Crossing Over

Dec 3, 2009

Market niches are exciting. They offer unique segments of vehicles, products, services and customers. Niches provide ample opportunity for specialization as well as the drive for identity; it is no secret to restylers that people see their vehicles as an extension of their personalities and everyone wants to be part of a small group of like-minded souls.

Muscle cars, minivans, dually pickups, sport tuners and more can all be considered niche markets. The CUV, or crossover utility vehicle, is a niche vehicle market struggling to find its place in the greater automotive world. These vehicles are cousins to the SUV, retaining many SUV features with the significant difference being their unibody car platform rather than being truck-based, as their bigger, long-popular cousin.

Vehicle manufacturers have been shoehorning CUVs into the market to either replace other, less contemporary vehicles or to fill gaps in product lineups that research suggests buyers are seeking. Accessorizing CUVs has proven to be an elusive prospect with no clear trendsetters commanding restylers’ attention. A coast to coast survey of leading restyling suppliers offers up a wide range of unique and insightful perspectives on this market.

3dCarbon

Ernie Bunnell takes a positive approach to the CUV market. His company, 3dCarbon, of Newport Beach, Calif., launched 10- and 11-piece body kits as well as accessories for the Ford Flex in August.

“We feel this market could be a good opportunity for accessories. I think the Ford Flex is the brand that is starting to get the most traction,” Bunnell says. “We have been getting a lot of inquiries for accessories for this vehicle.

“Next would be the [Toyota] Highlander. Wheels, tires, body kits and spoilers are the typical accessories I see most commonly for CUVs. Restylers should market the accessories to their dealers by building a demo vehicle that they can take around to show what can be done. Leaving the vehicle at various dealers over the weekends on display will also build interest and get the dealers interested in pre-loading stock vehicles to increase their gross profits.”

Dee Zee Inc.

Dan Kruzic, director of marketing for Des Moines, Iowa-based Dee Zee Inc., is optimistically cautious about CUV accessories.

“Electronics, wheels and tires, floor mats are the traditional accessories,” he notes. “We’re seeing a growing interest in trim package items to add a custom look. We haven’t seen a particular model grow in popularity above the others when it comes to accessories. We don’t see the trend from SUV to the CUV changing in the next few years. The mood in this country and direction from Congress is expected to support the trend.

“The full-size SUV has been very good for the aftermarket. Its versatility as a family wagon, offroad performer and aggressive looks lent it well to a wide range of accessories to fill all of those rolls.”

Kruzic’s recommendations to restylers: “More than ever, target new-vehicle owners. Dee Zee’s NXc running board is a good example. It’s an appearance upgrade for CUVs-a completely different look and function compared to a step for a pickup. But it is still a functional step into a CUV for everyone in the family.”

Husky Liners

“Consumers want the same aftermarket products for these new vehicles as they did for the prior vehicles: tires, wheels and suspension on the outside, floor liners and electronics on the inside,” explains Husky Liners’ vice president of sales and marketing, Bill Wagner Jr.

Not limited by a Midwest perspective, this Winfield, Kan., manufacturer/supplier of floor and cargo area mats, mud guards, PPF, truck accessories and other vehicle products understands its nationwide clientele.

“Each new owner wants to individualize his vehicle,” Wagner continues. “The Big Three tried to do this for the end consumer and found that they were just diluting the mix between more models. The aftermarket is better suited to provide product that the individual consumer can purchase to personalize their vehicle.

“Vehicles with high mpg are getting attention because that is what everyone is writing and talking about”, says Wagner, addressing the topic of trends. “I remember the demise of pickup sales back when gas hit $4 in July of 2008; then, by December of 2008 gas was back down below $2. Those who had sold their pickups were wishing they hadn’t.

“Then came the CUV versus the SUV, the Hybrid versus the fuel efficient.”

Citing a CAR report conducted for SEMA, Wagner notes that “vehicle sales and number of households have increased steady since 1951. That projects out to 270 million operating vehicles by the year 2016, and that is 20 million more operating vehicles than in 2008.”

“All these vehicles, not just CUVs, represent potential for accessory sales in the
coming years. A restyler should market his store as the ‘fashion center’ for the consumers of vehicles, whether they are cars or light trucks.”

Razzi

Blair Elliott, general manager of the Alpharetta, Ga., ground effects company Razzi by AAC, hasn’t found CUVs to be pertinent to the company’s product lineup.

“We feel like any vehicle has a market for a ground effects package,” Elliott says. “Some are just going to be stronger than others.

“The vehicles that we decide to produce kits for are based on the input we get from our customers. We don’t get requests for CUVs. If we started getting requests for, say, the Ford Flex or some other vehicle, we certainly would look at that. Our customers pretty much help us make those determinations based on the type of dealership customer base they are working with. The majority of our customer base is restylers. We market to our customers through our website and e-mail campaigns letting them know where we are, what we are coming out with and asking them what they’re hearing from their customer base.”

Vinyl Graphics

Dale Huenink, president of his Oostburg, Wis., accessory company, Vinyl Graphics, notes that “in the American society, people just love their cars; it’s a love affair – thank goodness for our industry. Graphics are selling; more of the linear, conservative designs, more towards earth tones.

“We are starting to see a slowdown in the skulls and dragons, and trending towards the conservative in theme and size,” Huenink says. “The larger graphics aren’t selling as well simply because the smaller CUVs have less sheet metal, unlike a big Dodge Ram or F-150, which can handle a large graphic. Chrome trim products are selling. Throughout our catalog we feature a number of CUV models, including the [Honda] Pilot and the [Toyota] Highlander, which seems to be doing well. We’re not really seeing a big trend towards the crossover vehicles.”

Huenink offers his thoughts on restylers marketing CUV accessories: “Through the car dealers, not only will they make a higher net profit by having a graphic on a car, but it will also set the unit apart. In a lot of cases people are willing to pay for that dealer-applied option just to have that uniqueness about their car – they really don’t want it to look like the one down the street.”

Performance West Group

Speaking with longtime restyler Larry Weiner, president of Southern California-based Performance West Group Inc., opportunities and challenges are laid out.

“Certainly CUVs are a very challenging segment for the aftermarket,” Weiner says. “I think that the aftermarket is going to have to adjust accordingly. A lot of the manufacturer’s aren’t sure how to approach it. Who’s the buyer? What’s the age group?

How many people in the family? What are they most likely to do with the CUV besides drive to the store? A hundred to one, they are going to use the vehicle for purposes that involve play or work.

“How do we make this vehicle more adaptable, friendlier to their lifestyle? What our studies show us is a more car-like person [who has] different intentions than the traditional SUV buyer, and who is less interested in traditional accessorization as applied to an SUV. So you look at the CUV market as kind of a gray area.”

Weiner suggests that functionality plays a large roll in accessorizing CUVs.

“I don’t think you are going to see guys developing a ton of body kits, lower rocker claddings, rear spoilers, because I don’t think the market is going to embrace these products. I can see items like racks on the roof to hold bicycles or skis or hitch products.

“I think your CUV person is a function-driven accessorizer. If it is something that will enhance the functionality or utility of the vehicle, that’s going to be their approach.” Looking to the future of CUV restyling, he doesn’t see CUVs at this time “being a mass-market personalization, customization vehicle platform; it’s not going to be gratuitous.

“I think CUVs almost remind me of minivans,” Weiner continues. “They’re functional, they have utility, their mileage is better than body-and-chassis vehicles, but they don’t get that same endearment to the buyer. It’s not an enthusiast-driven vehicle. You’re never going to get passion for the vehicle; you can’t force that on a vehicle.

“One of the CUVs that interests me is the Ford Flex. It really begs for customization. I see retro all over that vehicle. I thought it would make a perfect ’56 Ford station wagon.”