Ups ‘N’ Downs

Jul 1, 2011

Running boards and step bars have enjoyed huge popularity due to the large volume of truck sales over the past decade. High fuel costs and the high cost of vehicles have put a dent in truck sales of late, so naturally the question we ask is, “What about accessory sales for trucks – particularly one of the most popular items, the running board or step bar?” The good news is many accessory stores and restylers report the love affair for these items is still alive, albeit altered by the downward trend in truck sales.

An interesting factor is one that students of marketing learn early on: In recessions there is still a market for high-end products. You’ll find out what it is as you read this article.

Another factor to be considered is finding alternate markets for products. While the traditional channels of retail customers and car dealers might have slowed, the demand is still high in a few segments if you’re willing to cultivate the business.

We propounded a few questions to some industry experts. We don’t take that phrase lightly. These folks are very dialed in to what they do, and they’re very successful. Reading their comments will help you glean some ideas that will surely point you in some interesting directions that will help you build or re-build this part of your accessory business.

Restyling: Running boards and steps are one of the biggest aftermarket accessories put on trucks and SUVs. Are they still major-selling items for you? Why is that?

Alan Krasne, Alamo Auto Supply, El Paso, Texas: It’s still a huge category when you include the tubes. It’s significant because people like having the “help” of a bar or board. OE penetration has increased, but not on every vehicle. Also, consumers don’t necessarily like what comes from the factory. This reinforces the fact that people want choices.

Barry Kellerman, Truck Stuff and More, Bellefonte, Pa: Yes, these are top-selling items for us. The step bar or running board is not only a dress-up item for many, it also serves a purpose. Many of our customers purchase these because of difficulty in gaining access to the cab of the newer trucks and SUVs.

Jerry Jones, Colorado Offroad, Littleton, Colo.: Yes, [running boards are] still major, at least in our market. Truck manufacturers are trying to cheapen the prices of trucks, so they’re decontenting. Top-of-the line trucks will still have them, but they’re not the typical sale. People who are holding on to vehicles longer are starting to redo their vehicles.

Steve Chubbock, A.H. Motorsports, Montclair, Calif.: Side steps are still a very profitable and growing sector of our business. Not only do they provide an upgrade to the vehicle’s overall appearance, they also provide function to the usability of the vehicle, as well.

Steve McKim, Custom Truck, Reno, Nev.: We refer to this as “entry assistance,” and from there we have steps, running boards, nerf bars, power boards, 4″ ovals, 5″ ovals, etc. As you can see, yes, we have a hierarchy in place to keep things organized but also see where things may be shifting to. We can run reports and see what is selling more. As it stands, the “nerf bar” is and has been the No. 1 selling item in our store. Not just in the “entry assistance category” but in the entire store.

Restyling: As gas prices have been on the rise, even before the expected price increases for the summer, and many people have turned to smaller cars for their daily drivers, have you noticed – or do you expect – a decrease in truck sales? If so, is that impacting your sales?

Krasne: Certainly the ones who are “casual” truck buyers have switched to other vehicles. There is still enormous potential in fleets, and the hard-core truck people. They will still have a truck despite high fuel prices. Things change and we adapt.

Kellerman: At this point in time we have not noticed a decline in new truck purchases. We are in a geographic location in which many of the businesses depend on trucks – such as farmers, contractors, landscapers, etc. Trucks are a way of life in this [Pennsylvania] area.

Jones: Yes, it’s an impact. But trucks won’t disappear – they handle everything. The contractors still need them – they can’t do their jobs with an Escape or a Trailblazer. Also, more women buying smaller crossovers are looking for some type of step.

Chubbock: We always notice a decrease in business, including installs from new truck sales, with the impending increase in fuel costs. So we try to combat that with products that aim to give the customer better mileage and efficiency.

McKim: Being in the truck accessory business and coming from primarily selling camper shells, this has always been a “fear” or “paranoia” that SUVs would kill or take over the truck market, that we wouldn’t sell shells anymore and this is the beginning of the end. Not in this country.  I gave up on this [notion] a long time ago because people not just need trucks but love their trucks.  Hybrids and SUVs are here, but certainly aren’t going to replace a Toyota Tacoma for people who love that truck and its insane resale value when it’s time to get a new one. Or a diesel Ford dually to tow your fifth wheel or toy hauler. How is your contractor going to move conduit or lumber to a job site in a hybrid or SUV? Rent a truck? Yeah, trucks are here to stay.

Restyling: How do fleet and commercial sales help your business? Are they an important part of your sales?

Krasne: Fleet and commercial is an ever-growing part of our business plan. We’ve adjusted our product mix to address that, and it’s an important part of the future of our business.

Kellerman: Commercial sales have been a good-sized part of our business. They add some extra buying power to our normal everyday sales.

Jones: Yes, they do; but it’s not enough of our business. The fleets are holding on to trucks longer. Used to be three years, now it’s trending toward six. It probably amounts to 15% of our sales.

Chubbock: [Fleet sales] are a vital source of business for us; they provide stability and long-term business relationships that help to sustain our small business.

McKim: We just did another fleet deal for Jones West Ford. Every couple of years we get a call for 10 or 20 NHP trucks to do Leer 700 lids and sometimes BedsSlides. It is very important for many different reasons: In Jones West Ford’s situation, Bill Fletcher picks up the phone and makes one call, we figure out the price and it’s done. Who is he going to call the next time? I took my first call from Bill Fletcher 22 years ago. Yes, I would say it’s very important.

Restyling: Demographically, who -¨represents your typical customer?

Krasne: Still has remained the same as usual: mostly male, middle-class people.

Kellerman: Farmers, contractors, “average Joe,” etc.

Jones: Male, 35-60. We’re in a higher-income area so we have a tad more disposable income. We have a lot of younger, semi-retired people. We don’t see the 25-year-olds.

Chubbock: 20-45, male.

McKim: Our typical customer is male 35-65 who purchased a brand new vehicle from a local dealer here in town.

Restyling: What types/styles of running boards or steps have you been installing during the past six months? Do you see that trend holding or shifting? Why do you say that?

Krasne: Tube and oval tubes is where the majority of the market lies.

Kellerman: Our most popular is the polished, stainless, 3″ step bar. It is an economical yet stylish solution to ease of access into the truck cab. We have, however, noticed a slight increase in the oval style step bars. Price still plays a big part in many customers decision.

Jones: Power steps always popular, but they’re pricey. They’re a great product. My trend is more in the 4″ oval; the 3″ round bar market is about gone. The trucks look bigger, so the bars have to look bigger. People want a larger step area. Guys are worried that their gals will find them easier to use; 5″ is nice, but still too expensive. We rarely sell a flat board anymore, but if we do it’s the Westin Sure-Grip. That product is most popular with our older, 55- to 65-year-old customer.

Chubbock: We sell and install just about every type of step product based on the customer need. We have also seen a significant increase in [AMP’s] PowerStep sales within the last half year. As the technology of the vehicles change we see a demand in technologically advanced products, as well.

McKim: We are direct with a few manufacturers; we can get anything direct or through distribution but primarily sell two or three brands. Recently, Reno (Nev.) Toyota added a new room they wanted to dedicate accessories to and asked me to come help with the setup, design and, most importantly, the best products to put in there. ATS Designs has been a great company to work with; their products are priced right mostly because of their own facilities, and at the same high quality. I have them displayed here at my store but had a feeling they would do much better at Toyota. We didn’t even have the walls completed – but had the ATS displays up on the wall – and sold one of their more expensive-style boards in Day Two of their product being on the wall.

The other part I like is the displays Rick and I chose. They are Toyota’s most popular and most common products. I had a meeting and showed them the installation instructions and how ATS formats their instructions in the Toyota format. This was something I didn’t even know existed but found fascinating and am going to ask other manufacturers as this comes up. As a week had almost past [since setting up the Toyota display], we sold one every other day and I still hadn’t finished the price sheets and application guide.

Restyling: What’s the marketing/sales/publicity tactic(s) that works best to bring in sales?

Krasne: Word of mouth is the best. Social marketing, television, radio, etc.; but the most effective is word of mouth.

Kellerman: Word of mouth! You can’t beat a good “hands-on” referral from a satisfied customer.

Jones: Facebook does well for us. We’re a local company, so we use local small papers because they’re affordable. Word of mouth is always our best friend. Rebates from manufacturers are helpful to get the customers to buy. If a manufacturer offers gift cards for selling their product, we’ll push the product more to the customer.

Chubbock: Simply stated: It still remains customer service. As a business rounding out 30 years of service, we have a strong return basis and following. This stems from providing excellent service at a fair price. So with that you get repeat business and referrals, as well.

McKim: To “bring in sales” is mostly done by excellent phone skills, knowing the product, answering the questions, creating a friendship and being competitive on pricing.

The best without question are referrals. When I look at my Google “searches” at the end of the month, somewhere around No. 2 and No. 6, I have custom truck and/or custom truck accessories. That tells me that “people/dealers” are telling them where to go to when it comes to accessories for their vehicles. I also handle this for Arizona, Carson City (Nev.) and Sacramento (Calif.). This search result doesn’t show up at any of those three stores, just Reno.

Restyling: Lastly, are you able to find qualified technicians to install running boards? Is there much of a learning curve in training someone to handle these installations?

Krasne: We are able to find them. Step bars/running boards are not that much of a challenge. They’ve become much easier to install over the last 10 years.

Kellerman: No problem with this. The manufacturers have done a great job in making the step bars and running boards very “installer friendly.” That’s not to say we don’t have an issue from time to time, but in general there are not many problems with installation.

Jones: It has been tough for us. There’s a little bit of a learning curve. Body shops are always calling us to install these for them. Basic, 3″ oval is not tough. Power boards have a huge learning curve with the wires and brackets. Many manufacturers need to become better in their instructions.

Chubbock: We have had the same install team for a number of years; but, again, as the technology increases and/or the vehicles change, we have to learn the new processes.

McKim: That is a great question because I have worked with “installers” who, all of a sudden, have “experience” and “know-how” because they like working on trucks or subscribe to mini- truck’n magazine. [The answer is:] No. Fortunately for me I have seen and do work with the best there is: Our shop manager, Jason McIntosh, has been in and around this industry since he was a kid, just like me. He has a very unique gift, along with an amazing ability that he acquired through 20-plus years of hard work and a desire to constantly be better and be the best at what he does. His being here allows any installer to validate what they are doing before they make the wrong move by simply asking him.

Running boards aren’t like they were years ago. Back then, for the most part, manufacturers were trying to fit every truck in one box; the part itself was an erector set – very universal and a pain to install for anyone. I have noticed today that most manufacturers offer the bracket for that vehicle, and “universal” is somewhat a thing of the past, making the install easier so the guy reading the latest truck magazine can even install it.

So, the “bottom line” goes right to your “bottom line”: Running boards have life and bring in some very viable business. It may require that you adapt to some of the styles consumers are accepting, and learning how to install something different. The automatic step is definitely a demand item in a recession, but only for a targeted market. In a recession, people with money will still continue to buy “high end.” People with less money will want to get the best available product for their money. The automatic powered step may be a great addition to your product lineup.

Additionally, fleet sales are a huge opportunity. Go looking in your market for companies that have fleets of vehicles. Steps or bars will be a great add to their vehicles for a number of reasons. Go prepared to make a killer presentation to sell the case for adding bars or steps. Then sell them everything else you have available.

Far from just being an “afterthought,” running boards and steps offer real potential for you and your business. If you haven’t already, it might be time to sit down and rethink your strategies, and include steps and bars in your product mix.