Into The Valley Of The Giants

Dec 1, 2012

Here’s some good news: according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), the restyling industry is staging a comeback. Business grew 7.1 percent last year, with retail sales of $874.1 million. And with an expected 14-plus million new cars to be sold by the end of 2012, restylers are in a position to keep up that growth.

But it’s not all rose-scented air fresheners. If you’re a typical restyler, you’re up against the tremendous might of auto parts chains that were able to ride out the downturn.  According to SEMA’s 2012 report, purchases at these retail giants significantly outweigh any other outlet among people shopping for accessories and aftermarket parts.

What’s a smaller competitor to do? We can show you how to distinguish yourself and build incremental sales, by considering the five steps that follow.

1. Know your products – and your customers.

It goes without saying that everything you sell or install should be the highest quality and, if possible, offer unique features to consumers.

And when was the last time you reconsidered your product mix? What was “in” two years ago may not be now. Have you invested in top sellers (audio, sound, electronics and performance products are now much stronger than accessory and appearance products) or are you still relying on the “tried and true”?

But regional differences do exist. In rural areas, it’s still all about lifted trucks, oversized wheels and tires, while the burbs are more focused on imports and sports cars. Maybe you want to offer what’s popular, or stand out by being the “go-to” restyler for hard-to-find parts.

Make the effort to do some quantitative research. Consider a survey of new vehicle owners to determine their plan to buy product and attend shows. Talk to enthusiasts, study what is being discussed on the Internet’s automotive forums and the issues people have about products that are being installed. Even though demand for some products may be obvious, such as truck performance and appearance products in rural areas, research may still help you define your niche or discover potentially new revenue streams.

2. Brand your company – and stick with it.

The No. 1 motivation behind restyling is to personalize the ride of your customer – a form of personal branding. Your brand should also make a bold statement. Evaluate how your brand is reflected in the products you sell. Build a sense of authenticity so that your customers feel you “get” them just by looking at your stores, your company vehicles, your people. Some customers are not going to trust you to install the ultimate set of wheels if you don’t walk the walk (or ride the ride).

Know your unique selling proposition and effectively communicate it to your audience. For example, are you known for carrying and installing bone-rattling sound systems, or for turning a vehicle around in a New York minute? What is your value proposition in relation to the competition?

Since a tired logo or dated graphics can seriously detract from your brand image, take a fresh look at everything. A branding audit can help you achieve consistency across all your graphics – print, Web, in-store, merchandising – everything should fall under the audit. You want to be sure that your company reflects your standards.

3. Spend time with dealers

The majority of restyling installations occurs within the first two months after the purchase of a new or used vehicle, when people are excited and already in spending mode. That’s why auto dealers can be your best friends. Your local dealers – especially smaller ones that deal with used cars (the majority of the restyle market) – are also looking for a way to stand out from their competitors. Accessorizing will help them look like power players and differentiate them from the pack.

Dealers may not know what your latest and greatest products are – and almost certainly their customers don’t. If you keep them up-to-date with information, literature, even customized displays of hot products or restyled vehicles, you’ll help pique customer interest, sparking more sales for you and your dealer partner.

And don’t forget that dealers are your customers as well as your partners. Set up a weekly meeting to bring them up to date on the latest bells and whistles – and bring the pizza. Become their go-to source for information. The return may be new business with more upsell at the point of purchase.

4. Work the Web

Research shows that more than half of all specialty products are researched on the Internet before they are purchased. The majority of performance and appearance products are purchased from large retail chains, according to SEMA; 16% buy online (not counting those who buy online from chain or discount retail stores) and 6% buy from dealerships. This makes it critical for you to have a strong online presence with noticeable branding and ensure you’re optimized on all the major search engines. Make it easy for people to find you, to picture how your products would improve their vehicle, and to place an order or talk to one of your salespeople.

Take advantage of social media. If you haven’t yet, set up pages on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc., encourage customers to “like” you online and to rate you on sites like Yelp! Collect photos and videos of your prize work and post them on your website or social media site. You might consider hiring (or bartering with) a professional photographer. In this business, a picture is worth a thousand descriptions.

5. Specialize in customer service

This is one place where you can have it all over the “big guys.” Your employees should be energetic, motivated and well trained – not only in products and installation but in your company ethic so that your customers get a consistent experience every time they interact with your company. This includes phone etiquette, counter sales, problem-solving (become known as a problem solver and the world will beat a path to your door) and handling returns.
Go the extra mile. Consider offering a direct warranty so customers know they won’t have to go back to the manufacturer.

Provide updates by mobile app or text to let customers or dealers know when their vehicle will be ready. And return every vehicle in even better condition than you got it (a simple car wash and vacuum can go a long way).

Some of these five steps are easier to implement than others but all are worth the investment. Car and truck sales were stronger than expected in September and the industry is poised on the swell of a wave. Make sure that you’re in position to ride it to shore.