Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2003   by Dennis Mellersh

Market Feature: Springing Into Appearance Products

It's all about the look when consumers can finally wash away winter's grime.

If we keep our fingers crossed, we may finally be through with our long winter and can now move into the biggest season for the sale of automotive appearance products.

Appearance products, and particularly those products in the formulation and chemical category such as cleaning products, waxes/polishes and touch-up paints, are one of the few aftermarket product categories in which jobbers can control their own sales destiny. Unlike having to replace a failed alternator, for example, appearance products are ones that consumers buy through choice rather than necessity.

For the consumer, there is not much excitement in getting a new underhood or undercar replacement hard part, whereas with appearance products there is satisfaction in buying and using a product that produces visible improvements in the consumer’s vehicle. Because these are elective purchases, jobbers can increase the sales of appearance products through traditional techniques such as effective promotion, display and merchandising, appropriate inventory, and knowledgeable counter staff. This product category also lends itself to premium sales.

The U.S.-based Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) says that the market for automotive specialty equipment, which includes appearance products, increased more than four percent in 2001 and has grown continually in sales almost every year since 1985, driven by the consumers’ desire to protect their investment in what is, second to their home, their largest financial investment. In addition, people are spending more time in their vehicles because of growing commuting times and increasing use of vehicles for transporting children to a variety of activities. With more time spent in vehicles, consumers will spend money to keep their vehicles looking good.

Matt Carlson, product manager at Plasti-Kote, agrees that this market is growing and says that among the demand-driving factors are “better consumer awareness of the products available and of the products’ functions and capabilities.” He also notes that today there are many diverse products available to meet consumer needs.

He says that the age of the vehicle has a bearing on the degree of use of these products, and notes that on newer vehicles, products such as Anodizit or Truck Bed Liner are used to enhance the appearance of the vehicle, but when the vehicle is older, other products are used to maintain the appearance or bring it back to the OEM look.

“We find it valuable to have refinished sample items coated with our products to show the customer what the end look will be. A display rack with a good selection of product is by far the most effective way of selling these products. We use the top shelf of these display racks to promote new products and give them the best viewing position.”

Greg Morton, general manager of Meguiar’s, says that some consumers are under the misconception that they don’t have to do much to protect the finish of their new vehicles because of coating advances at the OE level. “This is a false impression because the environment is worse than it ever has been and it is constantly attacking the finish,” Morton says.

However, he says, those who do buy, buy premium. “Jobbers are beginning to understand that the customers who buy these products are automotive enthusiasts and they are looking for premium products. For this reason I believe that jobbers should carry top-of-the-line products. The enthusiasts want higher-end products, and for the jobber this means more money in sales per facing – a lot more money in the same amount of space. The enthusiast customers know quality and they look for it.”

Observing that this is a very strong DIY category, Morton says his company recommends a four-pronged attack in inventory and display. “We recommend carrying a wash, a polish, and a wax plus maintenance products, such as products for tires. Two of the fastest-growing categories right now are products for leather and vinyl and tire products.”

In addition to the concept of protecting a valuable asset, Bill Wheeler of 3M says that the ease of accomplishing the task is an important demand driver. Appearance products are becoming increasingly easy to use and are very task-specific, says Wheeler. “Fast, easy-to-use products that create a real ‘pop’ to a car’s appearance have found a real niche among heavy users.

“Three- to five-year-old vehicles used to show their age and a person would not be so inclined to spend time and money trying to improve the appearance. Now most vehicles can maintain a pretty good appearance for much longer. People will spend the time and money to keep these vehicles looking great.”

Wheeler stresses that education is important, though. “There is a very wide range of products, and confusion can quickly overcome both the consumer and the jobber sales person. Simple instruction charts showing steps to repair different types of paint defects, such as oxidation and scratches, can help.” Hands-on training for counterpeople is also important, Wheeler says.

A quick scan of the Sherwin-Williams Diversified Brands website,, will reveal more products, for more applications, than most consumers would be aware of. A consumer may be looking for a touch-up paint, but do they know about fabric and vinyl spray? Would you expect them to know about spatter paint, that gives a speckled finish to faded trunk interiors, covering scars and abrasions?

Some products, like wheel paint, are self-explanatory; others–particularly those that provide a specialty finish, such as colour shifting coatings like Dupli-color’s Mirage or Plasti-Kote’s Kameleon Kolors–may have applications that a consumer has never considered. It provides a knowledgeable counterperson, armed with a good selection, ample opportunities to inform and sell. A consumer may come in for touch-up paint, and leave with an idea for his helmet, skateboard, or bicycle.

With sales of its appearance line growing steadily since the company was reorganized, Godden Manufacturing’s Marshall Folk says the company’s products are getting a good reception.

Folk says appearance products lend themselves to a premium quality stocking and merchandising emphasis. “People want the premium product and they are willing to pay for it. For example, with a tire-dressing product, the customer wants it to last for four or five washes. They don’t want it to disappear from the tires the first time the vehicle is washed.”

A good testimonial for growth possibilities in the appearance products market is the fact that Prestone has just launched a brand new line, the Prestone Protection Series, which includes Prestone Wax, Tire Shine, Rim Cleaner and Car Wash.

The new products emphasize both appearance and protection — traditionally a quality associated with Prestone. “Prestone invested heavily in research and development to bridge the gap between cleaning and protecting,” says Megan Currie, product manager. “The new line not only makes a vehicle look its best but also helps to protect it from the environment.”

Currie says that although large retailers have the lion’s share of the market, there has been more investment in retail-oriented store fronts by traditional jobber stores and buying groups. “This shift in channel mix opens up a great opportunity for the sale of appearance products.”

Currie says that one of the newer drivers in this market is the increased recognition by consumers of the need for maintenance of their vehicles through appearance products. To cash in on this need, effective merchandising is important. Currie suggests strong displays to catch the eye of the walk-in customer. Prestone’s new line is packaged in deep blue indigo containers with silver metallic labels. “Displaying the products together, side by side on a shelf, makes for a powerful visual and is the best way to display these particular products,” suggests Currie. “Another idea would be to prepare a summer car care kit and include the family of products with some additional accessories such as a chamois and a brush.”

Jobbers may need to do more to promote their outlets
as logical sources for appearance products. “We are seeing good growth at retail with appearance products,” says Dennis Favaro of Valvoline, but he cautions that consumers generally will not consider the jobber as a destination for these products unless jobbers build consumer traffic and offer in-store knowledge of these products. Favaro emphasizes that if a jobber’s store has a low ratio of retail customers, any effort to sell this category will be like to trying get water to run uphill. So, in addition to taking steps to increase retail traffic in general, jobbers will have to let people know that these products are available at their outlets. “To be successful, you need a lot of product exposure and lots of facings. The goal should be to build your store as a destination for appearance products.”

It is important to pay attention to the seasonal aspect of the appearance product category, and this means making sure that stock is rotated and that old product is not on the shelves or merchandisers. In the spring and summer product displays should be even more prominent, Favaro says.

Because automotive vehicles will continue to represent a big investment for the consumer, appearance products should continue to have a strong retail future. In addition, there are indications that the huge boomer segment of the retail market is now starting to change the way it views spending, according to U.S.-based Unity Marketing, a market research and consulting firm that specializes in luxury and emotional marketing.

This means “a dramatic shift in consumer spending, away from needs-driven purchases for home and family and more spending devoted to personal luxuries, including luxury cars…”

Jobbers who ensure that their staff is well-informed about these products and who also take steps to effectively merchandise this product category should profit from the positive indicators now driving the appearance products market.

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