A Hitch For Every Niche

Dec 3, 2009

The popularity of today’s trucks and SUVs bring a lot of versatility to their owners. Adding trailer hitch accessories that do a whole lot more than pull a trailer offer endless possibilities. So much so that the hitch on the back of vehicles should be called an accessory hitch. No matter what the vehicle or owner, there’s a hitch accessory that fits their needs.

Many new vehicles come with a hitch that the buyer would not have originally ordered, but because the hitch is there, the owner will find ways to use it, says Gary Hellweg, sales manager for LINK Towing, Wilsonville, Ore. That’s where restylers benefit.

Today’s innovative hitch accessories make it possible to carry virtually anything that won’t fit inside a vehicle. A hitch can support everything from a bike rack for cyclists or a gas grill for tailgaters to a 10-point buck for the hunter.

Today’s Trends

Increased variety and versatility is the latest trend in hitch accessories. While hitch accessories carry virtually anything, some of the most popular products accommodate bikes, cargo boxes, wheelchairs, scooters, skis and snowboards, golf clubs, ATVs, canoes, kayaks, lawn mowers and snow blowers. In addition, pickup bed extender accessories effectively increase the length of the bed to carry ladders, canoes or sheets of plywood and sheetrock or other long items. There’s even an Off-Road Commode hitch accessory offered by Solutions Buy Imports, Forney, Texas.

In addition to versatility and accommodating a wider variety of objects, the newest hitch accessories have higher capacity. Some cargo carriers feature load carrying capacity up to 300 pounds and up to 34 cubic feet of cargo space. Sales of enclosed pod-style cargo carriers and cargo management items such as bags to hold or cover articles carried on cargo carriers are increasing, according to Harold Kiefer, owner of Hitch Corner in Littleton, Colo.

One of the latest hitch alignment products is the Swift Hitch offered by Two Loons Trading Company, Windsor, Maine. It’s a magnetically mounted portable wireless color night-vision camera system that attaches to a tailgate and transmits to an in-vehicle screen to aid trailer connection. Although this device was initially designed for hitching up to a trailer, according to Swift Hitch sales and marketing director Paul Morlock, it’s often used as a backup camera.

“Many people are looking at back up camera systems, but find costs are too high for hard-wired systems once installation is factored in,” explains Morlock.

According to Ken Pelt, owner of Ultimate Truck Accessories in West Allis, Wis., hitch alignment devices are becoming more popular.

“People realize if they bang the bumper fascia once with a trailer tongue they will have at least a few hundred dollars in body work,” explains Pelt.

Another trend in today’s hitch accessories is to make loading and unloading things easier while still providing access to the vehicle.

“Yakima’s new DoubleDown, FlipSide and SwingDaddy bike carriers offer a different way both to transport bikes and gain access to the rear of the vehicle while the mount is installed,” says David Fee, senior director, market and product development at Yakima Products, Inc., Beaverton, Ore.

Many accessories tilt, telescope and swing away from the vehicle to maintain easy vehicle access. In addition, Fee says consumers want a mount that installs and loads easily while offering anti-theft security and damage protection for whatever the accessory is carrying. As a result, accessory locks and cargo covers or bags are increasingly popular.

While trucks and SUVs traditionally offer hitches, either OEM or aftermarket, the crossover utility vehicle segment is growing rapidly.

“As customers toward smaller vehicles to save gas, they need space and accessories on the outside of their vehicles to carry things,” says Pelt. “This should lead to increased hitch and hitch accessory sales.”

Car-based small SUVs, such as the Ford Escape and HondaCRV, often feature 1¼-inch hitches due to their lower towing capacity. According to Fee, for this reason, nearly all of Yakima’s hitch-mounted bike carriers hit both 2- and 1¼-inch hitches. Many accessories fit both hitches right out of the box.

Target the Market

Hitch-equipped vehicle owners are a ripe market for restylers looking for additional customers and sales. Innovative ways for restylers to market hitch accessory products focus around targeting the right potential buyers, packaging accessories with other products and partnering with sports stores or other venues for referral business.

Target the buyers with hitch-equipped vehicles and active lifestyles or those who are vacation-bound. Consider the impulse buyer who has to have the latest gadget; the owner of a new recreational toy; the customer whose vehicle is in your shop for other work. Market hitch accessories to potential customers as an affordable way to get more use out of their hitch. You can bundle products and services together and offer specials. Offer a hitch with a cargo carrier or bike rack.

“Work with local bike, paddle sports, snow sports and outdoor sporting goods retailers to refer customers to your shop,” recommends Fee. “If sporting goods retailers don’t sell hitches and hitch accessories, encourage them to direct consumers your way.”

“Partnering with local dealerships-not just auto dealerships, but bike stores, cargo outlets, and even big-box stores-ensures that you’re the go-to destination for specialized hitch products,” explains John Tiger, Draw-Tite, ROLA and Tow Ready, Plymouth, Mich.

Specializing in a product category with a wide variety of inventory or offering technical expertise to fit any vehicle will help set you apart. Offering trailer repair services with hitch sales and service can help increase sales as well.

There are many other ways to market hitch accessories. For example, participate in local shows such as hunting, sports, RV, boat, contractor, home and garden or others. Demonstrate accessories at a local park, lake or recreational area where potential buyers congregate. Sign up to participate at a local motorsports venue as a sponsor recommends Tiger. Promote a towing safety day at the local racetrack and conduct free towing safety inspections for all the racers, crews and spectators. Work with local horse and agricultural organizations to help sponsor equine events. According to Tiger, this can improve your gooseneck, fifth wheel, weight distribution, brake control and hitch sales dramatically.

“Pay attention and ask questions, then listen carefully before making recommendations,” advises Tiger. “You’ll get the customer’s intended use and budget if you ask the right questions and listen carefully.”

When choosing a hitch and accessories supplier, shop around. It’s not all about price. Consumers are willing to pay a little more for a quality product.

Another successful scenario is to offer tiers of good, better, best products to give the customer a choice, without locking him out of the lower or higher end products.

Add-on sales

Other products combine well with hitch accessories to create package deals that increase add-on sales. Accessories extend beyond the usual locks and cargo straps. Class I to Class II converters and drop down receivers are popular. Hellweg suggests offering receiver covers or plugs with logos for the vehicle brand, a favorite sports team or activity.

Sales Aids

The key is to have a demo unit available. Customers want to see and touch accessories before they buy. Fee says displaying hitch-mounted carriers or accessories in your store will educate customers who may not have considered them.

“Many of our restyling dealers also sell trailers and the easiest way they have found to sell an accessory is to simply offer their demo unit for a quick trial in the parking lot,” explains Morlock. During a demonstration, he says the product often sells itself.

In addition to demonstrations, take advantage of all of the sales aids offered by hitch accessory manufacturers, including counter top point of purchase displays, DVDs with looped demonstration video segments and brochures that customers can take with them.

A Rising Tide

Hitch and towing products help increase sales of other vehicle accessories as well. According to Tiger, upgraded suspensions, engine and transmission upgrades, shock and brake improvements and wiring products all go hand-in-hand with hitch sales.

“Other accessories like ladder racks, wheel and tire upgrades, charging system upgrades and battery isolators, tool boxes, auxiliary fuel tanks, oil and transmission coolers, dress-up items like bug shields, tonneau covers, step bars and running boards can easily accompany a simple hitch sale,” he explains.

The innovators, thinkers and those who try new things will move ahead in challenging times, reminds Tiger. Be one of the restylers that rises before the tide.