AKRON—You see them at nearly every intersection, sporting event, parking lot and definitely at the local county fair. Pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles have become America's favorite vehicles for work and play, or in some cases, to show off a perceived mastery of the roadways.
Some trucks out on the roads look no different from the day they were purchased. Others have been painted like race cars or have been raised to look monstrous and take on a personality of their own.
Whether it's a bedliner to prevent rust or racy spoilers to extend a cab, truck owners are personalizing and customizing their vehicles—a niche that's already proving profitable for retailers who specialize in accessories.
Just who is customizing their trucks and what are they looking for? Tire Business sought out two Ohio accessory dealers for answers.
All about image
In the Akron suburb of Tallmadge, the phone is ringing off the hook at TruckMax Trim & Accessories as owner Andy Golding tries to schedule an appointment for a walk-in customer's truck.
"What's the vehicle?" Mr. Golding asks the caller, while at the same time entering their information into a computer. "Is it a two-door or a four-door? A '98? You're looking at $250 for the windshield."
Once that appointment's scheduled, Mr. Golding hangs up the phone in time to finish his business with the customer and attend to another walk-in customer, who asks if he's got a custom wing for an '82 Chevy pickup. Mr. Golding explains that he has nothing in inventory that will fit that particular model.
The customer thanks Mr. Golding for his help and leaves, and before long another customer walks in and eyes a bedliner display near the counter. He asks Mr. Golding if a spray-on bedliner is a better buy over a drop-in bedliner.
"Did you buy the truck?" Mr. Golding asks him. A yes answer prompts Mr. Golding to recommend a spray-on liner even though at $395 it's the more expensive choice.
He explains that the rubber-based bedliner is permanent, waterproof and will prevent items from sliding in the bed better than a plastic liner. The customer thanks him for his advice, leaves and Mr. Golding chases another phone call.
Meanwhile, TruckMax's employees are working diligently on a few pickups within the dealership's two bays. George Hunt and Sam Huff are installing a hard tonneau cover on a Ford Ranger, while John Hart puts a drop-in bedliner on a Ford F-150.
For these guys at TruckMax, it's just a typical Monday morning, and with the exception of a brief lull period after Christmas, business rarely is slow, Mr. Huff said.
Most of the time, pickup owners are TruckMax's primary customers, although SUV owners will come in for hitches, bug shields and visors, Mr. Huff said. Pickup owners tend to go for more flair and buy grille guards, bug shields and caps, as well as the more practical items like tonneaus, caps and bedliners, Mr. Golding said.
The company caters mainly to the 25- to 45-year-old crowd who are looking for a specific image, but it does install functional accessories like caps and tool boxes for road construction companies.
About 40 percent of TruckMax's customers are women, who are most likely to purchase steps for their vehicles, or bring in their husbands' trucks, Mr. Golding said.
TruckMax, which was founded as an auto glass shop by Mr. Golding's father in 1953, converted to selling truck accessories 15 years ago. Mr. Golding operates the company, which also has a location in Toledo, Ohio, with his brothers, Neal and Alan, and his brother-in-law, Brian Silver.
The nature of the light truck accessories business demands a large inventory of all types and sizes of products, because sometimes those items don't fit right on a truck, Mr. Golding said. Truck owners demand quality parts and services to make their vehicles stylish, and they are, at times, difficult to please, he said.
Mr. Golding said that despite higher interest rates and gas prices, he doesn't see the demand for accessories dying, because the light truck sales boom is not a fad.
"It's just going to be a part of our culture," he said. "Trucks didn't have the comfort features before, but now they do. People like trucks—they're sporty-looking, ride like a car and have great utility features."
A growing business
Another specialty retailer, Mason, Ohio-based Pickups Plus Inc., plans to become the "McDonald's" of the pickup and SUV accessory business. The firm currently operates 10 stores—eight of which are franchises—in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Idaho, Oregon and California, and plans to open six more this year, said Sean Fitzgerald, vice president and director of operations.
Pickups Plus projects its 2000 annual sales to reach $8 million, Mr. Fitzgerald said. The company caters primarily to consumers, but does perform some custom business for auto dealers and firms that use pickups.
One store, in Columbus, Ohio, sells rims but takes its customers' vehicles to a local tire dealership for installation, Mr. Fitzgerald said. It doesn't offer any wheel or tire service, so the firm usually refers its customers to nearby dealers for wheels.
In the future, Mr. Fitzgerald said Pickups Plus may locate its outlets next to tire dealerships.
The firm's hottest-selling truck accessories have been bedliners, tonneau covers, truck caps and bug shields, Mr. Fitzgerald said. He noted that demand for those products has remained steady across the country and hasn't varied by region.
As pickup trucks have become sportier, accessories also have grown more fashionable and expensive—but consumers are willing to pay.
"When we first started selling truck caps, the average truck cap was $700 or $800. Now we're selling truck caps that are on average $1,000," Mr. Fitzgerald told Tire Business. "Some of them are up to $2,000 or more. So people are demanding something that's better quality, better cosmetic, aesthetic appearance than in the past."
SUV owners aren't as likely to customize their vehicles the way pickup truck owners do, Mr. Fitzgerald said.
"I think that the SUVs are so nice-looking that when they come out, people like them as they are off the lot," he said. "Whereas trucks, when they come off the lot, they're pretty plain looking. So people like adding flares or sidebars or grille guards just to give it a clean look."
Profit margins on light truck and SUV accessories vary, but overall, "you can make a good profit off it," he said. Margins range from 25 to 50 percent depending on the item.
Pickups Plus was founded in 1993 by Mr. Fitzgerald's father, John, who is the company's president. John Fitzgerald, a former supplier to the conversion van industry, first noticed that pickup trucks were becoming a hot-selling item in the late 1980s, when orders for new vans began to decline.
Amazed by the new trend, John Fitzgerald heard one of his own employees complain of the hassle of going to several places to get accessories installed on his truck, which sparked the idea for Pickups Plus.
In 10 years, the company plans to operate a store in every major U.S. city and become a household name. Most of its expansion plans involve signing franchisees, some of whom—like its current franchisees—may have no previous experience in the auto industry, Sean Fitzgerald said.
Like tire dealers, the firm finds some competition from mass merchandisers, but it views other specialty shops as its main competitors and doesn't worry about the merchandisers' cheaper accessories, which usually are cheaper in quality, too, he said.
"We look at ourselves more like a pro shop to a golfer," Sean Fitzgerald said. "Somebody who's going to golf isn't going to go to Kmart to buy a set of clubs. If you had a question on an accessory, the cashier at Kmart's not going to know what bug shield's better for your truck or what headlight cover is good.
"Our stores are really focused on customer service, and we try to act like consultants."