Hot Bodies

Aug 5, 2010

There are many things in life that can involuntarily turn one’s head – a hot-looking vehicle being a prime example of the visceral power of a great appearance. One of the exciting things about being a restyler is the ability to create that visceral response. Turning heads is a fantastic way to make a living, and cars and trucks have given restylers a fantastic platform from which to perform.

Body kits, whether full elaborate Fast and Furious body mods or more subtle accents like front lip kits, contribute to the head-turning experience significantly. Restyling recently spoke to industry leaders in the body kit world to see what is trending and hot.

The economy of it all

Restyling markets have changed a lot in the past two years mostly as a result of economic challenges. But market changes also result from new vehicle offerings, consumer trends, media, popular culture and the evolution and introduction of new technologies in accessorizing.

Since a large majority of restyling occurs on new vehicles at the dealership as a part of the vehicle purchase, credit and new car sales play large roles in accessorizing. With the tight credit atmosphere since 2008, dealers’ finance departments have struggled to get buyers out the door with a purchase, let alone with a loaded vehicle.

“Credit was a big issue to the consumer” explains vice president of Newport Beach, Calif.-based 3dCarbon, Ernie Bunnell. “Getting available credit when purchasing a vehicle: There was a threshold that was getting tighter and tighter, so the consumer had to come out-of-pocket more for not just body kits but any accessories. For that consumer, the reason he’s driving that vehicle is because that’s what he can afford. You can’t overload the content.”

Another economic factor affecting the body kit market is the downsizing of vehicle budgets (or even the actual vehicle). A few years back the restyling world was flush with customers who accessorized a non-essential vehicle, but the current market has less discretionary income to devote to accessories. Describing this adjustment, Geoffrey Brown, senior marketing coordinator of Extreme Dimensions, Fullerton, Calif., says, “I attribute the shift in body kits to more subtle kits or pieces to the fact that economics have changed and people aren’t having their project cars anymore. I think our clients are getting rid of the bigger vehicles and still wanting to modify their cars, and so they’re accessorizing their daily drivers. And, with that, there are a lot more subcompacts out there that people are modifying with the more subtle body kits.”

Changes to the body kit market also present new challenges and opportunities to restylers and accessory manufacturers. Sean Tito, sales manager at RKSport in Murrieta, Calif. observes that “auto manufacturers like GM, Toyota, etc. all caught on and made adjustments on their end to supply the buyers a kit directly from the dealership. Since that’s been happening, I think it’s increased the competition more for the aftermarket manufacturers like us,” he says.

A changing marketplace requires different approaches to selling in order to stay profitable and effective. Bunnell remarks that “we don’t have the luxury of a shotgun approach; you have to use a rifle now. People have to be more refined and targeted in their marketing whether with print media or the relatively new social media,” he notes.

Pop stars

So, what vehicles are the body kit makers looking at? OK, let’s just say it: The Camaro. Everybody, it seems, has been talking about the Camaro. Although sales of the Camaro aren’t huge, from a restyling perspective it has lit a fire in the industry. Tito from RKSport sums it up: “Hands down the Camaro has been wonderful to not just RKSport, but everyone I talk to.”

Bunnell adds, “The people that are buying that vehicle are doing a lot of accessorizing. It seems like every shop that I talk to is begging for products for that car because the demand is there. The consumer that buys that car isn’t buying a daily driver, and he wants it to look good. It’s right up there with the Mustang as the most accessorized vehicle ever. I think there’s a shortage right now in the body kit segment for the Camaro; we’ll be introducing our kit at this year’s SEMA show.”

Bunnell is excited about other domestic offerings, as well. “I like the new Chevrolet Cruze. I think that’s going to be a great car with a lot of restyling opportunity. I like the new Ford Focus, which comes out this fall; it’s a complete redesign. Ford is doing really well with its small-car products, especially with the introduction of the Fiesta. We’ve got some other surprise vehicles in kit development that will be premiered at SEMA.”

With a new 2011 Mustang coming, it seems like old times again. Speaking for Razzi by AAC, Bill Criss, president of Automotive Accents, lays it out clear, “It’s great that the muscle car wars are back in style. That’s where we seem to be doing a lot of our business with the Mustang, the Challenger and the new Camaro. This car rivalry is helping the body kit business immensely. And for restyling in general these vehicles are getting heavy attention.”

Reflecting the excitement about muscle cars, Extreme Dimension’s Brown agrees on the importance the domestic offerings are for restylers right now. “We’ve found that there’s a major shift towards domestic vehicles,” he says. “It’s interesting that a trend has gone towards the V8. The domestics are being really smart and have developed these high-horsepower but decent-mileage cars, and people see it’s a great package.”

Looking forward, Brown is excited, too, about imports. “You have the new Subaru STI coming out and Mitsubishi’s EVO is doing really well. There’s a lot of buzz around the Honda CRZ and the Toyota FT-86. The Hyundai Genesis Coupe is, of course, really hot, too,” he adds.

When asked about identifying trends and trendsetters, Brown explains, “We’re very active on the online forums, which we see as the prime location to see where trends are heading. All the trendsetters are online, so monitoring the forums allows us to stay on top of these shifts and trend changes. We’re applying that information to what we are developing.”

Tito concurs. “Forums are huge,” he says. He also has his eye on import trends, particularly the Suzuki Kizashi, which he says “is going to be very popular globally.” He adds that, “as for trucks and SUVs, I think the ground effects will resurface soon, but I see the lifted phase staying around for a few more years. The trucks are huge now compared to when the mini truck body kits were more popular.”

Who’s pushing the trends

Consumer demographics are important to manufacturers of body kits and other accessories. Knowing the market is key to successful promotions, stimulating sales and nurturing “buzz.” With body kits, restylers might be surprised at how wide to cast the net. Criss is confident that “the target base of buyers is a lot wider than it used to be with all age groups and vehicle types,” he says. He goes on to note that “the older buyer will be focusing on the muscle car segment while the younger buyer will be bumping up the smaller car segment.”

When discussing what many feel is a surprise in demographics, 3dCarbon’s Bunnell says, “We’ve seen a steady increase in older consumers. They are more upscale, more settled in their lifestyle and they are a consumer whose first question isn’t about the price but about quality.”

Vehicle accessorization isn’t for guys only. A growth area illuminated by RKSport’s Tito is the female consumer. While he hasn’t seen giant growth in women buying body kits, he notes that with the Camaro forums “there’s quite a few there, so it looks like that’s changing.”

Some surprising market niches exist for the savvy restyler looking to expand body kit installations beyond the new-car dealer. Bunnell describes an interesting opportunity for body kit sales: “As a car changes ownership the first things the second or third owner will do are paint, body kit, wheels and tires. We’ve started marketing to a new segment in the industry: the body shop industry. These shops see a lot of the vehicles popular with accessorization either from a collision standpoint or resulting from people seeking out restyling services for their vehicle.”

Getting started

Body kit manufacturers all agree on one thing: It’s easier than ever to get started selling and installing body kits. Pre-painted accessories have significantly decreased the cost to the restyler in terms of labor and turnaround time. In the past, body pieces that came only in primer required the restyler to either paint in-house or seek out a partnership with a qualified paint facility. Both options impeded the kind of quick results that dealers and retail customers have come to expect.

Bunnell explains the benefits of pre-painted accessories: “Shops can order accessories pre-painted in all the popular, factory-matched colors and then sell those through their local dealers on a mobile installation or bring it as part of a package with a leather interior or tint or striping.”

For restylers trying to break new ground into body kit accessorization, Bunnell recommends that you “start with dealers that you are strong with and have the most success with to leverage introductions to the new products that are available. Expanding from there to dealerships you are wanting to develop a relationship with will be easier than you might think.”

Criss from Automotive Accents is even more blunt, in a positive way, about the prospects for restylers to expand into body kits. “It’s a no-brainer to me. If you have the capabilities to do a leather interior, or sunroofs or headrest video screens, body kit installs are installer friendly,” he asserts. “Fits and finishes are taken care of by Razzi; the instructions are pretty detailed on what to do. With the labor intensity of some accessory installs, the margins aren’t nearly as great as they are with body kits. If a restyler evaluates cost of sales and profit margins, body kits look pretty attractive.

“Once you get your foot in the door with a dealer and a vehicle with a body kit leaves the dealership, all parties will look at the profit margin and say, ‘There is money there, let’s go get that.’ The attraction to the dealer is profit margin and the ability to move vehicles quickly.”

Good margins, improved features, smoother installations, deep libraries of products and excitement about new car models all seem to point in one direction: Get that body looking good.