In Wheel Time

May 21, 2013

Today, restylers – and especially dealership expeditors – are seeing a great value in dealing in these high-dollar and high-margin accessories. And many are carving out a unique and profitable niche for themselves in the ever-constant competition with big-box national wheel and tire chains.

Part of the reason, says Dave Crockett of Corona, Calif.-based Rolling Big Power, is that in soft economic times, many wheel and tire customers necessarily fall into a wealthier demographic with more expendable income.

“In these types of conditions, these buyers provide a nearly recession-proof customer base,” Crockett says. “Today, the people with money still have it. It’s the guy who was just scraping by that got hit hardest.”

Often, he adds, a set of aftermarket wheels is a great entry point into a whole host of other accessories.

“We’ve seen a real revival in the last six months and that’s ultimately good for everybody,” he says. “The installers are having to get creative and bring in wheels and, then, lifts for suspension, leveling kits and all the rest.

“What I see is that the commodity items are where restylers are getting hurt,” Crockett adds. “While the soft-tonneau buyer isn’t buying as much, the high-end items are doing much better. When a buyer comes in with a $70,000 truck, they only want the best products and price becomes less of a factor. There’s a trend towards that.”

David Coker, owner and president of Rocket Racing Wheels in Chattanooga, Tenn., agrees that wheel customers have weathered the storm of recent years. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy sale. He notes that restylers and expediters see a notable bump in sales by targeting a specific niche and staying nimble as fast-moving trends in the wheel market come and go.

“Competing with a large chain is far easier when restylers attack their market from a niche marketing perspective,” Coker says. “Corporate chain tire dealers are fairly rigid in their approach to the market and a lot of marketing decisions are slow when the market changes.

“Independent restylers have the ability to react quickly to market changes and if they’re in tune with the market, they can see a hot brand or style of wheels and make quick moves. It might take a big guy two years to make that decision,” he adds. “That leaves a huge window of opportunity.”

Fast Fashion

The fashion side of the wheel business can be staggering when it comes to diversity of styles and materials, according to Coker. While his company deals primarily in aluminum wheels, the choices are nearly endless.

“There are a blinding number of options when it comes to wheel choices, styles and applications,” he says, noting that his company attempts to give lasting value to its customers by finding styles with staying power.

“We try to offer classic, enduring styles that are going to last in the market and never have a reason to discontinue,” Coker adds. “What we do is try to find the broadest, most accepted enthusiast markets and provide them with those enduring styles.”

In today’s wheel market, brands or styles can emerge and gain acceptance quickly and then fade and be diluted quickly, as well.

“Staying in touch with what customers are asking for – especially the trends that vary by region – can give you that important competitive advantage,” Coker says.

Crockett of Rolling Big Power notes that even in the past five to 10 years, style trends have changed many times.

“Back in 2006, it was all chrome,” he says. “Then a few years ago everything was ‘murdered out,’ black on black. Now you’ve got people going the exact opposite and going with white and black styles.

“It’s a cycle: One guy with a truck in the city starts on the high-end and gets the best wheels, grilles and steps, and then as soon as the neighbor with a cheaper vehicle ‘rattle cans’ it all black, the first buyer is on to the next thing,” Crockett says.

Don Sneddon, wheel product manager for Stow, Ohio-based Mickey Thompson Performance Tires, agrees. Sneddon, a regular presence on the SEMA Wheel and Tire Council and a blogger on the wheel and tire market, notes that in all of Mickey Thompson’s core markets – street, strip, truck and offroad – one thing remains constant: trends move quickly.

“It’s a fashion-oriented business and it’s cyclical,” he says. “While the market has gotten more technical in recent years due to the OE’s push to drive technology to new levels with things like tire pressure monitoring systems, this is still a fashion-, fit- and finish-driven product area.”

Sneddon says that within those categories, there is any number of variations to fit a customer’s specific needs. Regarding fit, he asks: “Are you putting the wheel back in the OE position? Or with a different offset? Will the vehicle be standard height or lifted? Will the wheel have a deep barrel look, or closer to OE styling?

“And when it comes to colors and finishes, the past few years have been dominated by the ‘murdered out’ flat-black look,” Sneddon says. “But beyond that, you’re seeing all kinds of holes, spikes, rivets and other things that build complementary fashion into the wheel.”

Beyond that, size does matter in the wheel markets, he adds.

“Most wheels fall in between 17 and 22 inches in diameter, but you’ve got massive larger sizes if the customer wants them. It all depends on the style you or your customers are looking for,” Sneddon says.

Today’s most popular wheels can range in material from raw, polished aluminum to powder-coated, chrome plated, diamond-cut finishes or any combination of the above, according to Sneddon.

“It often comes down to forged or cast wheels,” he says. “And that really comes down to price. You can compare a forged wheel next to a cast wheel and from the cosmetic viewpoint you’ll see very little difference. Forged wheels offer the flexibility of being a little lighter and there’s less mass involved. Cast wheels are the opposite.

“There are even some new manufacturing technologies emerging, flow-forging technologies, that are currently being developed and will add some integrity into the wheel in the casting process,” Sneddon says.

What material is ultimately a good fit for a restyler’s customers, however, is largely dependent on their personal taste and the driving conditions the customer expects to see regularly.

“Any of those finishes can be great, and at the same time, all can be susceptible to grand failure if driven in the wrong conditions,” Sneddon notes. “Maintenance of this product is the key. Nothing is impenetrable in the wrong conditions.”

The Restyler’s Advantage

The best way for restylers to gain a competitive advantage is by leveraging their close relationship with customers, according to Coker. While national chains undertake laborious market research, a restyler can listen closely to what customers want and then react quickly.

“The restyler himself has to be his own market research and listen and hear it all,” Coker says. “To do that, the owner or purchasing manager needs to take a lead on research, and that means a great deal of counter time. Customers tell you what they want and you don’t want to filter that through anyone else.”

Beyond merely knowing the regional preferences in wheel tastes for consumers in a restyler’s given area, Sneddon notes that one of the biggest competitive advantages for a restyler competing with a national wheel and tire chain comes down to one word: service.

“Price is important for anyone, but the other thing is the level of service you deliver,” he says. “It might be quality mounting and balancing abilities or the ability to source from multiple suppliers or manufacturers. In this business, you can’t sell the same thing to two guys in a row.”

In order to properly provide that variety in wheel offerings, most suppliers offer some sort of display programs ranging from point-of-sale displays to innovative mini-displays and point-of-sale literature that allow restylers to display their depth of product offering at a reasonable cost, Sneddon says.

“Most suppliers will work with you on displays and enhance your ability to show your end user what you can do,” he says. “But if your choice is to be in the wheel businesses, that’s an investment on the front-end.”

Rocket Racing Wheels is among those companies that encourages and helps its dealers to properly display product lines.

“One of the best things a shop can do is to provide an opportunity for their customers to touch and feel the actual product,” says Coker. “In today’s age, people are more knowledgeable and their access to online information grows every day. It’s literally at their fingertips.

“In many cases the customer knows way more than the guy behind the counter,” he adds. “That customer is investing his own money and can’t afford to not be informed. You’ve got to respect that, and the guy behind the counter has to be knowledgeable or it will cost you money.”

To help their dealers, Rocket Racing offers display wheels at 50 percent off the retail pricing in order to subsidize the initial investment.

Rolling Big Power’s Crockett says that investment can offer a huge payoff, especially when restylers work as dealer expediters, customizing vehicles for the sales floors of area dealerships.

“Today, the Internet can work for you or against you. Customers can search online and then pick the product up with you or it can work completely the other way,” he says. “Knowing that, the jobber needs to find new and reliable business, and providing these high-end, expensive products on a dealer vehicle is a better way to go about it.”

Crockett suggests restylers to always offer multiple price points when putting together accessory packages for dealers.

“We always recommend providing a better andbest package,” he says. “One is simple and more calm or moderate in style and price. But then they want to offer the other one, the super-size package with 20-inch wheels, a 6-inch lift, and bold and brash style that looks like a show truck.

“They won’t sell that every day but it attracts customers to that lot,” Crockett says. “Then when people come looking at that they’ll hook them on the more
modest package.”

By staying up to speed on rapidly changing style trends, keeping in close contact with customers and creating strong partnerships with local dealers, restylers in the wheel market can capitalize on exactly those types of selling opportunities.