AKRON—So you're an off-road enthusiast preparing to hit the dusty trails?
While communing with Mother Nature—or, perhaps more accurately, with the roar of engines and crunch of off-road vehicle tires on terrain—take some consolation in the fact you won't be alone.
Though a small part of the overall specialty products aftermarket, yours is a fiercely devoted enclave—and one that's not afraid to open its wallet for those doo-dads and accessories that'll make your off-road experience more enjoyable.
The 1998 SEMA Market Study—published by the Specialty Equipment Market Association based on 1997 data—buttresses that assumption. (The new version, with 1998 statistics, is expected to be completed in about a month.)
Overall, the report indicates that the specialty equipment accessories aftermarket is huge and continuing to grow, a SEMA researcher told Tire Business. At the manufacturer level, 1997 wholesale revenue in that segment hit $6.85 billion; retail sales topped $19.3 billion.
The sales trend specifically for off-road products, at the manufacturer level, also has continued to grow, the SEMA data showed—from $181 million in 1994 to $223 million in 1997, when retail sales of those products reached nearly $645 million.
The off-road market comprises three major vehicle usage categories, according to SEMA:
Weekend sport driving; and
Four-wheeling involves going where there are no roads, SEMA said, and in a lot of cases where there are few, if any, other people. Those enthusiasts "enjoy the excitement of going where the driving is a challenge, whether it's steep trails, rock crawls or mud bogs and ruts."
A trip like that usually involves a particular route and destination and often can take several days to several weeks to complete.
Weekend sport drivers, on the other hand, take their vehicles off paved roads and into areas that often involve running sand dunes or climbing local hills.
The commercial category consists of consumers whose work requires that they travel and work where there are few paved roads, or weather conditions make usage of standard vehicles difficult.
In its study, SEMA defines the "off-road specialty equipment market niche" as including all products used to modify the appearance, performance and/or handling of light trucks, all-terrain vehicles and other power units for off-road use. Those products, while designed for off-road use, also may be installed on street-use vehicles.
SEMA points out that only 40 percent of the vehicles receiving off-road specialty equipment are actually four-wheel-drive.
But their numbers have been increasing.
During the four years up to 1997, factory-installed four-wheel-drive rose from 0.4 percent to 1.4 percent of passenger cars, translating to an increase of 71,000 units. But SEMA said the dramatic change was in the light truck category, where the "Big Three" auto makers went from equipping 34.1 percent of vehicles with four-wheel-drive in 1994 to 39.6 percent in 1997—an increase of 576,000 units.
At 3.3 percent of total sales, off-road is the third-smallest of the major market niches found in the specialty automotive equipment industry.
The association, based in Diamond Bar, Calif., uses several characteristics in identifying particular groups of consumers, including age, income level, education and lifestyle.
The majority of off-road product consumers—85.5 percent—are concentrated between the ages of 18 and 54 years old. At an average age of 40.1 years, they're slightly younger than their general light-truck-driving counterparts, who average 47.4 years.
"The educational attainment of industry consumers," according to SEMA, "provides an indication of how to reach them and the language level that should be used in target marketing."
Taking that into consideration, the largest category of off-road product consumers, 41.7 percent, are classified as having "some college" education. Those who stopped with high school make up 23.3 percent of the buyers, while 18.3 percent are college grads and 16.7 percent have done post-college graduate work.
SEMA data indicates the average household income of off-road products consumers is $58,915—considerably higher than the number for the general U.S. population, which was $35,492 in 1996.
Off-roaders making $75,000-plus annually account for 30.2 percent of that niche's buyers. The next-largest group falls in the $50,000 to $74,999 category.
The favorite recreational activities of off-road product consumers include listening to music, watching movies, taking pleasure trips, fishing and watching sports—not necessarily all at the same time, it's presumed.
Also included on that list are hunting, reading, hiking, bicycling, auto racing, swimming, boating, working out and motorcycling.
When it comes to where consumers buy specialty accessories and appearance products, in 1997 SEMA found that 46.7 percent shopped at discount chains, 43.3 percent at full-line auto parts stores/jobbers, and 41.7 percent visited automotive chains. Only about 15 percent patronized tire dealers, who were right below new-vehicle dealers in that ranking.
SEMA based that data—and stats on what influences consumers—on information gleaned from 10,000 surveys sent to registered vehicle owners across the U.S.
Of all the factors influencing where consumers purchased off-road equipment, price held sway with 75 percent of them. Guarantees, easy exchange or replacement was the next-largest block, at 61.7 percent, followed by availability (55 percent), customer service (48.3 percent) and ability to see the product first (45 percent).
In 1997, tire dealerships were in the middle of the pack as a venue for off-road accessories. But they were at the top of the list as the location chosen by 55 percent of off-roaders purchasing tires, wheels and suspension products. Dealers' closest competitors were full-line auto parts stores and jobbers, who culled 25 percent of those buyers.
Nearly 70 percent of consumers cited "reputation" as the chief factor in choosing a brand of off-road equipment. Following in decreasing preference were: previous use, price, guarantee, availability, recommendation from friends, and knowledgeable salespeople.
Rick Brennan, director of product planning for Fullerton, Calif.-based Yokohama Tire Corp., admits there is little hard data available on the off-road tire segment.
He estimated that about 5 percent—or 1 million—of the 19.7 million light truck vehicles in use are actually used off-road more than 5 or 10 percent of the time by what are considered "serious" off-roaders. That group includes those whose pursuit of "fun" leads them to use very aggressive tires, such as mud-terrain or all-terrain types, for activities such as rock crawling and mud bogging.
Mr. Brennan estimated that about 80 percent of serious off-roaders use mud-terrain tires, and suggested the following are some of the more popular brands: BFGoodrich Mud Terrain T/A; BFG's Baja T/A (large-diameter sizes); Bridgestone Mud Dueler; Goodyear Wrangler M/T; Yokohama Geolandar M/T; Mickey Thompson Baja Belted and Baja Claw; Dick Cepek Fun Country and Radial M-CII; Super Swamper; TSL Thornbird; and TSL Bogger.
The all-terrain category makes up about 20 percent of the off-road tire types, he said, and include popular designs such as: BFG All Terrain T/A; Bridgestone Dueler A/T; Yokohama Geolandar A/T; and Goodyear Wrangler A/T.
Depending on a consumer's budget, many other associate and private brand products are available and in use, he added.
Off-roaders often modify their vehicles with special equipment such as lift kits and shocks, Mr. Brennan said, but their vehicles are still used on road at least 50 percent of the time. "For a mud tire, this means faster, uneven wear in many cases. As a result, tires are changed more often."
The size of the off-road tire market in 1999, according to Yokohama estimates, included 3.5 million mud-terrain and 11 million all-terrain units.