Recreation Department

Mar 27, 2013

Racks for cars and trucks fall into two categories: work and play. And these days, both are attacked with the same gusto. But as “playtime” becomes more and valuable to folks, having the equipment they need for their fun time does, as well.

A separate market exists for “fun” or recreational racks, and we thought we’d take a closer look at it. We asked our sources what’s hot for this season, the improvements we’ll see and just how to find out what a customer may need.

Sales positioning

At the outset we want to know just where recreational rack sales prove strongest this year. Are we looking at bikes, boats/kayaks, camping, hunting or what? Dan Epting, Perrycraft, Winston-Salem, N.C., tells us, “If the economy tends to pick up in 2013, I think the overall sports equipment carrier sales will move up a bit, probably equally across the spectrum of types of use (bikes, skis, canoe/kayak, etc.). If the economy remains stagnant, I suspect sales in this category will reduce somewhat compared to 2012. Note – technically there is no such thing as a ‘bike rack,’ ‘ski rack,’ ‘kayak rack,’ etc. – such items are generally carried in attachment carriers that are attached to or installed on the crossbars of an existing base rack of some sort.”

In Plymouth, Mich., Rola’s Doug Anderson says, “In the recreational market, bike rack sales and rooftop systems for carrying bikes should improve more than any other sport racks this year. With the improving economy, rack sales for work vans and pickup trucks should also greatly improve.”

Tony Leix of Aurora, Colo.-based Rhino-Rack USA says, “We’re making a big push in the kayak/SUP [stand-up paddleboard]/canoe rack industry and have an entire new line of load-assist and transport carrier products. Bike is always a large market year after year and we expect our full cargo (cargo/ski boxes, steel baskets, alloy trays) product line to sell extremely well in 2013.”

For Seymour, Conn.-based Thule’s Karl Wiedemann, it’s about size, too: “As consumers are still trending to downsize their vehicles,” he says, “cargo boxes, baskets and bags are looking strong for 2013. These products can carry a variety of items and are easy-on/easy-off in a matter of minutes.”

Product evolution

Concerning advancements made to these products, are they getting to be more lightweight, able to carry larger loads and offer more ease of use? Rola’s Anderson says, “Rola roof racks use a lighter, stronger aluminum alloy and patented designs, which make them stronger than earlier-generation roof racks.”

Rhino’s Leix notes his company has been building “heavy-duty, aerodynamic and lightweight, all-aluminum base racks and accessories for the past 20 years.” The aluminum bars “offer better gas mileage for vehicles, carry heavier loads and offer a better-looking style to go with today’s vehicle models,” Leix continues. “C-channels on the top of Aero bars also offer a more solid- and lower-profile mounting option for accessories (ski, bike and kayak carriers).”

Thule’s Wiedemann says, “Currently, the big trend is increased aerodynamics and ease of use. With gas prices remaining high, the less drag a rack can create, the better. Thule’s AeroBlades are amazingly aerodynamic and quiet. Plus, they can carry the same load as a normal Thule bar.”

Adds Perrycraft’s Epting, “Probably more so with regard to newer designs to provide improved ease of use for the consumer. I think the current maximum load capacities of between 120 lbs. to 200 lbs. provided by various brands of roof racks are pretty much the limit, especially considering that many such racks are now being used on much smaller vehicles that didn’t exist in years past.

The right rack for the right use

We also want to know how to help customers select the rack that’s most suitable to their needs. Leix gave us this: “The best question that a retailer/installation tech can and should ask is, ‘What are you using the base rack system for?’ Then, they can start to find out if the customer needs an Aero/sport or heavy-duty/commercial base rack, and can select the proper accessories needed. We also offer some all-aluminum platform trays for people looking to carry large loads, bring all their 4×4 gear, install a pop-up tent, mount an awning. -¦ These platforms do not require crossbars, just leg kits that attach directly to the platform. Customizing per the customer’s needs is essential to providing the best rack system.”

Wiedemann agrees, saying, “Always start with the question, ‘What do you want to carry?’ From there, determine the vehicle and any other variables such as multisport family or a vehicle with a hitch. The Thule printed fit guide, or will recommend the perfect solution for a specific car and load.”

Epting keeps the streak going with, “The first and primary questions a retailer needs to ask of a prospective roof rack customer is, ‘What is the intended use of the rack? What type items or loads will be carried?’ The second important question would be, ‘Do you want a permanently installed roof rack, or do you want something temporary that can be removed when not needed?’ The intended use of the rack should always determine which rack any retailer would recommend for the consumer. Appearance, style, color, etc. must take a back seat to the intended use/load types to be carried when recommending a roof rack setup.”

Anderson reveals a different approach. “To effectively match a customer’s hitch to an accessory’s load capacity, Cequent Performance Products has developed a new system called HitchMatch,” he says. “This system matches a customer’s hitch with the proper hitch accessory rating using alpha- and color-coded labels. An easy-to-use website ( ) will also guide the dealer or consumer to a proper choice of hitch-mounted accessory. HitchMatch is currently used for four brands of hitches: Draw-Tite, Hidden Hitch, Pro Series and Reese, and three brands of bike racks and hitch accessories: Highland, Pro Series and Rola.

“Multi-use racks are growing, as consumers are trying to get the most out of their rack dollars. One item which answers this need is the Dart Basket with Bike Clips. It’s not just a bike carrier. It can be used to transport gear for camping, holiday trips, work, home improvement, as well as farm and ranch supplies.”

Rack accessories

And while that customer is in the store, retailers and restyling shop owners can suggest rack accessories that would be a benefit for rack users to have.

Wiedemann suggests, “Load straps are always a good thing to have on hand. Thule just released a locking strap that is perfect for anything from kayaks to ladders.”

Epting says to think regional. “Depending on geographical location, as well as time of year, it would be a good idea for retailers to stock a couple ski/snowboard carriers and/or bike carrier attachments,” he says.

Anderson says, “There are many styles of roof racks to fit vehicles without stock side rails. The best types of roof racks for restyling dealers to stock are universal-fitting crossbars. These adjust to multiple sizes; but keep in mind they only work with vehicles that already have side rails. Custom-fitted crossbars generally look like stock equipment. Your customer may be willing to wait an extra day for a certain look.”

Leix says it still goes back to the user. “This fully depends on the customers and what they like to do,” he notes. “We offer sporting accessories (ski, bike, kayak), 4×4/offroad accessories, a full commercial/contractor line, full awning and camping accessories line, and a cargo line.”

Competing with online sellers

When it comes to online rack sellers, what marketing suggestions for brick-and-mortar installers are there to better compete with them? Epting says, “Very few online retailers have sales/customer service personnel who are well trained in product knowledge. To compete with them, brick-and-mortar shops must have well-trained, knowledgeable sales/customer service people – knowledgeable of all products they carry, sell and install. They must make their knowledge and experience a part of the product value that is justifiable in their pricing structure.”

Anderson tells us, “Marketing-wise, dealers should focus on their expert installation. With an experienced installer, a roof rack should only take 15-30 minutes, depending on the style of rack. An inexperienced consumer who buys a roof rack from a website may forget to install anti-whistling covers or, worse yet, install incorrectly only to lose their $1,000 paddle board, skis or bike down the highway.”

Leix gives an alternative that includes both: “Build your own website and sell as a dealer through AAG (American Aftermarket Group LLC), Amazon and/or eBay,” he suggests. “This way, they are getting a piece of the ecommerce sales and can pull these sales into their brick-and-mortar shops for installations. In this day and age, you have to have a presence online.”

Dare we say it? Yes we do. This vacation season, rack up the sales with recreational racks.