The Hard Facts on Soft Covers

Dec 28, 2009

There are few “givens” in any business and restyling is no exception. One item that may fall into that category is soft tonneau covers. It’s a part that warrants a close market watch and that’s why we asked a number of installers for their input.

What features make a good tonneau?

Rich Corrigan of Corrigan’s Truck Accessories, Charlotte, Mich., tells us, “In general, the best feature is closing up your (bed) box so you can put stuff that you don’t have room for in your cab. It’s a plus when you can lock it up. In Michigan, nobody likes to shovel out snow before they can put their groceries in there. And, there’s the gas mileage issue.” Yes, closed tonneaus have been shown to save on gas mileage.

Mark Goodsell of Goodsell Truck Accessories, Jacksonville, Ark., says, “The cover must fit and look good. The cover must not bounce or make noise going down the road. The cover must have a good warranty. We have sold the Agri-Cover for over 16 years and it has all these features.”

Russ Rico of The Enthusiast, Johnston, R.I., tells us, “A good soft tonneau should be easy to install and use and be very durable. One very important feature in this area is to be easy to use in cold weather, as the cold makes many covers very difficult to secure after opening.”

Rob Grinnik, Meridian Off Road, Butler, Pa., offers his hit list with, “Ease of use in all weather, a good watertight seal, good fit and good-looking on a truck.”

Kent Langman of Browns of Two Rivers, Two Rivers, Wis., says, “Soft covers offer all of the protection and out-of-sight requirements of a hard tonneau at a fraction of the cost. Also, the roll-up style covers offer full use of the truck bed when opened, without having to deal with taking off the cover.”

Gary Firestine of Auto Details, Elyria, Ohio, adds, “quality-build materials, ease of use, and all-weather use,” as his priorities.

Wes Hopfauf of Finish Line Truck & Auto Accessories, Bismarck, N.D., says, “A quality soft tonneau must have: premium-grade vinyl (user-friendly in 100 degrees or -50 below temperatures), allowing complete access to the truck box. [Plus] ease of opening and closing, automatic locking, adjustability, lifetime warranty (and) bang for the buck.”

Our next question was about the features of a good soft cover.

What makes it appealing to customers and what covers are selling the best?

Matt Feldermann of OK Auto, Stewartsville, N.J., says “Customers find soft tonneau covers appealing because they are easy to use and are easy to install. Many of the soft tonneau covers we sell don’t even require tools for installation. The most popular soft tonneau covers for us are roll-up or fold-up. Tonneau covers with snaps seem like they are a thing of the past.”

Rico of The Enthusiast tells us, “Soft tonneaus are very popular for several reasons. The price range of soft tonneaus is much more attractive than their hard counterparts, and in many cases much easier to install and use. Soft covers are also much easier to get out of the way to carry large items, keeping the versatility of the truck bed. Folding covers seem to be the most popular these days as they seem to be the easiest for most people to work.  Roll-up covers that use integrated bows and hardware come in a close second.”

At Corrigan’s Truck Accessories, Corrigan says he’s “been in the business for 20 years and I try to fit the needs of the customer rather than the other way around. The Truxedo Lo Pro roll-up is kind of a universal answer to customer problems. I would think the roll-up is better than taking it off.”

Hopfauf of Finish Line is obviously pleased with his sales. “Soft tonneaus are one of our most consistent selling items,” he says. “There is not a spike or drop-off year round. We offer almost every form of bed covers. The soft tonneau is a fraction of the cost of the other models.”

Goodsell of Goodsell Truck notes that the roll-up cover by Agri-Cover is our No. 1 bedcover seller, far above all other styles of bedcovers. The roll-up cover is so multi-purpose, since the cover can be rolled up for 100% bed use. The customer never has to take it off.”

Dave Mihelich of Fuller Truck Accessories, Riverside, Calif., says the appeal is in the cover’s “ease of use – functionality at a low cost,” he says.

Our third question focused on customer demographics.

Who’s buying soft tonneau covers?

Specifically we asked about such factors as customer age, enthusiast, hunter, construction companies, government, fleet and others. Firestine says that 30- to 55-year-old males comprise the largest group he sells to. “Hunting season is hot right now. [There’s also] usually a steady flow of do-it-yourself/weekend-warrior guys.”

Feldermann agrees: “We have a very wide variety of customers purchasing tonneau covers. They are enthusiasts, students, construction workers, business men and women, and even retirees.”

Rico says he sees “a wide range of tonneau buyers in our store, ranging in age from teens to late 80s. The highest percentage is for personal vehicles, although we do get some fleet/delivery vehicles.”

Langman sees the same pattern and says, “Demographics cover all ages of truck owners. Especially active sales in late fall to early winter when snow is probable. Hunters, fishermen, cottage owners and general contractors.”

Adds Goodsell, “All ages. It is really amazing how this product crosses the gender and age barrier. Our buyer is mostly the sport truck buyer for everyday use.”

Hopfauf offers the rhetorical “Who’s buying our covers? Everyone. Teenagers have them on the Christmas list, as well as grandfathers.”

Corrigan says, “Most of them are, I’d say, 50% retirees. [Ages] 35 and up. Not very many kids. People that buy them are retirees who buy them as their first vehicle and they want to cover them up. Contractors, I usually don’t push them into soft tops. They usually want fiberglass lids.”

Grinnik narrows it down with, “Customers for tonneau covers are middle-aged males from 30 to 65.”

Mihelich sees some geographic differences in his sales. “Our typical customers are middle-aged and not from around here [California],” he notes. “Typically from the Midwest and South.”

What influences the sale of soft tonneaus?

Goodsell tells us, “Many of our bedcover sales come from referrals. Customers ask for the Agri-Cover name because their neighbor, brother, friend, etc. has one and they like it. It also helps that we have seven on trucks here on our lot. Everyone here that has a truck has an Agri-Cover bedcover. That usually closes the deal right there.”

Rico says, “Price is always a concern, though ease of use usually makes it pretty easy to upsell.

“Anyone who has tried to secure an old-school, knuckle-buster, snap-on cover on a freezing day is very open to suggestions when we show them how easy some of the newer covers work.”

Mihelich narrows it down to, “Cost factors, ease of use.”

Grinnik says that selling points that work for his shop include a “lifetime warranty on the tonneau cover and hardware, availability of parts, knowledgeable salesperson (and) being able to take care of all warranty claims at our store.”

Corrigan sees functionality as a factor. “Basically,” he says, “the main push is to close it up and it cleans it up outside. It looks finished on the back.”

Feldermann says, “I think the top three product attributes that influence the sale of soft tonneau covers are price, warranty and ease of installation. We offer “complimentary free installation” on certain soft tonneau covers because they, literally, take us 10 minutes to install.”

Firestine nails it with, “Quality, warranty and price”; and Mihelich is just as succinct when he again intones, “Cost factors, ease of use.”

We then asked how well are tonneaus selling through the fall and how installers see 2010 winter and spring tonneau sales evolving?

What’s the early 2010 forecast?

“Fall is our busiest time of the year for selling tonneau covers,” says Grinnik. “Extang Trifecta tonneau covers are our No. 1 selling cover. We are very optimistic that sales through the winter and spring will continue to grow, with the sales of new trucks increasing. When a person purchases a new truck in our area, a tonneau cover is one of their first purchases for accessories.”

Rico says that, “tonneaus are selling well, but not as well as prior years. We here in the Northeast haven’t seen the same rebound as in other parts of the country.”

Hopfauf says, “Soft tonneaus are one of our most consistent selling items.” He reiterates, “There is not a spike or drop-off year round.”

Corrigan says, “It’s yet to be seen as far as fall. They seem to drop off in the fall and then pick back up in the spring. I would probably think they are not buying trucks at that time of the year.”

Goodsell says that “any good news is good news for our industry. Our Agri-Cover sales have only been down a tiny bit during the fall, but Christmas sales on these covers are usually brisk.”

For Feldermann, tonneau cover sales “have been steady for us in 2009,” he notes. “I believe that many customers do not view a tonneau cover as an accessory, but more of a necessity. I feel that tonneau covers sales in 2010 should be better due to a strengthening automotive industry and economic environment.”

For Mihelich, the jury is still out: “Not enough sales to say.”

Langman is upbeat, saying, “Tonneaus always sell best in late fall to early winter. In spring, I anticipate a slight uptick from last year.I believe there is pent up demand for trucks.”

Firestine adds that so far, fall sales have been “brisk, expecting steady sales through 2010.”

What specific vehicles use soft tonneaus?

Langman tells us, “Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra account for over half of our tonneau sales, followed by Ford and Dodge.Imports account for about 10% of tonneau sales.”

Firestine went with measurements, noting that “6.5-ft. Ford F-150s and 6.5-ft. Silverados”; yet Mihelich sees, “very little consistency at this point. Perhaps,” he says, “Chevy trucks, with a slight edge.”

Grinnik sees two standouts: “The most popular trucks we see in our store are the short-bed Chevy and the short-bed Ford F150.”

Rico says his operation sees “more Silverados/Sierras and F150s with the 6.5-ft. and 5.5-ft. beds than anything else, though Toyota Tacomas and Tundras are gaining popularity.”

Says Feldermann: “In our region, the most popular trucks are still the big three domestic brands: Ford, GM and Dodge; however, Toyota is not far behind.”

For Goodsell, “the full-size trucks with the 5.5 beds are really selling well here in Arkansas,” he says.

Corrigan says without hesitation, “Oh yeah, Chevy full-size, Chevy pickups and GM. Chevy is a strong part of my sales. It used to be Ford and Dodge, but Chevy’s always been there.”

Finally, we asked how our experts market their tonneaus.

What’s your best marketing strategy?

“We’ve found the best selling tools for soft tonneaus are a combination of having as many on display as possible and making sure we are knowledgeable about the workings of each,” says Rico. “Many people come in with preconceived ideas, and we happily educate them on the advances in the soft tonneau covers. As with many products, word of mouth seems to be the strongest marketing program. We treat people fairly and respectfully -” and they tell their friends.”

Goodsell says, “We never, never, never ever put the Agri-Cover on sale. Period. We do not have to because it already has a good price point and continues to sell well. We advertise the product in the state newspaper without a price shown. Referrals are still our best selling tool for the Agri-Cover products.”

Feldermann hits a hot spot with his answer: “Hands down, the best way to sell a tonneau cover is by having a display model in your showroom. People want to try the product before they buy it, and rightfully so. Selling someone a tonneau cover out of a catalog and trying to verbally explain how you use it cannot even compare to walking them over to a display and actually showing them how to use it.”

Corrigan’s answer matches that thought: “I have them on hand. I have a display here and I have my best sales tool as the actual demo. I have the old one with the old truck so they can see it, touch it, try it. You just can’t sell anything without the product.

Says Grinnik: “We have a very well displayed store with all of the different Extang POP displays. We also have exceptional customer service/installation. And word-of-mouth advertising is our best form of advertising. We also promote Extang at our Outback Off Road Adventure Series.”

Langman says that at his business, “We offer consistently competitive pricing and in-stock availability.We stock hundreds of tonneau covers for instant availability. When a customer wants to order a cover, they do not want to wait.

There it is. Some straight, hard talk on the soft-tonneau market. We thank our experts for helping us get to the bottom of this cover story.