Pain at the Pump Won’t Deter Truck and SUV Enthusiasts

  Jeep/offroad at SEMA Show
  Truck/SUV/off-road enthusiasts don't especially care if gas prices jack up again. They'll buy a second, more fuel-efficient car before selling their rigs.
Truck and SUV enthusiasts remain unfazed by gas prices, according to a survey of truck, off-road and SUV enthusiasts at the 2009 SEMA Show. Most surveyed said they were "not at all likely" to get rid of their big vehicle even if gas prices rise.

In nearly all cases, this passionate audience said they would (if they hadn’t already) buy a fuel-efficient car for daily driving and commuting, but the truck would stay. For many, trucks and SUVs are a necessity either for business or recreation. "I have to have a truck, so gas prices don't matter,” one participant explained.

Another summed up with equal brevity: "I'll never give up my truck. I'll give up other things, but not my truck."

In an effort to better analyze the tastes and preferences of today's auto enthusiasts, SEMA, in coordination with Ford, launched the Enthusiast Opinion Leader Research Program at the 2009 SEMA Show.

The program invited 527 enthusiasts, selected through a rigorous application process, to the second day of the Show and tasked them with using social media to broadcast their personal product and trend highlights of the Show. They also participated in SEMA’s survey to better discern their buying habits.

But even if truck enthusiasts sound cavalier about gas prices, they are anything but in their research and purchasing patterns. This astute audience buys based on personal style, function and utility, and availability. They’re also sensitive to private-labeling practices and shoddy customer service.

"Individuality" was the top reason participants gave when asked why they customize. A need to "put your own brand on it" and "make it your own so it doesn't look like all the others on the road" were two common themes among respondents.

Replacing worn stock parts with specialty equipment prompted many purchasing decisions, with truck/SUV owners perceiving that aftermarket products offer better performance, function and safety. Enthusiasts also noted that factory replacement parts are often more expensive than aftermarket.

Off-roaders were most adamant about the benefits of specialty products. “Stock gets stuck” was one notable response.

Utility and function hold high value for this group, and they’re generally not impressed with cosmetic accessories (although one enthusiast noted that even though taillights didn't improve his truck's performance, they looked good and merited the cost).

These enthusiasts are also keen on part quality. Several enthusiasts noted that cutting corners and buying inferior parts usually costs more in the end. Brand name alone is not enough to get the sale, however. More were aware of private-labeling practices in the industry and had strong objections to paying more for a legacy brand if they knew the manufacturer was also building for others.

"I'm not spending twice the money for something that's going to wear out the same," noted one participant.

Retailers and manufacturers take note: If you want this group’s business, make sure you have the parts. Many said they will first try to buy from a local brick-and-mortar, but often can’t find the parts in their area. Not surprisingly, most turn to the Internet. Those surveyed said they bought an average of 75% of their parts online.

Reduced or free shipping caught most enthusiasts' attention and often tipped the balance in favor of a particular retailer. But online buying isn’t without its frustrations, enthusiasts say. Several survey participants related stories of placing orders only to learn that the product was back-ordered or simply out of stock.

And not surprising for an Internet-savvy audience, they do the bulk of their product research online, typically looking first to online forums to learn the experiences of others with the same or similar products. Fellow enthusiast endorsements and criticisms are valuable currency with those weighing a purchasing decision.

Many also check a manufacturer's website for product information, and often e-mail or call for details. How a manufacturer responds to these inquiries has a significant influence on the consumer’s decision. Failure to respond promptly, or replies with short, uninformative answers typically lose the sale.

Enthusiasts perceive that the effort a manufacturer puts into both follow-ups and the product information on its website reflects its design, manufacturing and customer service values. Buyers want detailed product specs, photos and application specifics.

"Companies are just not thorough in putting the information on their website,” one respondent explains. "Many sites will just say one useless thing about the product.”