Playing Dirty

Jun 8, 2010

Most every market in the performance world is a niche market, and off-road is no exception. In fact, the off-road market is probably more of a niche than the others.

It takes a special kind of auto/truck enthusiast to throw their vehicle into mud, dirt and underbrush-all in the name of good, clean fun. And selling to this market is just as defined.

A quick poll of some of the sources for off-road equipment brings us up-to-date for the 2010 season that is well under way.

Past the Pavement

Our first question was, “How do you see the current state of the off-road market?”

Mike DeFord, marketing manager of Bully Dog Technologies begins. “As a whole, the market is getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “It appears that the guys that were into the import/compact market are moving into off-road while, at the same time, we are seeing much younger enthusiasts also getting into off-road (as well).”

DeFord believes the current popularity of the off-road market can be attributed to higher visibility.

“There have been a number of off-road video games released in the last few years. Off-road racing is now seen on television on a regular basis. With the expansion of off-road-related events across the country, more and more crossover athletes such as Carey Hart, Brian Deegan and Jason Ellis are all getting into off-road motorsports,” he explains. “While all of this is happening, business is getting better. The jobbers/dealers are getting busy, they are moving more product daily and their garage bays are full every day. I recently had work done on a project truck. When I picked it up they told me that they were backed up with work for months. As a manufacturer, we are seeing increased sales through off-road business and at the races we attend we are selling a lot of product.”

Cameron Evans, director of sales and marketing for Red Line Synthetic Oil Corp., says, “The market has its ups and downs. Obviously, the (lack of) young people using their home equity as an ATM has slowed down much of the growth seen over the past decade, but the hardcore guys using the trails and making trips-”the real participants-”are still out there buying parts and looking for better stuff. For Red Line, it’s growing, but we have to be careful about not just throwing money at racing, hoping that the non-racers come along.”

Mike James, director of sales and marketing for Omix-ada, says, “Currently, we see strength in the market, which has been growing since last summer.”

Glenn Thompson, VP technical support of Stage 8 Locking Fasteners, says, “I see the current state of the off-road market as slowly starting to grow again after seeing rapid growth in the past five years just before we all hit the recession.”

And Shane Casad, off-road sales specialist for Bilstein Shocks adds, “These days, the market is dominated by enthusiasts. Off-roaders in the position to spend money are less inclined to buy lower-quality product right now, because they are seeking out performance upgrades rather than appearance modifications. Manufacturers are responding by providing the higher-quality products that these enthusiasts demand.”

John Currie of Currie Enterprises, Anaheim, Calif., also believes that off-roaders are willing to pay more for what they know is a quality product.

“These days, information travels quickly with the Internet,” he says. “People are willing to pay a little bit more for quality, either because they heard about it from someone else or because they bought something cheaper and weren’t happy with it. But overall, the off-road market seems to be pretty stable.”

Discretionary Spending

Our next question was about the challenges shops face in selling to off-roaders.

James from Omix-ada brings up a familiar problem. “The big challenge for the off-road market is fighting for the discretionary dollar,” he says. “As consumers have adjusted their budgets during this economic downturn, fewer discretionary dollars are now available and all off-road retailers need to fight harder to capture those dollars. More and more consumers are making the hard decisions whether to invest in their passion or buying that new TV or taking the family out to dinner.”

A key for shops, he says, is to play on the passion off-roaders have for their activity.

“Retailers need to constantly put new and exciting products in front of their customer base to win the discretionary dollar,” he says. “In stronger economic times, consumers did not have to make these decisions. We must continue to create excitement in our niche and communication/exposure of new products is a great way to do it.”

Currie notes that it also goes a long way if shops share in that excitement.

“The successful shops I’ve seen, they participate in the sport,” he says. “They are involved. If they sell Jeep stuff, then they are involved in Jeeping.”

Thompson from Stage 8 says the challenge he sees is simple-”pricing.

“The combination of people watching their money a little closer these days and the fact that many off-road parts are so overly engineered that they tend to be a bit pricy” are the main challenges, he notes. “Enticing people to buy pricy components in today’s economy can be tough.”

Casad from Bilstein brings up another important aspect, “The Internet has really changed the game, giving consumers extremely easy access to the parts that they want at competitive prices,” he says. “Shops are put in the position of trying to educate the off-roading consumer about the advantages of purchasing the parts for their vehicles from the experienced people working behind the counter. Those benefits can include direct customer interaction, warranty and installation services, which are traditionally not associated with an online retailer.”

DeFord from Bully Dog says, “There are two types of off-road consumers. The casual buyer that simply wants a lift and tires; they are pretty easy to take care of. Then you have the core off-road enthusiast. These are the customers that know what product they want; they have done their homework already. They want to buy products from companies that support their lifestyle and offer a great product that works and they want to buy that product from a business that knows off-road-”from a business that is staffed with enthusiasts like themselves.”

That personal service and expertise can make all the difference, Evans from Red Line explains.

“Showing shops and the big mail-order guys that selling gear oil to the off-road market is just like doing it for drag racers and street machine guys is the hardest thing. The applications are simple and straightforward; not as technically challenging and therefore it is easy to sell the correct oil.”

Mixed Approach

Next, we asked about the best ways for shops to serve this market.

James believes, “Retailers cannot count on just one method of marketing their services and products. The most successful retailers during the economic downturn have been those who have marketed themselves across many platforms. Print, Internet, brick and mortar, social networking, email blasts and direct mail all provide the platform to get you message to the consumer.”

And it’s important to know the message you want to send.

“If your message is installation and service, then you must stand on the highest mountain and let the world know this is who you are, which means advertising across many platforms,” he says. “If you want to catch as many customers as possible, load all the manufacturers’ items on your website. You would be surprised what you will end up selling. Remember, by staying in front of your customer on a regular basis, you will win the discretionary dollar fight.”

Thompson suggests focusing on service and support. “I think people expect a bit more service and support if they spend more for expensive parts. The companies that give better service will see more return customers.”

Casad says, “Modifying a vehicle for off-roading can be a complicated process, so the best thing a shop can do is stand behind their products and work 100 percent. Customers will pay a premium for the peace-of-mind that comes from knowing a shop hasn’t taken shortcuts with either the quality of parts or installation work. In this enthusiast market, it is a given fact that these vehicles are being used for camping, hunting and other overland adventures. Failures in the back country are unacceptable, so the consumer will seek-out establishments with a reputation for getting the job done right.”

One way to prove that is to show off your own off-road vehicle, Currie suggests.

“Have a vehicle on the premises that shows the products,” he explains, noting that it can be a shop truck, a personal vehicle you drive to work every day or an extreme off-roader that can be parked in front of your business to attract attention. Customers can see and feel the products, and better-visualize how they might look on their own truck or Jeep.

Similarly, DeFord suggests touting your knowledge of all things off-road.

“Things like price and service are always going to be important to any business. The off-road enthusiast is a customer that knows what they want, whether it’s a specific product or the end result from the product/service performed on their vehicle,” he says. “Having a knowledgeable staff is a key to success in the market. With that said, it is also becoming more and more important within the off-road marketplace to offer one-stop shopping and service. Having the ability to do fabrication, suspension setup and technical product installs will result in more business.”

And Evans adds, “Function is far and away the best way to serve this market. If you have the right stuff, off-road guys will pay for it. It’s as simple as that.”

The Parts to Offer

Our last question was about what products and vehicles are hot this year.

“I know the Jeep JK market is growing,” Currie says, noting that at an off-road event earlier this year in Moab, Utah, organizers reported that paid participation was up, particularly for owners of newer JKs that were off-roading for the first time.

“The JKs were popular when they first came out, and now there are more out there. Many people have finished paying their loans on them, and now they are interested in fixing them up with upgraded suspension, steering and drive train products.”

Thompson tells us, “I think the hardcore drive-train pieces will be the hot products. For many years, the off-road community has patched together tougher, more rugged parts themselves because there was a need for them. Many manufacturers caught on and now make many of the rugged parts the enthusiasts wanted, only now they can just go buy them. The hot vehicles are the slightly older four-wheelers that people have sitting around, paid for and only occasionally drive. They are putting beefier components in them and wheeling like they originally wanted to back when they bought them, only now without worrying about constantly breaking parts.”

Casad says, “Suspension systems that level a vehicle have quickly become a popular and economical choice for off-roaders, as opposed to extreme lifts in the past. Our leveling shocks give off-roaders increased wheel travel and added performance while utilizing the stock springs, while direct-fit reservoir shocks avoid the fabrication generally associated with being able to run a high-performance reservoir shock,” he says.

“The most popular vehicles for off-roaders are the Jeep TJ and JK, Toyota Tacomas and FJ Cruisers, Dodge three-quarter-ton trucks and GM heavy-duty trucks.”

DeFord says, “We have seen a tremendous growth with a couple of vehicles in the off-road market. The Ford F-150 has always been hot, but has gotten hotter. All of the Nissan trucks and SUVs are doing very well, as is the Chevy Silverado line. We offer a product that is a downloader, tuner and multi-function gauge all-in-one unit for all of them. Our new injection-molded, enclosed cold-air intakes are very popular with off-road consumers. A number of the professional off-road race teams that we sponsor use the same setup on their race trucks.”

Evans tells us, “We just put a new lightweight racing automatic transmission fluid on the market that is intended for drag racing but deals with the extreme heat issues that the short-course racers deal with in automatic transmissions.”

And James sees a demand for “upgraded floor liners, modular bumper systems and other functional accessories that lead the charge this year. We are strong in the Jeep market so we see the Jeep Wrangler continuing to be a strong vehicle platform.”

Yes, the off-road market is a strong and dedicated niche. But that dusty trail includes strong opportunities.