Auto Service World
Feature   August 1, 2006   by Dennis Mellersh

Light Truck Performance Upgrades Persist

From show to go, light trucks owners continue to personalize with extras.

Despite the slowdown in some aspects of the automotive aftermarket landscape, light truck performance products and light truck accessories can be a sales and profit upgrade oasis for jobbers.

“On the exhaust side, a growing number of truck owners are looking for bolt-on products that can help enhance engine efficiency, fuel economy, available torque, and vehicle sound characteristics,” says Scott Stuttler, product manager, DynoMax Performance Exhaust, Tenneco, Inc. “A cat-back performance exhaust system can enable them to achieve each of these by significantly improving exhaust flow, as compared to the OE system.”

Stuttler emphasizes that in successfully marketing these products, “The key to capturing this opportunity is to market the performance benefits directly to consumers through outdoor and indoor signage at the store location, and point of sale materials at installer locations. By far the most important factors are awareness and availability.”

Discussing the growing market for ride control, Joe Pase, general manager, Rancho Suspension, Tenneco, comments that ride control ranks as one of the most appealing performance upgrades for light truck owners. “These opportunities include not only performance shocks, and for some applications, struts, but also bolt-on suspension systems that increase ground clearance and overall vehicle versatility. On the shock side, we are seeing a huge new market of consumers who might not take their vehicles off-road, but still want to have the strength, control, and adjustability of off-road shocks. Another emerging ride control market is represented in the new generation of trucks using coil-over shock absorbers and modular suspensions. Image, performance, and availability are the keys for performance ride control.”

Marc Cloutier, general manager of MBRP, says that performance exhaust is a good niche market for jobbers. “Our focus is on making a bolt-on system that’s easy to install, one that doesn’t require a lot of experience at the installer level.” Cloutier says that with customers using various techniques such as chips to increase the performance of their engines, a performance exhaust system is essential. “More performance is being forced out of the engine and this gives a lot of heat, which a standard exhaust system can’t take.”

Although jobbers may be a little intimidated with taking on diesel, these exhaust systems are now easy to install and diesel exhaust can become a good profit centre for the jobber, Cloutier says. He describes the Holy Trinity in this category as the chip, the performance air intake, and the performance exhaust.

Cloutier also believes that the concept of performance is being broadened, and that there is a growing market of light truck performance owners who are buying diesel not only for better power but also to increase engine longevity and improve fuel mileage.

The overall market for light truck performance offers good growth potential, particularly in the area of electronics. Steve Ager, purchasing manager for Karbelt Speed and Custom, notes that the jobber can sell DIY customers hand-held units that increase performance by reprogramming on-board electronics. Moreover, the jobber can add extra services by offering to show the customer how to do the upgrades to these units. In some cases, the upgrades are downloadable from the Internet. Showing the customer how to perform the downloads can be a useful and productive value-added service, Ager says.

“Exhaust is still a very popular upgrade, and diesel is still number one in terms of sales,” he adds. “There is a wide variety of exhaust upgrades available, in various materials ranging from simple aluminized pipe to highly polished stainless steel.”

Looking at the overall performance upgrade market, Ager sees the big three categories as air intake kits, exhaust, and electronic programmers. He also says there is potential for ignition product upgrades, including ignition wires, but describes this as being primarily with earlier model vehicles. “For new models, you are looking at programmers.”

Jim McFarland, marketing director of Hypertech Inc., which makes Power Programmers, sees a good market for jobbers with these tuning products. He says the biggest area is diesel. “The potential power gains for gas engines are not as good as the potential for improvement with diesel.”

As with a number of other products on the market, Hypertech Power Programmer tuning replaces the stock tuning inside the vehicle’s computer to give maximum power and torque. Power tuning optimizes the fuel delivery and spark plug timing curves, while maintaining safe operating parameters for engine durability.

McFarland cautions that programmers are not all the same. He says that jobbers should find out everything they can about the types of handheld reprogramming products that they are considering carrying. He says that one of the problems inherent in this product category is that over-zealous reprogramming can cause engine and transmission damage. Hypertech Inc. therefore restricts the upper power limits on its programmers. “We stay within sensible parameters, although there is still a potential 20% to 25% possible increase in horsepower.

“Our Power Programmer [is] designed to be a DIY product and can also be used as a scan tool, so if a trouble code is set it can be read and diagnosed. Moreover, the learning curve for the units is not great,” McFarland says. “They plug into the diagnostic port and when the unit powers up, the user can scroll through a set of instructions.”

Jim Fox, national sales manager for Maremont, says there is good potential for jobbers in DIY and with their installer customers in light truck performance exhaust. The opportunity with the installer can occur when the installer calls the jobber for a replacement exhaust for a pickup truck, for example. “Jobbers can then tell the installer that they have a good choice of systems available for a performance upgrade.”

The key, Fox says, is to convey the features and benefits of the upgrade, which can include improved horsepower and torque, improved fuel mileage, improved sound (because the system is tuned to the vehicle), and improved appearance.

“The appearance factor is huge,” says Fox. “There is a growing trend for light truck performance enthusiasts to want to customize their vehicles and to make the vehicles their own through personalizing them,” he adds.

He also says that getting good fuel mileage is becoming a big factor and that the increase in fuel mileage with performance exhaust systems provides a payback factor. Fox notes that in addition to those customers who want “every bit of performance possible,” there is also a growing market for customers who want to improve the performance of their vehicles from a performance efficiency standpoint, but who may not be interested in extreme or ultimate performance.

One of the keys to success for jobbers, Fox says, is to make sure that installers know they can provide them with performance upgrade options. “You have to create enthusiasm for performance through all of your merchandising efforts and counter people,” Fox says. “It’s also the type of market category where the jobber does not need a big inventory, because of excellent sourcing options from manufacturers, WDs, and performance warehouses.” He also notes that the import performance market is growing significantly for pickups and SUVs.

In an overview on the exhaust market, Frost & Sullivan notes, “With the number of import nameplates, custom, and sport utility vehicles on the road increasing, so is the demand for quality exhaust systems, especially within the performance equipment aftermarket. It is common for consumers in this segment to replace a perfectly good original equipment exhaust system with a performance system.

“Owners of these vehicles replace their exhaust systems for very different reasons. In the case of SUV drivers, equipment replacement is often done to increase torque and overall performance. However, enhancing a vehicle’s appearance is of greater concern for import nameplate owners.”

Looking at spark plug potential, Doug Morrison, technical service manager, NGK Spark Plugs of Canada, says there is good upgrade potential in selling iridium plugs, which he says last longer, resist gap growth, give more pep, enable a better burn, and provide better fuel economy. He notes that high-energy ignition systems and the presence of ethanol in gasoline can be rough on standard spark plugs. The use of performance air filters results in hotter burning, and iridium can handle a lot more heat, Morrison says.

From a pure dollars-and-cents standpoint, Morrison notes that the plug sale can be around $80 with iridium on a six-cylinder vehicle, compared with approximately $24 for standard plugs.

In selling plugs to the customer, Morrison says it’s important for the tech to explain the differences between various types of plugs. “People will often say, just give me the OE plug. But that may not be the right one they need. All plugs are not created equal, and you do not necessarily get longer life with every type of performance plug. For example, plugs are really application-specific and this is especially the case with imports. Drivers of imports can be very particular about what type of plug they feel should be installed,” Morrison notes. He adds that training is very important for counterpeople to sell plugs successfully in this market.

“Iridium has become the new standard of performance in replacement plug technologies because of its stabilizing effect on ignition voltage and its excellent wear characteristics,” says Brian Tarnacki, director brand marketing, Federal-Mogul. “But it’s important for the jobber to understand that not all iridium technologies are the same. There’s an important story to be told in how the manufacturer has combined the use of iridium with a variety of enhancements at the plug’s firing end. A consistently focused spark provides the greatest engine performance, regardless of engine type or ignition system.

“Severe use is another legitimate performance category in the truck market,” Tarnacki says. “To address that opportunity, we developed the Champion Truck Plug, which features massive centre and ground electrodes to handle the peak demands placed on many of these vehicles.”

Ultimately, light trucks have become heavy users of performance products– under the hood, under the car, and everything in between. Jobbers who do not recognize how light trucks have continued to be a strong market for upgrades are missing out on an opportunity to improve the performance of their bottom line.

Light Truck Accessories

There are a number of factors driving growth in the light truck accessories market. According to research firm Frost & Sullivan, “A mixture of functional, aesthetic, and lifestyle reasons motivates light truck owners to purchase accessories for their light trucks. Light truck owners seek branded products for their vehicles, indicating that accessories serve not only as a functional product, but as a status symbol as well.

“To attract new customers, market participants must not only emphasize functionality for add-ons, but their aesthetic contribution to individuality and style.” Discussing a growing competitive factor, Frost & Sullivan notes that vehicle manufacturers are adding traditional light truck accessories into their product line. “Market participants must build strong brand equity and foster good customer bonds to be successful.”

Overall, Frost & Sullivan expects revenues in the light truck accessory aftermarket to be on the upswing until 2008, with one caution. “As long as participants, especially the traditional ones, can counter the impact of the aftermarket styling adaptation by vehicle manufacturers, the market is likely to remain strong.”

Jay Lusignan, marketing communications manager, Lund International, comments, “In the light truck market, we continue to view large pickups as the most popular segment for exterior aftermarket accessories. Popular products for the large pickup segment continue to be truck caps and tonneaus, floor mats, running boards, hood shields, and window vents.

“With the SUV market being eaten into by CUV offerings, there is a multitude of new vehicle owners who are looking to accessorize their vehicles. In terms of popular product trends, these customers have so far shown a strong interest in cargo management products such as roof racks, cargo storage, and bike carriers as well as floor protection and window vents,” Lusignan says.

For effectively merchandising accessories, he suggests, “A great place to start is at the manufacturer level. Look to see what is offered to support the sell-through, such as POP materials, ad-slicks etc.” He notes that Lund has a multitude of marketing materials in its support program, and adds, “I’ve talked to a lot of jobbers who simply didn’t know the program or materials existed, because they’re new or have just been too busy. At that point, I take them online and show them what’s available at no cost. Their response is always the same – Wow, this stuff is great.”