Save Us A Seat

Aug 1, 2012

Sometimes, when it comes to dressing up car seats, it’s more about the quick and easy.

Giving customers what they need is key to any business, and in the restyling world there are many products that use the quick and easy route to solving customers’ problems. A good example is the use of seat covers instead of full replacement for auto upholstery. Regardless of the reasons cited, seat covers can be the best solution for a particular application.

We wanted to find out just where this market is today, so we talked to our leading sources about the draw, buyers, products and marketing of seat covers.

What, then, is the draw, the interest, in seat covers over seat replacements?

SCC Northwest is located in Vancouver, B.C., and Steven Koyama tells us, “The allure and need for seat covers has not really changed that much in the last 55 years. It’s still about protection and preserving the value of a seat. This is especially true if someone is leasing a vehicle.

“New-car dealerships make money off of the fine print addressing accelerated depreciation. When you lease a vehicle there is an allowance for a particular rate of depreciation. When that allowance is exceeded, the car dealership charges the lessee the difference. In other words, seat covers have become repositioned in these situations as a type of insurance. Essentially, it allows the lessee to fully enjoy the interior of the vehicle with little regard for the mess we are able to create combined with the number of hours we spend in our vehicles these days.”

At Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Wet Okole Hawaii, Phil Willms says, “What we hear from our typical buyer is that the rear leather in their new SUV is being damaged by their kids and their dogs. At this point, waterproof and snag-proof make the most sense, as dog nails will ruin leather instantly. Dogs’ nails cannot snag neoprene; also, dog hair cannot stick to neoprene. When it comes to kids, anything can happen.”

Rick Messmore of Pauls Valley, Okla.-based Covercraft Industries Inc., says, “Lots of trucks now come from the factory with leather interiors – they look nice, but really aren’t practical in a daily work environment. SeatSavers [for example] are just what the name says – a blue-jean-type fabric seat cover that protects seats from daily abuse: work truck, kids, dogs, hunting and outdoors. Easy-on/easy-off. Some work truck owners just use them during the workweek. When soiled you throw them in the washer/dryer and, like a good pair of jeans, they get softer with age.”

At CalTrend Automotive Products, located in Santa Ana, Calif., Jackie Gutierrez says, “Custom-tailored seat covers can enhance and change the look of any vehicle interior. For many vehicle owners, the ability to upgrade or change their seat covering with covers that are tailored to fit their specific vehicle model is an economical alternative to full upholstery covers.”

An easy sell?

Are seat covers an easy sell and why is that? Messmore from Covercraft says, “The key to an easy sell is a good application guide. There are so many different configurations offered in pickups and SUVs that you have to be specific about the seat style to assure you get the right ones if you offer a custom fit. [Our products] are available for front, second and third row seats for most popular pickup/SUV models and our application guide even includes seat illustrations to confirm the seat style.”

Gutierrez from CalTrend tells us that “seat covers are an affordable way to personalize any vehicle interior or upgrade seats that are either worn or damaged. They are also easy to install, requiring no special tools, which reduces the installation time and costs typically associated with full replacement covers. And because our covers are precision cut and custom fitted to a specific vehicle model, they look like upholstered seats, which make them an easy sell.”

Koyama from SCC notes, “Seat covers are a very easy sell because when we consider the value of a new car or truck we are even more inclined to preserve what we can of such a big-ticket item.

“One item that is subject to the most visible wear is seating. Nobody wants to sit on dirty, stained and smelly seats. Relatively inexpensive seating protection is one of the primary reasons seat covers are still popular.

“I remember speaking with a sales rep who basically echoed our sentiments about people working behind the counter of a restyling or accessory store. When the manager was asked about seat cover demand at his store he said nobody asked for them. The rep asked for permission to try and sell some covers. The rep casually talked to almost everyone who walked into the store that afternoon and sold just over a dozen covers. The customers didn’t know where they could buy good-quality seat covers until someone told them. The formula was simple: Stop being order takers and become order makers. Any restyler not selling seat covers is selling themselves short.”

For Wet Okole’s Willms, it’s simply this: “Our biggest advantage is our reputation. We have been making neoprene seat covers for over 25 years.”

Buyer awareness

And that brings up the question of who are the typical buyers? Gutierrez tells us, “The market for custom seat covers is huge. Installers and retailers can market these covers to a range of customers. For example, fleet vehicles experience a lot of wear and tear. Because most fleet operators are concerned about maintaining and extending the life of their vehicles, there’s an opportunity to upsell these customers by offering affordably priced seat covers that renew their vehicles’ interior.

“The retail market is also very strong right now.” Gutierrez continues. “With the downturn in the economy, people are keeping their vehicles longer. Many of them are looking to refresh and revitalize a worn interior. Also, some people can’t afford full upholstery covers, so the seat cover business has just been growing for covers that are designed to go over existing seats.”

Koyama says, “The typical buyer of seat covers is someone who works with their vehicle or spends a lot of time in it alone or with family, friends or pets. A strong target is someone who uses a pickup truck or an SUV in construction, tarring, roofing, paving, natural resource extraction, etc. People who have a more active lifestyle involving traveling, sports or camping are key targets, as well.”

As he notes earlier, Willms says his customers are “young families with kids and dogs.” Add to that, “hunters, surfers, skiers, kayakers, police departments, military and anyone who needs waterproof and snag-proof covering,” he says.

Messmore points out more customers. “Contractors, landscape individuals, small businesses or fleets,” he counts off. “We even sell to municipalities and state departments that want to reduce seat repair and replacement cost. Let a seat cover take the daily abuse instead of a costly seat.”

A cover’s a cover, right?

So, have seat covers changed lately? Koyama says, “Ironically, the seat cover industry has become much healthier as a result of the global financial crisis. While being in ‘survival awareness mode,’ we’ve witnessed the industry making improvements in areas of customer service, quality and diversity of materials, the design of covers and their user friendliness.

“It seems to me that there’s been a bit of a dichotomy created within the industry. There are more low-priced/low-quality items being offered through box stores or online retailers than ever before,” Koyama notes. “While at the same time, companies in the middle have moved toward the high-quality/higher-priced seat covers. And the shift to higher quality makes survival sense if we want to continue to support jobs in North America.”

Messmore tells us, “As noted above, there are lots more styles of seats being used. Pattern design must include consideration for headrest, airbags, fold-down consoles, adjustment knobs/levers, 60/40 and 40/20/40 combo styles.”

There are considerations with regard to seat-based airbags. At Wet Okole, “We no longer make pullover seat covers,” Willms notes. “With the side-impact airbags that deploy from the seat, it is too dangerous to sell universal covers.”

Like Willms, Gutierrez points out safety: “The placement of seat-implanted airbags has affected the seat cover business. But manufacturers quickly responded by providing cutouts on slip-on covers that address this matter. We have also introduced new fabrics, including     NeoSupreme, a wetsuit-like material. Although similar to Neoprene, which is an Asian-imported product, our covers are made here in the U.S. They not only protect seats from outdoor elements, they offer superior resistance to drying and cracking, and are UV treated, so they are fade-resistant. CalTrend’s newest introduction is “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Leather.” It has the look and feel of leather, but is less costly, easier to maintain and is wear, abrasion, mildew and fade resistant. It is so popular that it’s become our No. 1 best seller.”

Stylin’ every mile

So with those changes, just what is available in the styles of today? Messmore says, “We don’t ‘mess with success.’ Our SeatSavers are not a fashion item where styles and colors change annually. We’ve offered the most popular colors for over 20 years. Our design is functional – a durable breathable fabric, overlapped stress seams with double-needle stitching and a snug fit. We have over 600 patterns and offer eight solid colors and five camo-design fabrics. Retailers can’t stock them all so we try to maintain a sufficient inventory of our most popular patterns and major distributors do the same.”

Gutierrez offers this. “CalTrend offers many other fabrics, styles and colors, including SuperSuede, with perforated inserts that offer a high-end look. For people who want to keep the original factory look, we offer velour seat covers in a range of colors and styles. All of our covers are produced in our manufacturing facility in California, and include headrest and armrest covers as well as extra-large pockets. Unlike universal-fit covers, our covers are precision cut and custom tailored to fit a specific vehicle model. But because we have no inventory or minimum order requirements, installers and restylers can order [our] covers as and when they need them.”

Says Koyama: “You can now buy seat covers ranging from universal poly-cottons to custom-fit waterproof covers made of poly-oxford wovens. Seat covers are no longer limited to solid, one-tone colors. A wide variety of animal print, geometric, floral Hawaiian prints and neoprene continue to be as good as ever. The popularity of camouflage -¦ leads the new area of HD heat-transfer-printed fabrics.

“Universal or semi-custom seat covers still make up a large percentage of sales because of the ability to get them on the shelf in the face of a retail customer. But the real hero of the industry is custom-fit seat covers. They are designed specifically for each seat style for every year make and model, and they fit that way, as well. Our Pro Seat Covers not only offer heated seat cover options but adjustable lumbar support, as well.”

For Willms, it isn’t universal fit. “We only make custom-fitted seat covers that are made from the factory pattern. Today’s customers demand the best fit possible.”

A matter of safety, too

We touched on the seat-based airbag issue earlier. So what about safety and about seat covers interfering with side-impact airbags?

Koyama tells us, “While each manufacturer may deal with SIABs (side-impact airbags) differently, one thing we have in common is the resolve for the safety of our customers. Seat covers can be designed to tear apart with a minimal amount of resistance should an airbag deploy. By using a fairly simple mathematical formula and working with thread manufacturers such as American & Efird a tear threshold can be established. Airbag friendliness can also be achieved by a variety of other methods including tuck-and-fold, open seam, sideless, Velcro and more.

“Most, if not all, of the companies who take the time to design airbag-friendly seat covers also carry general as well as product liability insurance. This cannot be said of some of the overseas low-quality imports. They may hold overseas insurance but, unless the underwriter is in Europe or North America, the buck stops over there not here.”

Messmore says, “We use a French-seam or panel flap depending on the style of side airbag. Patterns are application specific and show if they are designed for use with side impact airbags that are built into the seat.”

Showroom showoffs

Lastly, we asked about the best ways to display seat covers in aftermarket retailer’s showroom. Messmore says, “We provide free, small, molded foam seats with a cover, and fabric swatches to help promote sales. The seat is only 12″ wide by 21″ tall so it doesn’t take a lot of space and really helps generate sales.”

Says Willms: “We supply a full-size seat on request -” that’s the best way. We also have mini seats if they have limited space. We also supply the full range of color swatches so customers can touch and feel.”

Koyama reveals, “The seat cover selling tool that does the best job at grabbing a customer’s interest is different in the case of each showroom. Fabric samples are a must and should be large enough for a customer to place on top of a vehicle’s seat so they can imagine what it will look like. Some image of how the seat cover looks installed on a seat and, finally, if the space allows, for some sort of a demo. This could be a cute miniature on the wall, a seat setup on the showroom floor or even a full-size demo installed in a company vehicle.”

Gutierrez notes, “Custom seat covers give installers and restylers the opportunity to diversify their business and capture incremental sales by upselling their customers. The best way to do that is to have a display. To support our customers’ sales efforts, we provide fabric swatch cards, hanging displays, and a POP table-top display, and we also make our parts list available in print or by email. However, the most effective method is to take a car seat and cover it in ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Leather.’ If restylers put it in their showroom, CalTrend will supply a free cover, and it will sell itself.”

When it comes to seat covers, that pretty much “covers it.” (Sorry…we couldn’t resist.)