Dressed to the Nines

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Lots of Americans love to accessorize their cars. Here's where to find them.

Casey Funkhouser just can't drive 55. For the past four years, the 24-year-old law student, who owns a 1994 Toyota Supra, has spent his free time scouring the automotive stores for the right combination of accessories that would turn his already high-performance vehicle into an opus to the raptures of speed. "Now it can go from zero to 60 in about 4.4 seconds," says Funkhouser, enumerating the virtues of the new exhaust system, inner cooler, strut-tower brace, and racing springs that have added nearly $4,000 to the car's $35,000 price tag.

Funkhouser is among the millions of car owners who believe that life's too short not to enjoy the ride. In 1999, consumers spent $23.2 billion on automobile after-market specialty parts, up from $15.3 billion in 1994, according to the Diamond Bar, California-based Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA). Whether it's a set of chrome wheels, multicolor headlight covers, a gull-wing spoiler, or the ubiquitous Yosemite Sam "BACK OFF" mud flaps, car-obsessed Americans want that extra something that squeals "I love my car!"

In a survey of 10,000 registered vehicle owners aged 18 and older, SEMA found that the typical automotive after-market consumer is male (average age of 44), solidly middle-class (annual household income of $57,185), and well-educated (most have at least one year of college). Using a computer application created by Easy Analytic Software, Inc., a Vineland, New Jersey-based market research firm, American Demographics created the accompanying map, which illustrates the national distribution of the quintessential automotive after-market consumer. Residents of counties shaded deep red are the most likely to purchase after-market products. Residents in dark-blue shaded areas are the least likely to do so.

Freewheeling Californians have a high propensity to purchase after-market modifications, says analyst Ben Cotton, of the San Jose, California-based marketing and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. But, to grow business, marketers should concentrate their efforts in New England, Colorado, and Wyoming, regions that are currently not identified as hotbeds of consumer activity, but have residents who are "would-be" modifiers, according to Jim Spoonhower, vice president of market research for SEMA. A comparison of this map, which shows where the typical customer can be found, "to a map of where we already know the customer to be, is a wake-up call for everyone involved in this industry," he says.

Growing business, however, also means catering to the niche market. The largest subset of the automotive after-market industry is the light-truck sector, which recorded $7 billion in retail receipts (30.1 percent of the industry's total retail sales) in 1999. Light-truck owners - those who drive SUVs, pickups, vans, and minivans - purchase after-market goodies that change not only the appearance of their vehicles but also the performance and handling of their rides.

According to SEMA, 69.8 percent of light-truck after-market consumers are between the ages of 25 and 54. (The average light-truck accessorizer is 47.) Nearly 35 percent have graduated college, versus 21.6 percent of the U.S. average. Light-truck enthusiasts have an average annual household income of $56,855, slightly above the U.S. average of $54,842. Like most auto enthusiasts, light-truck accessorizers enjoy watching movies (57 percent), and sports (50 percent); traveling (56 percent); and fishing (53 percent).

Restyling, which includes products and services to revamp classic cars, is the second largest after-market niche. In 1999, restyling retail sales totaled $2.9 billion, accounting for 12.4 percent of the specialty equipment sector. The consumer restoring that 1968 Mustang to its glory days is 44 years old on average - three years younger than the light-truck after-market customer. In fact, 58 percent of restyling enthusiasts are younger than 45. Yet, as a whole, this group is less educated and has less income than the typical after-market consumer. Only 23.7 percent of this segment has a college degree. And their average annual household income is $49,394, 16 percent less than the average after-market modifier.

But marketers shouldn't ignore the classic-car after-market consumer, says Alfred Ortiz, an auto industry consultant with Frost & Sullivan. He believes this segment will be turbo-charged by Baby Boomers who are at the peak of their career earnings and are becoming nostalgic for their youth. "Boomers can afford a third car now, and they can do with it whatever they like," says Ortiz.

Funkhouser represents the youngest, most affluent, and best educated of the automotive after-market crowd: The street-performance devotee who spends his or her dollars on modifications that change the appearance and handling of light, high-performance vehicles. In 1999, street-performance customers spent $1.7 billion, an increase of nearly 10 percent from 1998 figures, making this group the third most lucrative after-market niche. On average, these car buffs are 41 years old (62 percent are younger than 45) and have annual household earnings of $57,231. Nearly 28 percent have a college degree.

While most automotive after-market customers have been accessorizing their vehicles for about 20 years, that doesn't mean they actually get their hands dirty. "The do-it-yourself market is shrinking," says Frost & Sullivan's Cotton. "Cars are becoming more complicated and people are getting busier; it's increasingly easier to have somebody else do it for you."

Consumer electronics giant Best Buy, for example, offers installation of after-market products at all 411 of its stores nationwide. Its after-market niche? That's simple, says company spokesperson Jeff Faust: "We market to customers of all ages and interests." One of the most popular items available at Best Buy is the remote car starter. "You don't have to be a big car nut to know the benefits of being able to warm up your car from inside [the house]," says Faust. Other products growing in popularity are mobile video players, which are quickly becoming de rigueur for today's soccer mom. The younger consumer is most interested in high-performance sound systems, says Faust. To push sales, Best Buy has a "Boom Room" in many of its stores where customers can pump up the volume on some of the latest equipment.

But you don't have to be a Best Buy or even an automotive superstore to get into the after-market action. Bagua On Board, a Solana Beach, California-based company, for example, offers consumers a product aimed at improving their vehicle's energy. That would be psychic energy, not fuel efficiency, explains Mimi Miller, an acupuncturist and Feng Shui consultant. Miller designed the $16 Feng Shui Car Kit, which includes eight decals designating the powers of the Bagua, the octagonal shape that represents the basic energy of the "chi" and the vital patterns of life, like health, finances, and partnership. Place the decals on the inside of the car, and both driver and vehicle will be re-energized by the power of Feng Shui, cruising the interstates in sublime synchronicity. Chi whiz!

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