This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of THE SHOP magazine.
When customers are looking for a leg up, top shops have them covered with the latest running boards and steps.
Offering styling, protection and convenience, today’s step products are as functional and versatile as the vehicles they fit.
Different looks, materials and configurations require shops to do their homework, understanding the specific features and benefits of the boards and steps they carry.
To help you rise above the competition, product suppliers answer questions regarding market trends, sales techniques and hot new models for the new year.
WATCH YOUR STEPS
The first thing to note is that carmakers are beginning to recognize the market for boards and steps and take matters into their own hands, which can be a double-edged sword for the aftermarket.
John Gray, VP – exhaust & exterior product for aFe POWER, sees the trend as limiting some opportunities.
“Many vehicle manufacturers are supplying OE steps as an option from the dealerships, not allowing the customer a choice to fit aftermarket products to suit their needs best,” he explains.
However, more vehicles coming from the factory with boards or steps already included can help raise awareness for aftermarket products in general, notes Joey Scelza, regional sales manager for RealTruck Inc.
“The market for running boards, steps and sliders is always evolving,” says Scelza. “The markets are set by region, and it depends on where you live as to what step or what style you need/want. Consumers with families are usually the first to get a set of steps installed on their vehicles.”
Demand is strong, says Mike Stickney, vice president of sales for Westin Automotive Products.
“Customers are looking for quality products from brands they can trust. They also want products that look great, fit great and function properly.”
With lingering uncertainty about the economy, it pays to have a plan when offering boards and steps, explains Jesse Brown, director of marketing for Raptor Series.
“The current economic conditions have really had an impact on consumer spending. Aftermarket upgrades aren’t necessarily at the forefront of consumers’ minds when they’re not really a necessity for their vehicles,” he says. “When closing a sale on running boards or steps, focus on how they will benefit the consumer in their day-to-day lives versus just how they will improve the look of their vehicle.”
Hugo Baeza, executive director at Romik, identifies “high prices of vehicles and high finance rates” as challenges affecting the market.
Sara Ford, marketing manager for TrailFX, agrees the economy is always a major factor in purchasing decisions.
“Current economic conditions significantly impact the running board and step bar market,” she says. “Economic downturns can lead to decreased consumer spending on non-essential items, affecting demand for these accessories.”
The effects of the pandemic linger.
“Manufacturers are continuing to work through supply chain issues and a reliable stream of products remains a concern,” says Matthew Konkle, managing editor – creative content for Quadratec. “You can work hard to match a product to a customer’s needs, but it is impossible to close a sale when you don’t have it in stock.”
Meanwhile, difficulties obtaining materials are affecting suppliers, says Jonny Matranga, copywriter for Ranch Hand.
“The supply chain for steel has been pinched and the ability to source steel for many companies has been harder, as many manufacturers source their steel from overseas,” Matranga notes. “Ranch Hand sources all our steel from U.S. steel foundries.”
In response to the fluctuating market, Dylan Evans, lead engineer for ICON Vehicle Dynamics, recommends shop owners pay attention to two key components of the boards and steps they offer: “exposure and distribution.”
STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Offering a combination of functionality and style, it’s important to fit each running board or step to the customer’s unique personality.
“Use a display with a few price point and style choices,” says Dave Williams, director of sales at Go Rhino. “Don’t just push what you as a store owner personally like. Let the consumer vote with their wallets. They may want enhanced access for their family like an electric step can provide, or maybe they want a rugged off-road look.”
A mistake, Baeza explains, is “not giving the customer choices.” If you don’t, “customers will walk away and go online looking for options.”
Konkle calls it “trying to shoehorn people into a certain side step or running board without taking the time to figure out what exactly the customer needs.”
When considering the proper product for each application, Evans says an important consideration is “frame mount versus body mount.”
But, while choices are good, be careful about going overboard.
“A common mistake is confusing the customer with too many options. There are a lot of styles of steps out there and it can be very confusing to someone who is not used to purchasing or using steps on their vehicles,” says Scelza. “Providing too many options confuses the customer and ultimately leads to no sale or a lower-end sale.”
A steady supply of new designs means shops need to constantly monitor local preferences, Brown notes.
“The market trends and technologies are constantly evolving. Make sure that you’re staying up to date with the latest styles and product trends that are relevant so that you can make sure you’re offering the right products your customers are seeking.”
That comes from aligning with the right suppliers and selling quality, Stickney says.
“Customers will often find a cheap brand on the internet that often doesn’t come close to matching products from brands like Westin that have been designed and engineered for each specific vehicle. Be sure the running boards or steps will fit and function the way the customer is expecting, as well as making the installation process as smooth as possible. I can’t emphasize enough that not all steps and running boards are made equally.”
Familiarity with the products themselves is also important, Gray says, as not every component offers the same performance or protection.
“Running boards and steps are not rock sliders and bash guards. Verify with the product manufacturer how they are installed, what they are constructed of and their recommended uses,” he says. “We design, engineer and manufacture our products in the U.S. to ensure quality fitment and durability.”
The goal is to fit the right type of step on each vehicle.
“Sometimes shops may not understand the customers’ needs when selling a running step and this can lead to a dissatisfied customer. If the customer is sold an inferior product that is not designed for work and longevity, they may return unhappy with their purchase,” Matranga says. “When consulting the customer, be sure to ask what they expect to use their truck or SUV for before selling a running board or step. If they plan to use their truck for work or on the jobsite, or if they prefer a robustly built, quality product, then a standard nerf bar will not hold up—they’ll need something heavier that’s built to last.”
When it comes to successfully selling step products, knowledge is power.
“Ensure that your sales and installation teams have sufficient knowledge on the running boards and steps that your company offers,” says Raptor Series’ Brown. “This will ensure that you are providing accurate answers for customer questions as well as allow you to give proper recommendations based on your customers’ specific needs and preferences.”
It may mean a little bit of homework for you and your sales staff.
“Know what the OE manufacturer offers and recommends and educate yourself on preferred products recommended for each specific vehicle platform and usage,” says Gray from aFe POWER.
Ford from TrailFX notes that “inadequate product knowledge can result in shops recommending the wrong products for specific vehicle models or failing to provide customers with the information they need to make informed choices. To avoid this mistake, it’s crucial to stay well-informed about the running boards and steps they offer and current fitments available to provide accurate guidance to customers based on their preferences and vehicle requirements.”
Matranga puts it this way:
“The best advice is to have your staff well-versed in the products you offer. This way you can truly help the customer find the best running board or step for their truck or SUV based on what they need and what you offer. If you know the product well, you can help your customer best. Likewise, having our pamphlets and signage in your store and on your website allows the customer to know that you offer Ranch Hand products and gives you the opportunity to consult the customer, provide information and answer their questions. This is where the opportunity rests for increasing sales.”
This results in one important task for shop owners.
“Training. Training. And training,” says Quadratec’s Konkle. “A shop doesn’t need to have an immediate answer to every specific question a customer may ask, but employees should have above-average product knowledge about their running board/side step lineup. Stuff like how it installs, what type of material it is, weight rating, durability, functionality, etc. If something more is needed, then employees should have a resource to get that more technical answer. The more a customer learns from a shop about that product, the more he or she will trust it for future purchases.”
Taking the time to educate buyers is often worth the time investment.
“Use the manufacturer website and any product videos that are available to help illustrate and show customers the differences in the products,” says Stickney. “Also, compare the products from quality of material and warranty standpoints to ensure customers get the best products for their vehicles.”
As part of any showroom display, Evans from ICON advises to “show the benefit of frame-mount strength and sell quality.”
It also helps to make the purchase fun and exciting, says Williams of Go Rhino.
“Curate a selection of steps and boards at different price points for consumers to see, touch and feel,” he suggests. “Covering different price points and styles will give the vehicle owner an opportunity to make an informed purchasing decision on the spot in real time.”
Shops can significantly enhance their running boards and step sales by featuring actual products in their showroom for customers to see and touch, Ford agrees.
“Having physical samples on display allows potential buyers to experience the product’s quality, design and functionality firsthand. This tangible interaction helps customers make more informed decisions, instills confidence in the products and can lead to increased sales.”
Meanwhile, out in the parking lot, Baeza says since shop trucks showcasing products have proven to be effective marketing tools, why not consider adding a company SUV or even a CUV to highlight this growing portion of the market?
“To attract a new audience, especially those with high-end vehicles and SUVs, shops need to show diversity in their work,” he explains. “Place signs that indicate that the shop also works on SUVs, foreign and domestic. Display Romik products on the wall and show our European-made running boards. Once they see the modern designs, the shop will gain new customers.”