Auto Aftermarket Says Pimp My Sales

If you’ve added a sun roof, upgraded your car stereo, or swapped the standard tires on your car for a high-performance set, you’ve contributed to the $244.6 billion aftermarket auto-parts industry. Made more popular and visible by TV shows such as MTV’s Pimp My Ride and TLC’s Overhaulin’, the aftermarket accessories business is one of the fastest-growing segments of the automotive industry, with 2003 showing a 3% growth in sales.

Although Chicago-based Automotive Specialty Accessories and Parts (ASAP), the holding company of aftermarket catalogers J.C. Whitney and Stylin’ Concepts and online marketer, sells replacement parts such as brakes and clutches, 80% of its sales come from products to stylize, accessorize, or upgrade vehicles. Such items range from Tirefly Pro Wheel Lights (“Glow as you go!”) to dashboard TV monitors to Helix Power Tower Throttle Body Spacers (“Dyno tested to produce up to 20 more horsepower!”).

Tim Ford, president of J.C. Whitney, says the popularity of auto accessories such as suspension enhancements and seat alterations is not a recent phenomena: “It’s actually a reactionary phenomena that comes and goes based on the cars that are made.” From the 1950s to 1970s, stylizing cars was big “because it was fun to work on your car,” he says, “and people had a passion for it.” But during the following two decades “what Detroit was putting out was bland.” Now, though, “they’re making cars with more horsepower, more styling, and it has kicked off a new generation that is modifying their cars, both new and used,” says Ford.

Tom Christmann, marketing manager for Corvette Central, agrees with Ford that the desire among a certain subset of car owners to stylize their autos “has always been there, but it’s probably there more so today.” The Sawyer, MI-based mailer has six titles that cater to owners of high-performance vehicles, with its most widely circulated catalog selling accessories such as interior and exterior trim for the cars, along with apparel and jewelry for the owners. Corvette Central mails 150,000-175,000 copies of its accessories book each year, compared with 60,000-100,000 copies for each of its other titles.

Corvette Central continually tweaks its product line to accommodate what car owners are asking for. The 30-year-old company holds weekly parts meetings when customers’ requests are discussed. The meetings also include discussion about manufacturing products that have been discontinued but are still in demand from owners. “You can’t run down the street and get a ’58 Corvette headlight switch,” Christmann explains.

Ford says J.C. Whitney is also constantly altering its product line, adding accessories that are in demand and “pruning” what is not. J.C. Whitney is also providing products and product ideas to Pimp My Ride and similar programs. Measuring the success of such affiliations is difficult, Ford says, because the company generally receives only a quick acknowledgement at the end of the show. He does say, though, that the catalog is pursuing a heightened television marketing plan that will direct viewers to the J.C. Whitney Website.

No “tricked-out” owners here

While J.C. Whitney and Corvette Central have added more styling and personalizing products to meet demand, Titusville, FL-based Eckler’s hasn’t seen the need to modify its core merchandise line of restoration products.

“Our customers are more conservative. They do upgrading and improvements but are not so far out as Pimp My Ride,” says Michael Wilson, vice president of sales and marketing. Eckler’s runs four auto-parts businesses — Eckler’s Corvette, Camaro, Classic Chevy Trucks, and Classic Chevy International — and mails major catalogs for each annually, with smaller editions sent to more-targeted groups. Its most popular catalog, the one for Corvette owners, is more than 420 pages and features more than 19,000 products aimed at restoring a vehicle to its original form.

“The difference is the owners,” Wilson says. “They’re definitely in an older age category. They like to improve their cars but with more conservative improvements.” He estimates that most of his customers are over the age of 50.

To Wilson, shows like Discovery Channel’s American Chopper, which chronicles the operations of custom-motorcycle business Orange County Choppers, and TLC’s Rides, which criss-crosses the country in search for “ultimate tricked-out” vehicles, are “great entertainment,” but he doesn’t know if they’ll become television staples because of their “wild” nature.

Even if the popularity of such programs proves fleeting, catalogers selling auto accessories don’t see the industry heading for a decline in the immediate future. “The Corvette industry and aftermarket industry has enjoyed solid growth over the years,” says Christmann, who also notes that even when the economy takes a dip Corvette owners still find money for their car. They “might accessorize less or drive less,” he says. “But they’ll still do it.”

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