Special Focus: Where Soft is Strong

Dec 3, 2009

Generally, soft tonneau sellers note that even though sales overall were lower in 2008 than 2007, they decrease hasn’t been as dramatic as one might think, and in some cases soft tonneau sales were up. And while crew cab installs were big in 2007, a shift to standard full-size and extended-cab pickups carried through in 2008.

Read on as restylers share how the covers are selling, who’s buying and why, and what products are working for which clients.

We have a broad buying public. Weather is the major factor contributing to our sales: keeping snow out of the bed in the winter and traveling in the summer when people turn their beds into a large trunk. It doesn’t matter what the age group it is, especially before winter, it seems that tonneau covers really pick up – nobody wants snow in their bed.

Roll-up styles are by far more popular than others. A fold-up style takes up room in your bed. Our No. 1 brand and the model that we show on our shop trucks is the TruXedo low profile. The ease of installation of that model as well as the quality of the product justifies this. Nine times out of 10, if we’re using the particular cover ourselves, that’s what customers buy. Relationship with the manufacturer and ease of warranty issues are other factors that influence which tonneau covers we choose to sell.

Our top two sellers are Chevy and Ford. The full-size Chevy pickup with the 6-1/2′ bed seems to be the most popular. Full-size trucks are more popular than midsize trucks in our [Davenport, Iowa] area. We’ve noticed an increase in extended cab trucks this year; last year was all about crew cabs.

Some guys are coming in with older model trucks they want to redo instead of buying new trucks. Sales this year have been down a little bit from last year but not a drastic decrease.

Sonny Dohrmund, owner
Sport Truck Specialties
Davenport, Iowa

Most soft cover buyers are people who use their trucks on a daily basis, getting everything from groceries to mulch for the garden. The age group is anything from teens to seniors.

The majority of sales are for new trucks, but we do sell covers for older (mid 1990s) and newer trucks. No particular truck brand sells more [for us], but the majority are short beds.

One of the first things I ask the customer is what they use the truck for. There are so many different covers to offer, you can satisfy whatever their needs are. Some just want a cover to keep the bed clean and dry, but may hardly ever take it off in which case a snap-on cover is effective and economical. If they are getting in the bed a lot, the [Extang] FullTilt and Trifecta offer quick and easy access with no stretching or rolling the cover. A customer may need something that allows complete access and is easy to install even on a cold day, and that’s the Revolution. Some people just want something on the bed to get better gas mileage. The majority of the soft covers we sell are FullTilt, tri-folds, Velcro roll-ups, and your standard snap-on models.

Soft tonneaus will do everything and more that a hard cover will do at less than half the cost in most cases. The appeal of soft tonneaus is how easy they are to take off if you need more of the bed. Ease of use, then good looks and good quality with a warranty that stands by the product. Price makes a difference, but it doesn’t stop a sale as long as the customers get the cover that will satisfy their needs.

This summer and fall 2008 had been slower than past years. It’s hard to say what the 2009 sales will be because of the slump in the economy.

Dave Adkins, owner
Adkins Upholstery
Trenton, Ohio

We find that our younger customers and our most price-sensitive guys go for the soft covers, and the older generation buys the hard covers. I would say that we’re seeing a lot of used-truck owners coming in for other parts, seeing our displays and getting a cover. Our location doesn’t see a lot of new-vehicle traffic. We’re seeing mostly Chevy and Ford trucks.

With our big showroom, we’ve got all the TruXedo and Extang displays, a full-size truck that’s kitted out with current everything, including a soft cover. I think that once a person comes in and sees these displays and how the covers work, they’ll spend the extra money to get the upgraded cover. For instance, Extang has come out with the Revolution, which is a lower-profile cover and a little more expensive than the base versions; but once the customer sees it on a truck, it’s sold. You’re always going to have the guys who buy function, but for 75% of our customers, it’s visual. Even when we promote the practicality of fuel savings, the major factor is looks.

Installations are usually a separate sale, allowing the shop to upsell the additional service. However, customer care and word of mouth are important goals, and if a guy is going to walk away from a cover purchase because he’s intimidated by the hardware, we throw in the installation to close the deal –  and hopefully he’ll spread the word.

Mark Sandy, sales manager
Central City Auto Parts
Columbus, Ohio

Anyone is buying soft tonneau covers. We’re selling soft covers for most types of trucks, fitting the individual customer’s needs. Weather, hunting season and vehicle type drives our sales.

People are generally concerned about keeping their stuff out of the rain and out of sight.

We see more extended cabs and standard cabs – we previously saw more crew cabs. Customers are buying more economical vehicles and utilizing the bed more to make cab room for their passengers.

With the improvement in quality of the soft tonneau covers – the harder material, the lower profile –  70% of our tonneau cover sales are the soft variety. The appeal of soft covers, in a word, is convenience. They can be rolled back to put in a four-wheeler or mud bike or whatever gear you want in the bed.

Aerodynamics is also a nice feature – on everyone’s minds  is gas prices. Many customers ask if soft covers will help them save gas and it’s nice to sell something that helps people with that. The lower profile of the newest covers really appeals to customers; they like the look and how easily they perform.

Our sales are a bit down in general, but soft cover sales are up. We sell all brands of soft covers – whatever cover will meet the customers’ needs. The Access brand sells the best for us because of its low profile, construction, the mounting inside the bed which allows the customer to accessorize and utilize the bed rails, and the warranty information right on the cover.

We have eight versions of soft covers in our showroom displayed on mock truck beds showing exactly how the covers work. Customers like to touch and feel the covers. They like the ability for us to demonstrate how each one of the covers works. We find that customers are very price sensitive, so we reflect that in our pricing and we always include installation in the price. Our customers come to us for quality, which we’re known for, but it can’t hurt to give good pricing, too.

Lynn Ward, co-owner
Truck Specialties
Cartersville, Ga.

Our No.1 buyer is male, aged 25 to 50. Most are private truck owners versus business users. We sell both wholesale and retail. Our wholesale was off a bit this year (2008), but our retail is a little above over where we were last year at this time. Our retail store is seeing a variety of customers, not only new-truck owners but used-truck buyers who want to come in and fix up their trucks with a bed cover.

We do have some professionals using the soft tonneau covers, like traveling salesmen and people working out of their trucks. We carry a wide range of bed covers, but our No. 1 seller is the soft, roll-up style cover.

A bed cover is definitely a gas-saving tool for your truck, and with [uncertain] gas prices being on everyone’s mind, that is the No. 1 or 2 reason people are choosing bed covers.

Another primary reason for bed cover purchases is to store things, keep them out of sight and keep them dry. Then, of course, you have the guys who just like the look of covering up that big open bed.

Tear resistance, too, is also a big selling point.

We advertise our soft covers without specific pricing or noting that the pictured cover is a soft cover. We also have sales contests for our salesmen about four times a year that makes it fun, and you can see it working when the phone rings and the salesmen jump for the phone. We have seven soft covers on either company- or employee-owned trucks in our parking lot.

Mark Goodsell, owner
Goodsell Truck Accessories
Jacksonville, Ark.

Buyers of our soft covers are a broad segment of the truck-driving population, from the kid in his late teens to a driver in his 70s and everyone in between. Everybody needs some type of bed coverage, whether it’s a truck cap or a tonneau cover, depending on how they use their truck.

We’re seeing a lot of Chevys right now. I’m not seeing the trend toward smaller trucks. If a guy needs a truck, he needs a truck. Many times the trucks are a second vehicle, especially the 3/4- or 1-ton truck; it may not be his daily driver, but he needs that truck to pull a fifth-wheel, or he might have a farm or off-road equipment.

The main reason people buy soft covers is ease of use. Our biggest seller is the Trifecta by Extang because it is so simple to use, even in the winter. It’s easy to take on and off-just two knobs to unscrew and take off – all parts contained and small enough to put in the bed or the back seat of a crew cab.

We have working displays featuring all six Extang models. We can take customers right down the line showing how each cover works, so each guy who uses his truck differently can see which version will fit his needs.

For marketing purposes and fun we hold trail rides for our customers, which are sponsored by Extang and other accessory manufacturers; these feature demo trucks and product displays. They are overnight events and everybody gets to hang out, go off-road and see different products in use.

The biggest influence in a soft cover sale when a guy is right on the line of whether to buy is a detailed explanation of the warranty, assuring the customer that the product is well made and well backed. To further influence a sale we will throw in installation.

Sales are off this year (2008) compared to last year, but last year was a banner year for us, so compared to the year prior we are right on. I think sales look good and fuel prices in November were dropping, which helps.

Rob Grinnik, owner
Meridian Offroad
Butler, Pa.

We have a broad base of customers and we’re seeing more clients today because of economic factors. We’re seeing steady Chevy and Ford owners coming in for covers; Toyota Tundra sales spiked recently, as well.

The snap-on covers are where we started; tonneau covers have come a long way since then. We still sell some of the snap-on covers, but with improved product like the [Agri-Cover] Access cover, the roll-up style is the majority of what we sell.

Customers buy what they see and a product’s word of mouth results from this. People see a tonneau cover and the next thing you know they’re in the shop saying “my buddy has just bought a cover and I want one just like it.”

We do whatever it takes to make a sale, including free installation. When a customer comes in we see what they want to use that pickup box for and know what the customer wants to spend.

We use fuel economy as a selling tool. It’s proven that a pickup can save up to 10% in fuel with a soft cover, which is significant. We have a bunch of displays using mini-models that really show the public how the cover is going to work with their truck. And we put a cover on a company truck as a demo, too.

We’ve had a good year, all things considered. We’re barely down, probably 2% for the year, which seems pretty good for the economic climate. Customer service is where it’s at. We’re upbeat about the future and we present that optimism to our customers as part of our customer service.

Gregg Borneman, owner
Cap Connections
Waukesha, Wis.

On the wholesale level, our sales are to dealerships, specialty shops and canopy stores. We are seeing a big shift to dealership business. Retail customers are pretty widespread with no particular niche.

I’d say 90% of our tonneau cover business is in soft roll-up covers. Along with fuel economy, which is a big draw, a roll-up cover lets the bed be totally functional. We are seeing increasing sales in the solid-fold style like the Trifecta from Extang and the Extang Solid Fold, which allows use of the bed, and comes off easily and quickly.

I see customers moving away from one of Agri-Cover’s tonneaus toward Agri-Cover’s own Lorado, plus the TruXedo Lo Pro, because customers really like that lower-profile look. The roll -ups and fold-ups will continue to overtake the pickup cover market.

The biggest thing in marketing the soft tonneaus is having displays there in your showroom and having the consumer know that this product will work year round: Consumer knowledge is big in understanding the usefulness of soft tonneaus.

We have 8′ boxes and 3/4-ton applications not selling generally, but there are more 1/2-ton stuff and more downsized trucks getting the covers. Our summer and fall sales were down, mainly due to new truck sales being down. I think truck sales are going to stabilize at the level they are at now, so I don’t see a worsening.

Scott MacPherson, owner
Ultimate Truck and Auto Accessories
Spokane, Wash., and Sandpoint, Idaho

Typically, soft covers are purchased by price-conscious consumers versus tradesmen or commercial truck owners. I find that the tonneau cover business is highly regionalized in its preferences. Here in the Southwest, if money is no object, people prefer the hard covers. In our market, security is a big feature, and while all tonneau covers offer pickup bed security, there is a perception that hard tonneau covers offer more security.

I think some people who buy their truck and anticipate its use immediately want to buy a tonneau cover for it. What else we’re seeing in a market where new trucks aren’t selling well is that people who are getting ready to take a trip or are suddenly finding a new use for their truck are purchasing a soft cover for these specific purposes.

There are lots of different promotional techniques that we use, like installation or highlighting different features. The category of tonneau covers provides so much choice that, as we are all looking to find opportunities in these challenging times, understanding our particular markets and what our customers want is going to be crucial. Accessory sales driven by new truck sales are soft; it’s just the nature of things. We’re not seeing a lot of growth in soft cover sales right now. We’ve seen growth in some of the mid-size trucks, specifically the Tacoma. We’ve seen a movement where that truck is more popular in our market than it has been historically. I think that has to do with people downsizing trucks, and that’s one people have gravitated toward.

Alan Krasne, owner
Alamo Auto Supply
El Paso, Texas

 

We sell soft covers to all segments of the market including government fleets, contractors, farmers, ranchers, city dwellers and hot-rodders. Almost every new truck that comes into our store leaves with a soft roll-up cover. Different types of customers buy different combinations of accessories, but almost everybody includes a soft tonneau cover. Although we install soft covers on every type, make and size of truck, most of our sales [in Lewiston, Mont.] are short beds and mini beds. We sell truck covers year round, although generally we see a bump during the new truck months of October and November. If new truck sales are down then resale truck numbers are up.

In a small business you sell what you like and believe in. Customers respond well to that. We sell predominantly soft covers, and specifically TruXedo. I am a big fan of the TruXedo Lo Pro. It’s our predominant big seller for a number of reasons: value, customer service from that company and ease of installation.

Soft covers outsell hard covers because of their ease of use, cost benefit and you don’t lose any cargo space in the bed. Hard roll-up covers have a canister in the bed that takes up some space, and one-piece hard covers restrict how much height availability you have. I tell people that their soft cover is basically free: It’s going to save enough gas to pay for itself in a year and a half for most people. And at the same time it is keeping their stuff clean, dry and secure.

We have two nice demo trucks dolled up with lots of accessories, including two styles of covers. It’s really easy to show what works on a given kind of truck buy walking around an accessorized truck and showing how a soft cover works.

We sell a lot of bed rugs as a package with soft tonneau covers and discount the entire package. We advertise in print media like local newspapers and regional agricultural newspapers and radio, as well.

Tom Balek, owner
The Pickup Guy
Lewistown, Mont.