks; they kept what they had and upgraded. So we don’t see as much replacing steps as we see trucks that are two or three years old that are just adding them for the first time. I’d say not even 5% replace them.

Jeff Lester
DFW Camper Corral

There’s still a percentage of older trucks that might be picked up as a used truck. I deal a lot with dealerships, and to make a difference we might put a set of bars on a truck to make it different. Then it’s a value-added item.

John Ricci
MARS

We’re still working on a lot of new vehicles, but every now and then we get an old one in that we do something to. But physically taking off an old board and putting on a new one, no.

Brent Langston
River Valley Truck Outfitters

We’ve removed some stuff – done a lot of factory steps, replacing the factory with the Power Step. That’s pretty much it. We’re either adding to it because they didn’t have anything, or we’re removing the factory’s [step] and installing a Power Step or a 3″ tube.

Todd MacDonald
4 Wheel Parts

Yes, I’ve seen that [adding on to older vehicles], more so in the last year or two because, when the economy is down, truck sales are down and people are keeping them longer. The guys who were trading every three or four years are trading every five or six years now.

Ken McMunn
Robert & Bev’s Truck -¨Accessory Center

At the end of 2008 and the first part of 2009, there was a little more activity as far as older vehicles go. They weren’t buying new trucks; they were keeping what they had.

Mike Riddick
East Texas Truck Equipment

I’m not really replacing any unless they just got torn up from a wreck or something like that. They aren’t coming in saying these are old and ugly and I want something newer. They just deal with what they’ve got. But a lot of people are saying, “I had this old truck but I was using my new truck. Then I sold the newer truck and now I need some steps on my old truck.”

Eric Kirkland
Truck Supply & Outfitters

I always fall back on the lifted trucks and the modified suspension trucks because that’s a huge portion of the vehicles that we do. But yes, we are seeing customers who, when they [originally] worked on the truck, they maybe did some steps, but now they want a little bit different step. So I’ve been taking off a couple of the basic steps, and going with a little-nicer, a little higher-end product or something that’s a little more unique.

Casey Coughlin
SoCal SuperTrucks

We deal mostly with new car dealerships, so it’s mostly on new vehicles that we’re selling them for.

Jeff Gerrits
Monroe Truck Equipment

3.  What types/styles of running boards have you been installing during the past six to eight months?

The nerf bars have always been a big seller; but right after that, we’ve been doing the ABS plastic boards. We’re putting those on a lot of smaller crossover vehicles and SUVs, like the KIA Borrego. They don’t really want to pay for a painted one, and ABS goes with the trim along the bottom of the door. ABS sells real well; it goes with everything. It’s a little subdued but serves a function.

Guy Majewski
Leonard Buildings & -¨Truck Accessories

Still the most popular style is the 3″-round step bar. Next would be the 4″ oval bars. We’re starting to pick up some momentum as far as sales. They’re not a traditional running board. Westin makes an aluminum step that we sell, as well. But a 3″ step bar is still the most popular by two-to-one where we’re located because of longevity. They’ll last forever, I guess. I guess people are used to seeing them; a lot of people come in and ask for them. Cost would be some of it, too, because that’s going to be your least expensive option as far as a cab-length kind of step that’s sturdy enough to support people climbing in and out.

Jeff Lester
DFW Camper Corral

It’s cab-length chrome and nerf bars: We still sell more nerf running boards. The true flat boards, I get one or two of those and those are mainly on SUVs. And again, in the SUV market, a lot more manufacturers are equipping them with boards.

The most popular are the 3″-round nerf bars, most likely chrome, followed by black or stainless steel. The narrow bars with the built-in hoops are popular with the guys that lift their trucks. It’s a little different, a little more unique looking. They’re more popular on lifted trucks because I think it drops down a little more than a nerf bar, so it gives a little more distance to get in on a lifted truck – and it’s a good-looking product. It’s a little more pricy than a standard nerf bar but it’s unique looking.

John Ricci
MARS

Mainly it’s the cab-length style. We do quite a bit of the wheel-to-wheel style step bars, mainly for our oil field guys, to get in toolboxes, etc. But on average, mainly just the cab area only. We sell a lot of Westin, like 3″-style piping. We also move a lot of the ovals. A lot of people are starting to go to oval style steps now. Most of them are aluminum and, of course, we do a lot of chrome and a lot of black.

Brent Langston
River Valley Truck Outfitters

I would say most are wheel-to-wheel nerf bars. Some are only cab length anyway, depending on the vehicle. It’s more of the style, not really the length. I see way more of the 3″ tube than the power steps. Power steps are a big chunk to show off when you can buy a set of nerf bars for $170.

Todd MacDonald
4 Wheel Parts

The cab-length nerf bars in the stainless steel seem to be the most popular for us right now, especially since about last November. Nine out of 10 are stainless steel because they look nicer with the chrome appearance to them, and they last much longer.

Ken McMunn
Robert & Bev’s Truck Accessory Center

It’s just customer preference. The cab length is the most popular. The stainless steel, mostly, or black powder-coat. We do about half and half, stainless and black. Black is pretty popular down here.

Mike Riddick
East Texas Truck Equipment

Mainly, cab length and, mainly, the stainless steel pipe style. But we have sold a lot of the electric running boards because they come down farther than the tube style. Let’s say your floorboard is 25″ off the ground. A tube step gets you to 20″ off the ground. The motorized board will get you about 15″ off the ground, so it’s a lot better step getting in and out as far as function and safety, ease of access getting in and out, especially for the older people, people with bad knees and things like that.

Eric Kirkland
Truck Supply & Outfitters

In the last six or eight months, we’ve been seeing a lot of people going more to a unique style, something just a little different. They’re not spending a ton of money on their cars, so when they do something, like a step, they want it to be quality. What comes to mind at the top of our list would be the AMP Research Power Step. That’s probably our most popular entry product. It’s definitely unique in their approach. A lot of people don’t like the look of a step, so the Power Step really covers the bases because, one, you don’t really see it and, two, it’s out of the way when it’s out. Another line that we’ve seen an increase in sales would be the N-fab. Smittybilt also has a similar look to their brand new step that they’ve introduced. Those are the most popular ones that we’re doing. We’re still doing our share of the molded ABS running boards for SUVs or factory-style molded for trucks. Westin is the main brand that we sell in the tubular or running boards, conventional style. The most popular we do from those would be the tubular. The running boards themselves have really slowed down.

Casey Coughlin
SoCal SuperTrucks

Cab-length, 3″-diameter, stainless step bars are 90% of our sales. They are just the most common things out there now. Everybody’s got them and everybody wants them.

Stainless is all we deal with just because of the fact that it doesn’t rust with the chemicals and stuff they put on the roads up here in the winter. We don’t do anything in chrome. If somebody wants a black set we will order it for them, but it’s not something that we recommend.

Jeff Gerrits
Monroe Truck Equipment

Here’s more!

3 More Questions and Answers from our Running Boards & Steps Retailers

4.  Who are your typical customers?

With running boards, it’s mostly individuals, but we have a pretty good connection with the dealers and the dealerships. Instead of paying for an $800 running board from the dealership, a lot of times the salesmen will say “Go down to Leonard’s and get them for $400.”

Guy Majewski
Leonard Buildings & Truck Accessories

I’d say 70% are individuals and the rest are dealers. Kind of like with truck sales, the median age is probably 50-plus. They seem to be established and have the money to spend. We’ve definitely seen a rise over the last year of people who work out of their trucks. It’s something they need because they are constantly climbing in and out.

Jeff Lester
DFW Camper Corral

My customers are 90% dealers. I get a few retail, but retail is referred by dealers.

John Ricci
MARS

By far, just the general public. We do work for dealers, but if the general public is not buying trucks, you can tell it in your market because it’s really slow. In the past year it’s dropped off tremendously from what it was. People are still buying vehicles but the overall consumption has fallen way off and more people are going to crossover style vehicles instead of trucks and SUVs.

Brent Langston
River Valley Truck Outfitters

Definitely more individuals. We haven’t lost anything. We’ve got everyone from the 16-year-old to the 80-year-old. But economy issues are making the suit-and-tie guys go back to driving their Lexuses instead of their crew cabs, for gas mileage.

Todd MacDonald
4 Wheel Parts

For nerf bars, individuals, definitely. We do a number of fleet sales, but don’t do a lot of stainless steel bars on those. I would say more of the black bars on the fleet sales, but at the same time, the individuals outsell them.

Ken McMunn
Robert & Bev’s Truck Accessory Center

All of the above. We have dealerships, we have walk-in customers, fleets – all of them.

Mike Riddick
East Texas Truck Equipment

All kinds. It’s all across the board. There’s not a good demographic to say these people buy more than others. I see a lot of older people coming in because they’ve had a truck all their life and they just bought a brand new truck – and these new trucks are a lot taller off the ground now, so they have got to have something to step on to. And the younger crowd, they want them because it looks cool to have a chrome bar running down through there. They don’t really need it to get it in and out. People need them, they want them and they come and get them.

Eric Kirkland
Truck Supply & Outfitters

End users, consumers, individuals. I do some fleet vehicles, a couple of truck dealerships, but it’s definitely not our focus; our main customers are end users. We’ve probably seen a slight increase in the 40-50 age group. I think a lot of that has to do with the job market out there and those guys are a little more stable and put away more money.

Casey Coughlin
SoCal SuperTrucks

We’re a warehouse distributor, so 98% of our business is to dealers. The other 2% is someone either a dealer sent or a walk-in customer who found our ad in the Yellow Pages, which is very rare.

Jeff Gerrits
Monroe Truck Equipment

5.  How do you market to customers? What do you typically say in your promotions?

Something we’ve been trying to do to contact new owners is to go out and see dealers and say, “Listen, we do have this available.” In the case of a KIA dealer, they could not get a running board for the Borrego (and I don’t think they still had them available back in May), and nobody had running boards that would fit it with model-specific brackets. So, I’m old school: We make brackets. We put them together like the Erector sets. A lot of guys won’t put the running boards on unless they have a model-specific bracket. We’ve been doing it with universal brackets for so long it’s second nature.

Guy Majewski
Leonard Buildings & Truck Accessories

I’d say we’re fortunate because we started so many years ago. But we do Yellow Page and Internet advertising, and direct mail periodically. We also do some programs with high school booster clubs. We’ve done some radio ads, but scaled back. Newspapers, I don’t think ever. Most [of what we say in the ads] are about general savings and not brand specific.

Jeff Lester
DFW Camper Corral

Word of mouth. We never developed a retail storefront. It’s all dealers. So those customers I’ve had will call when they need something new. We’re a re-con shop for the dealers, but having accessories ability, I do a lot for dealers to freshen up used cars.

John Ricci
MARS

We advertise on some things. We do different radio ads. We have a fantastic page in the phone book. Plus we’ve been here for 15 years and we just get a really good word out there about our business. You do good work, give good service and have good prices, and that takes care of a lot of it.

Brent Langston
River Valley Truck Outfitters

We do direct mail, e-mail blasts and publish our own magazine. We also attend events and do our own events. So it’s a pretty good push. The content depends on the area. In my area, we go after a lot Jeep customers because 75% of the customers at this location are Jeep customers. If you look at one of our magazines, monthly stuff flows. [May, for example] was all about towing, and specific vendors all advertised in it.

Todd MacDonald
4 Wheel Parts

E-mail promotions and local newspapers seem to have worked best for us. In most cases we feature a specific product and brand of that product. April was “car care month” and we did a full car care ad with cleaning products and so on.

Ken McMunn
Robert & Bev’s Truck Accessory Center

We have a website and we do some TV commercials on the local cable: ESPN, TNT, the Outdoor Channel, stuff of that nature. Sometimes it is a particular line that we handle; sometimes it’s just a combination of a lot of different things. A lot of people go to our website to look at our product lines.

Mike Riddick
East Texas Truck Equipment

We don’t do any of that. It’s mainly word of mouth. We have a lot of dealerships on board with us, and the customer will go up to the salesman who sold them the truck and ask, “Where do I get some steps? I can’t get in here.” And they send them down here to us. We’ve got a truck here in the showroom and we’ve got all of our trucks out on the parking lot, so we can actually go and show them what it’s going to look like, how it’s going to feel, what the function of it is, instead of just having a display hung up on the wall. And [we have] a sign that says, to the effect “starting at this price and going up to this price.”

Eric Kirkland
Truck Supply & Outfitters

For the most part, it’s word of mouth. We do have some advertising, we do through local events and races, and we sponsor some racecars. We have a motorcycle speedway close to us and we’ll sponsor the event for the weekend. We’ll have a pace vehicle that has logos.

Casey Coughlin
SoCal SuperTrucks

We have sales reps that call on the dealerships we deal with.

Jeff Gerrits
Monroe Truck Equipment

6. What kind of a learning curve is involved before a new installer can be left to do an installation?

The main thing is 70%-80% of what we install does have custom-fit brackets, so basically on our wall we’ve got all the different styles of running boards. Owens, for example, has covered a lot of ground as far as model-specific brackets. We tell the customer to pick out a style. When I’ve got a trainee in here, I tell him the biggest thing is you have to hold it up next to their vehicle. The installs on the custom-made brackets go into factory holes, but the No. 1 thing is to make sure the guys know that when you put brackets on you need to have a hanger at the front and the back of that bracket so there’s no give. The biggest thing is making sure you have enough brackets – and if it’s a custom bracket, do like the directions say. If it’s a custom we’re making, just make sure it’s not going to twist or move.

Guy Majewski
Leonard Buildings & Truck Accessories

That varies by items. A couple months [of training] if you’re dealing with steps. Other things, a year-plus. Nerf bars and step bars – a matter of two to three months. Most running boards, like most bolt-on accessories, it’s within six months to a year.

Jeff Lester
DFW Camper Corral

That’s a tough one because in my shop I’m the accessories guy, so I pretty much do 90% of the installation. But when it comes to a set of nerf bars on a Ford or Dodge or Chevy, I show them [new installers] once and it’s done. Review the tightening procedures for security and stuff like that but those are no-brainers. In most cases, the brackets are designed to go into factory holes, so the bolts are there. It’s the universal world where you’ve got to figure out to drill here or put a bracket there – that’s where it’s different.

John Ricci
MARS

On average, it’s not hard. Most [installation directions] are pretty self-explanatory. The main thing for a lot of companies, you have to watch their brackets when it comes to rubbing, etc. If I train one of my guys, it should take him two to three weeks. You’ll run into some oddball stuff now and then, and some people you can’t teach, but step bars by far, are the easiest things to do.

Brent Langston
River Valley Truck Outfitters

That’s a trick question because all of our techs are seasoned and have five to 10 years’ experience, so we don’t have to train anybody. I’d say for a power bar you’d need an hour to four hours the first time. My guys took almost three hours the first time. Now they can knock them out in an hour and 15 minutes.

Todd MacDonald
4 Wheel Parts

In most cases, with the nerf bars, they’re so simple that if I work with them on two or three sets, they can go by themselves. Most running-board brands have custom bracketry any more, too, so that in two or three shots, they’re off by themselves and I have full trust in them. Unless you get something odd that you’ve never done before vehicle-wise, then we’ll take our time and look at it, do it that way. Fortunately, I have guys that have been here at least five years, so I haven’t really had to train anybody for a while.

Ken McMunn
Robert & Bev’s Truck Accessory Center

After they put on one, they can do all of them. It’s pretty simple – the way the manufacturers have made it now – to where they bolt to existing holes that are in the vehicle. You’ve got some companies out there that don’t send instructions, they don’t have the holes lined up in the proper place and they can make it hard. So we don’t buy from those people. We’re buying from the people who do it right, and are going to stand behind their product.

Eric Kirkland
Truck Supply & Outfitters

Most of the steps that we’re doing are pretty straightforward. They’re direct bolt-on. We’re not seeing heavy levels of modification to a frame or body or anything like that. I don’t think I would turn someone loose on a weld-on style or a custom rockslider step or anything like that. It’s tough to rate because I have the same guys working for me that I did seven years ago. The only one that has some learning curve is our favorite step, the AMP Research Power Step. Obviously there’s wiring that’s unique to the vehicle; for the most part they’re bolt-on, but the wiring is a little unique. But they do a great job with their instructions. Their customer service, if you do have to call them on a question, they’ve been there. The stainless ones used to be a little tricky with the multiple brackets type of thing; I wouldn’t put a new guy on that.

Casey Coughlin
SoCal SuperTrucks

Everything nowadays is a bolt-on application. Most of the manufacturers are trying to use whatever existing holes are on the trucks. You don’t have to do any drilling or anything like that. Everything is getting simple these days.

Jeff Gerrits
Monroe Truck Equipment