Electrifying Opportunities

Jun 2, 2011

Today’s restyling market has a few, always jumping, product-lines. One that is both all encompassing and always active is mobile electronics.

By its own nature, that product line is ambiguous and hard to pinpoint. That’s because it includes pretty much anything electronics from functional equipment like GPS devices to entertainment equipment such as satellite radio.

And those are only the tips of the iceberg.

Add to that the lightning-fast development of anything computer or electronic based, and you have products that are so “in” they can be “out” by the time they get plugged into the family ride.
With that high rate of development comes an even higher rate of education for both the consumer and the restyling shop. In a case of not knowing what they don’t know, shops have to work hard to keep up on all the latest and greatest products. We asked our panel of experts a number of hardball question – from competing against OEM products to distracted driving. Their answers can help shops tackle this big linebacker of a market.

The changes that change so quickly

First, we asked what our experts are seeing out there in comparison to what was available five or six years ago.

Chris Wedge is the aftermarket sales manager for Sheboygan, Wis.-based Muth Mirror Systems Co., and advises us to look at the number of apps.

“While there are a lot of specific in-vehicle options, I’m noticing the effect the “app” [or, application] is having. Specifically, the integration of products like the smart phone (and to a lesser extent the iPad) seems to solve customers’ needs without adding extra hardware,” Wedge says. “For example, GPS is standard on many of the smart phones now. Do you sell the customer a GPS unit or help them to integrate their phone safely as a GPS with proper mounts/power adapters?

He continues. “I wonder what the future holds for WiFi- based communication between these devices and the vehicle? Will you need an advanced head unit which functions like a mobile computer, or just a “monitor” which just streams what the smart phone already can do? As new apps are added to the phone, you would benefit from them immediately without needed new hardware in the vehicle.”

Steve Weimar is the vice president of sales and marketing for Rosen Entertainment Systems, Corona, Calif., and also talked about smart phone technologies.

“Smart vehicles (Sync/MyTouch and others) are providing the consumer with advanced technology that is rapidly changing the face of mobile electronics,” he says. “Navigation/multi-media products have gone from exclusively OE platforms to aftermarket devices that provide more integration at more affordable prices to portable devices like Garmin and TomTom to smartphone-based systems in a relatively short period of time. The question out there is: ‘Will smartphone technology replace in-vehicle products?’ and I feel the answer is no. The screens are small and there is more you can integrate with today’s in-vehicle options.”

Weimar adds that it is the “challenge to the mobile electronics manufacturers to stay current and even ahead of the curve or lose the battle. One thing the smartphone cannot currently do is backup safety (camera and sensors). This is a rapidly growing segment and new federal laws will make it mandatory for cars to have this by 2014. This new safety segment becomes a new and growing opportunity for the aftermarket. Backup cameras and sensors, Bluetooth hands-free and more will provide some nice profit opportunities for years to come.”

John Lombard is the national sales manager for Steelmate USA, Cerritos, Calif., and thinks plugging into cars may be the biggest factor.

“It seems that there has been a fairly big impact for iPod and other MP3 devices to be able to plug-in to car audio systems,” he says. “Similarly, the transition to more and more apps on smart phones will see the dramatic rise in connection of phones to car audio systems.”

How “standard” will be standard equipment?

Next, we asked about the increasing amount of in-vehicle information that’s being added to today’s new cars. Looking into the future, what products could be standard aftermarket items in just a few years? Weimar from Rosen says, “Voice-controlled devices are the rage with OEs but -¦ they have major drawbacks. Take for instance all the bad press Ford has had over the consumer issues regarding Sync and, even worse for, My Ford Touch. The consumer wants simple-to-use devices that are easy to learn and use. It’s like having to remember function keys on a computer. A limited number of power users remember them all for their shortcuts while most don’t. If you have to completely reprogram and retrain your brain to use an electronics device, chances of mass consumer acceptance is low.”

“From what I am seeing, the rush to in-vehicle technology like Wi-Fi, Internet tethers and such is exciting, but is it needed?” Weimar queries. “Smart phones are becoming the dominant communication device, and they have all of that included in your monthly data package. Do you really need to duplicate that in your car and cause additional distractions? At some point will the federal and local governments ban or limit the use of what we are enjoying today? Very possibly.

“Rear seat entertainment remains popular, and more integration of iPod/iPhone and other mobile MP3 devices will continue to grow in popularity (where the device’s media content can be output to screens that can share and display for all passengers). Streaming video through in-vehicle devices will gain momentum and replace some of the DVD use but not eliminate that for many years. And the tablet market becomes a more dominant player for in-vehicle entertainment as costs and features improve.”

Lombard from Steelmate tells us it might be about costs. “What I believe we will see is a constant trend to lower-cost, in-dash offerings with nav, satellite and HD radio as common features on middle-market models.”

Wedge from Muth says that he can see Bluetooth “becoming more of a standard feature for cell phone integration with the head unit.”

“Being ‘hands-free’ is required in some areas now,” he notes, “and just makes sense from a safety standpoint. Blind-spot detection seems to be coming on strong in the OEM world. I imagine this would be a success in the aftermarket world, too. Being able to control certain vehicle functions via voice command is certainly available in many of the newer vehicles. While it’s not a product specifically, the ability to control products with just a voice command is something the aftermarket customer will probably look for in the coming years.”

The non-new-car gets modern tech uploads

We wanted to know how likely will vehicle owners be to have the latest gadgets installed. And, how do you suggest the aftermarket installer promote these new devices? Lombard says, “This is by far the biggest challenge for the aftermarket installer. The constant improvement of standard offerings by the automobile manufacturers -” and the exposure to the end user by a huge growing Internet marketplace -” present a very real challenge to the independent to survive and justify its existence in the market. Fortunately, most new technologies have demanding installation and setup requirements that allow the savvy independent to still survive for the moment.”

Wedge tells us that “on average, consumers seem to be keeping their vehicles longer. These customers will want certain new features, but don’t want to commit to a new(er) vehicle. The installer will need to focus on the value of adding those features to the existing vehicle from a use and convenience point of view vs. a pure dollar value proposition. For example, adding a $500 gadget install to your $10,000 vehicle may not make it worth $10,500, but it’s going to make your daily commute much nicer.”

Says Weimar: “As I noted earlier, the proliferation of entertainment and media options is almost limitless at this time. Consumers can shop the world via the Internet, and the aftermarket retailers cannot ignore its power. Retailers and car dealer expediters need to embrace today’s technology and educate themselves about what is available and soon to be on the market. While not all technology is right for these businesses, they need to be able to intelligently answer the questions that will be thrown their way and also how to direct those consumers to solutions more suitable to today’s vehicles, the consumers’ capabilities and their pocketbook. Holding ‘tech days’ or trainings can also help make consumers feel comfortable with the technology they are buying. Ford recently launched an incentive for their dealers to train consumers on Sync and MyTouch due to the consumer dissatisfaction. They identified that consumers were unhappy with the experience so now the Ford dealers are spiffed or rewarded for providing training to buyers of their vehicles.”

Well trained and informed staff needed

Installer training is very important today. What does the technician need to know about installing telematics/infotainment units? And where will the training come from? Wedge says, “Obviously, the technician will need to know specifics about each vehicle and the impact the install will have on existing vehicle systems. I think it’s also important to be an expert in the use of the product so the installer can test out the gadget and verify it functions as the customer expects so you aren’t having to fix installations at a later time.”

“Another area is the integration into the vehicle from an aesthetic standpoint,” Wedge notes. “Customers will become more demanding in this area as the quality of new vehicles improves. Training/support will need to come from the manufacturer to the installer. I can see where the use of video training/installations will become more and more valuable. Ongoing training is a reality in many professions and installers who embrace this will reap the benefits in quality/timely installations, referrals and repeat business.”

Weimar seems to agree.

“The training can come from multiple sources (manufacturers, industry tech seminars, tech webinars and other installers they know and respect),” he says. “Installers today need to be up on what is new and what is soon to be on the market. This is something where the installers and their employers need to be on the same page and have an open dialogue. Both can help each other so they can be successful. I feel the first and primary source of this has to come from the manufacturers of the product. They know it best and should have staff in place to answer questions better than anyone else. Rosen has YouTube-based installation and user training for its more complex navigation/multi-media systems, which is even more in depth than any of the car companies provide.”

Lombard also agrees with the importance of installer training. “I see this area as more and more being covered by a growing database of online information and a constant move to creating product that is self-diagnostic and auto-testing for the most part.”

Don’t forget customer training on new devices

Speaking of training, the customer needs to be taught how to use these newer devices. Will it be up to the aftermarket installer to teach them?

Weimar says it’s about time. “Technology can be a boon or bust,” he says, “and the companies and their installers need to be willing to spend time with the consumers training them on the basics of the system. Failure to do so is a major mistake and can result in uneducated consumers becoming frustrated with highly advanced electronics. [Again], Rosen produces both YouTube-based online, and CD-based training is included in each system. Nothing – and I mean nothing – replaces the hands-on, sit-in-the-car with the consumers and walk them through the system training. The consumer feels empowered, is not fearful of the technology and embraces its features. This drives up the value of the product and the pass-along ‘I love this product and the company who installed it’ as is the MasterCard ad campaign of ‘Priceless!'”

Lombard adds, “Again, I think the trend is to an online self-help approach with only the specialized categories or segments remaining as a technician-driven area.”

Wedge, too, agrees about the customer returning, happy with his or her new in-vehicle electronic: “Yes, the installer is the point of contact and will need to do the training. This will put pressure on manufacturers to make the use of the device intuitive to take pressure off the installer. The manufacturer will benefit by offering support for the product use via point-of-delivery instructions as well as support via Web/phone/e-mail for the installer and end user. The more your customer can rely on you, the more likely they are to come back when they are shopping in the future.”

Driven to distraction -¦ or not

Lastly, we broached the delicate subject of distracted driving and safety. With so many new in-vehicle infotainment enhancements, what suggestions should aftermarket shops share with their customers?

Wedge echoes the importance of the subject with, “This is a tough one because everyone thinks the other guy is the problem when it comes to distracted driving. The installer should just make a consistent effort to explain the need to focus on driving first. Hopefully, the shop is thinking about this when selecting products. The gadgets should help you get the feature you want and focus on driving. This feature/benefit should be discussed during the initial sale and reinforced at delivery.”

Lombard says, “We specialize in the backup camera and parking assist area of the market with audible (beep) alerts, voice alerts, and visual on-screen distance readouts, as well as, the video camera images from backup cameras to assist as parking aids. We are developing lane-change and front camera applications, and see these key areas, along with our tire pressure sensing monitoring systems, as the culmination of all of the safety parameters onto the in-dash video LCD screen integrated into the vehicle.”

Weimar says it’s about education: “Be knowledgeable of how to use the technology safely and use this in your consumer training sessions. Virtually everything is distracting while driving: vehicle warnings, passengers, eating/drinking, radio, iPod, Bluetooth, navigation, other cars, billboards, pedestrians, travel directions printed from MapQuest, etc. We all learn how to drive and minimize risk, but the fact remains that today’s technology and the vehicles they are in are way more distracting than of times past. The key, again, is training consumers how to safely use these in their specific vehicle without creating a 60-mph, heat seeking missile and a threat to others.”

Mobile electronics may be all encompassing but being responsible to both the consumer and those on the road with them is the most important element of this huge market.