Dec 3, 2009

Some years back I was taking the scenic route to Denver from Austin, Texas via the farm roads that connect the boondocks with civilization. I glanced over at a particularly picturesque piece of scenery and missed the sign indicating my route. You can imagine my surprise, and chagrin, when an hour later I saw the sign saying it was 10 miles to Fredericksburg when Fredericksburg was supposed to be 50 miles back. I’ve always prided myself on being able to navigate anywhere by reading maps; with the ability to Google not just highway maps, but city street maps, I really thought I was up on the technology.

But nowadays, there are cell phone moments and there are GPS moments. That was a GPS moment.

A few years later, outfitted with a bare-bones GPS navigation system in a rental car, I learned just how useful one of these devices can be, as it guided me out of San Francisco and to a friend’s place down the coast in an old neighborhood of Santa Cruz, and then to another friend’s shop in the industrial section of a small town on the Central Coast.

These gems are a lifesaver when you’re lost, in the dark or trying to find your destination in foul weather-as any traveler would attest. But finding a freeway exit in a strange city or the way to and back out of some fishing hole is only part of it. It’s also nice to be able to find an address in some neighborhood across town, a guitar shop in Hollywood, what the traffic is like ahead or the closest gas station before you have to start pushing-and the devices work for that, too.

There’s plenty of excitement surrounding the new crop of navigation systems and discriminating buyers will want to get one from a reliable professional where they can trust the product, the installation and anything else they will need to know before putting one in their car or truck. That’s where the restyling shop comes in.

Who’s Buying?

In the world of navigation systems, there are two varieties. Well, three, if you count the OEMs. The others are the portable type and the hard-wired type. Either one is a natural for restyling shops.

“There’s the added feature of the portable as an accessory,” says Christopher Wegener, national sales and marketing director, Sanyo North America, Chatsworth, Calif. “One family can purchase one unit and use it for multiple vehicles, take it on a trip or use it in a rental.”

GPS was once a novelty, in the geek realm of gear aficionados and early adopters who didn’t mind shelling out serious cash for a system.

That has changed, according to manufacturers. Navigation systems are getting smaller, more reliable and less expensive. So now, the typical buyer could be anyone who leaves his or her own neighborhood. Eric Larsen, who handles marketing for Mio-Tech, Fremont, Calif., a maker of portable navigation devices, says there’s been a buyer shift because of price reductions.

“The largest area of growth is with the primary care-giver of the family,” he says, pointing to the fact that a soccer mom or dad has plenty of uses for one just in the act of taking kids to and from games.

“The typical buyer could almost be anybody, from car enthusiasts and travelers to the PTA type mom taking her kids to games and events, who’s always on the go,” says Wegener.

He adds that professionals whose careers demand a lot of driving can also benefit from navigation devices, whose functionality often includes the ability to program on the fly or locate nearby shopping, restaurants or other points of interest.

“With navigation you have the ability to program in multiple destinations,” says Wegener. “For instance, a real estate agent might have 10 houses to show. He or she can load each of those houses and navigate from one house to the next. It’s of great use to somebody in the mobile field.”

The market for navigation devices spans most makes and models of vehicles, equally as broad as the buyer demographic.

“The demographic is ever-increasing,” says Michael Griffin, director of marketing for Roadwire, Commerce, Calif. “It used to be more of a high-end type product, but with price points lowering to where they are now, it’s readily available for just about anyone.”

Many automakers are now offering navigation as a factory option, but that may not threaten the restyling market too much, according to Griffin.

“Restylers will always be able to offer better features and generally better packages,” he says. “Even though manufacturers are offering it on more and more cars, it will never reach 100 percent adoption.”

In fact, new-car dealers may be one of a restyler’s biggest markets for navigation products.

Beyond Big Box

Navigation units could shine at auto accessory shops, where in the past it was mostly found in electronics stores. As GPS devices spread through the retail landscape, your customers might be looking for one-make sure they come to you first.

“With navigation, we’re starting to see the areas in which it is sold are growing,” says Wegener. “Predominantly it used to be Circuit City, Best Buy, Radio Shack. Now we’re starting to see more sold at sporting goods and furniture stores as the portable side is becoming more and more popular with all users, instead of being cultivated in electronics stores.”

While many portable devices are “plug and play” units, not everyone wants to just slap one on their dashboard and let the wires dangle loose. But the appeal of a portable device is that you can unplug it and take it with you-to another car, riding a bicycle or walking. The solution is to have the device mounted in such a way that it’s still portable, but the wires to it are concealed, tucked neatly and safely away and the mounting system itself is attractive and functional. This is something restylers are equipped to do-as well as plumb the navigation system into a car’s audio system, or add other electronic devices.

“With most stereo systems these days, there is the ability to add on external features,” says Wegener. “If you’re getting an in-dash navigation unit, you can also add a backup camera because now you have an LCD screen, and get multiple features. Some double DIN stereos already have a screen, and typically navigation will be an option or available on that unit.”

Selling Techniques

Navigation systems can easily sell themselves, but sales can also be bolstered using up-selling techniques. For example, Larsen points out that a customer having new stereo speakers installed may see an advantage to adding a GPS at the same time and having the audio portion routed to those speakers.

Navigation product manufacturers also advise to pitch the right product to a customer, which may not necessarily be the most expensive model or the one with the most functions.

“To drive home the benefits, it’s best to understand the customer,” adds Wegener. “If you have a customer such as a mom who goes to events with her children, that consumer might need a base model. It doesn’t have to be a high-end model with traffic and video capabilities. You take someone who travels across the United States, they might want something that fits their needs more, such as a model with preloaded destinations including shopping, airports, medical facilities, restaurants.”

A sign or display that simply points out features can start a discussion, which can end as a sale.

“The best technique of all is always the same: Having a unit on display that people can come in and touch and feel,” says Griffin. “Most good systems now have program modes where they run in a demo mode and show off how easy they are to use.”

Mainly, the challenge is to get the word out that you offer GPS devices. Marketing professionals suggest special events. Hold an open house or invite a select group of former VIP customers to an exclusive evening where demonstrations are given along with snacks and cocktails.

And don’t forget the do-it-yourselfers who just want to know they are buying a product from a reputable dealer. The potential is equally great among these customers.

Bright Future

The future of the navigation system market is boundless. Consumers have discovered them; they see a need and now they are affordable to more people. As one company spokesperson observes, just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new comes along. On the other hand, in many ways, the future of GPS is already here.

“I’ve been selling navigation for quite some time, and sold some of first units that came into the United States,” says Griffin. “It’s getting bigger. You’ll see more and more manufacturers adopt it as a standard and not an option, especially with cell phone companies moving into the marketplace. That’s driving consumer awareness to a high level.”

“In 2003 there were maybe only 300,000 units sold in the United States,” says Wegener. “Now you’re looking at 4.8 million sold in 2007. That growth we’re seeing is because navigation is spreading from just the electronics enthusiasts and sales travelers to the everyday consumer.”