SEMA News—April 2012

2011 Opinion Leader Report

New Opinion Leader Study Provides Insights Into Consumers

  Aftermarket Research, Automotive Accessories Research, Automotive Aftermarket Research, Automotive Industry Research
A new SEMA publication entitled 2011 Opinion Leader Report provides firsthand feedback from participants in the association’s opinion leader program compared and contrasted with a group recruited from the general population.  
   
The three-year-old SEMA enthusiast opinion leader research program was created in advance of the 2009 SEMA Show to provide SEMA researchers with consumer insights into industry trends, products, vehicles and the SEMA Show itself. It was built around automotive enthusiasts and opinion leaders who were active in car clubs, automotive websites or forums as well as active social media bloggers who follow performance automotive businesses.

Applicants and their guests were invited to the SEMA Show, where they were given an exclusive preview of thousands of new products and then were asked to share feedback and their personal views on what they saw as well as their experiences at the Show.

The opinion leader program continued each succeeding year, including at the 2011 SEMA Show, where some of the nation’s most active and influential automotive enthusiasts provided additional firsthand feedback through participation in onsite focus groups that provided deeper insight into enthusiasts’ perspectives and attitudes about the automotive specialty-equipment industry. The information gathered during these focus groups, and a separate online session with another group recruited at random from the general population, has now been compiled in a new SEMA publication entitled 2011 Opinion Leader Report. It is available free to SEMA members. Non-members may also download the report for $200.

The opinion leader group was recruited and the sessions organized by the particular segment of the industry they participated in. The segments included truck and SUV, racing, street rodding, restoration, street performance, sport compact and off-roading. Throughout the report, the opinion leaders’ responses and opinions are compared and contrasted with those of the group from the general population.

The report is careful to point out that the responses of both groups are not intended to represent those of the total population of consumers who might buy SEMA-member products. They were intended instead to represent opinions from both ends of the spectrum. The opinions are therefore representative only of those particular participants, and most target consumers of SEMA-member companies are likely to harbor attitudes somewhere between the two groups. That said, the report provides some noteworthy comments and statistics.

  Aftermarket Research, Automotive Accessories Research, Automotive Aftermarket Research, Automotive Industry Research
The detailed findings of the report are divided into three areas: modifying and upgrading (which includes not only behavioral but also attitudinal themes), parts purchasing, and retailer preferences and comments.
   
  Aftermarket Research, Automotive Accessories Research, Automotive Aftermarket Research, Automotive Industry Research
In addition to findings from the focus groups, the report also includes verbatim quotes from participants regarding their attitudes about modifications to their vehicles.
   
  Aftermarket Research, Automotive Accessories Research, Automotive Aftermarket Research, Automotive Industry Research
The report reviews participant opinions about the sources from which they research and purchase parts.
   
  Aftermarket Research, Automotive Accessories Research, Automotive Aftermarket Research, Automotive Industry Research
The reasons behind modification decisions come to light through the range of information compiled in the report.
One of the most interesting observations to come out of the process is that the definition of performance is not what the researchers might have expected, given a SEMA focus. The automotive specialty-equipment industry was initially built around speed and horsepower, but those aspects of “performance” are no longer the sole parameters that enthusiasts seek from their vehicles.

“While to some [performance] still means more power, to others it might mean better suspension to help a truck crawl over rocks, or for a car to handle better,” the report observes. “It might mean better brakes to add a margin of safety, or specific modifications to improve fuel economy. We also heard quite a few references to quality and reliability to make sure their vehicles perform when needed or last longer. Across both groups we heard that one of the primary motivations for buying specialty parts and modifying their vehicles was to personalize them.”

The idea of personalizing a vehicle—making improvements with the goal of individualizing a car or truck and setting the owner apart from his or her peers—is a continuing theme in the report.

“There is also a sense of satisfaction derived from accomplishing something special and the peace of mind knowing the job was done right and their vehicle[s] will perform better because of it,” the report says.

Much of the research that makes up the report confirms notions that perceptive marketers and analysts have long held. For instance, the consumers in both the groups rely on the Internet to gather information about parts and modifications as well as to actually purchase products for their vehicles. But while the general population might resort to general search engines such as Google to begin their research for a given product or service, the enthusiast opinion leader group looks to peer participants on forums and blogs.

“The advantages of Internet shopping are the availability of whatever part might be needed and finding the best possible price,” the report says. “When shopping locally, the [opinion leader] enthusiasts tend to buy from specialty shops while the general population group frequents chain stores. Interestingly, there is an understanding of the value of a good local source of reliable information such as you might find in a specialty shop, but the trade-off is seen as higher cost.”

The detailed findings of the report are divided into three areas: modifying and upgrading (which includes not only behavioral but also attitudinal themes), parts purchasing behavior and retailer preferences and comments. Under modifying and upgrading, for example, the report shows that most of the general population uses the same vehicle that is sometimes modified as daily transportation, but only about half of the opinion leader group uses the cars they modify as their daily drivers, with the other half modifying a hobby-specific vehicle.

Frequency and time spent on modification and who performs the work also differ between the two groups. While the opinion leaders themselves often upgrade specific performance features that depend upon how the vehicle will be used (racing or off-roading, for instance), the general consumer group tends to have others perform the work and to be more interested in upgrades to items such as upholstery or sound systems. The report also details some of the “wish list” projects that the groups would like to pursue as well as the barriers to achieving them.

In the parts purchasing behavior section, the report details the interaction customers prefer, including websites and e-mail, as well as how much each group has spent on modifications over the past three months. As noted previously, Internet shopping was high on both groups’ lists of information. Surprising, however, is the notion that discount stores and dealerships ranked low even among the general population participants.

“The companies people purchase from have many things in common,” the report says. “People purchase from a wide range of companies, depending on the specific part they are looking for, but some attributes are common to those that they purchase from.”

Those attributes include quality, reliability and customer loyalty, and the more engaged opinion leader group tended to focus on more specialized retailers. They purchase more from online retailers and look to specialty retailers because of the unique parts they’re seeking. As one might expect, the general population, with less interest in specific performance parts, shops mostly at more local outlets and chain stores.

Both groups see retail chains as convenient but lacking in selection, and even though customer service is seen as an advantage, neither group saw the staff at such chains as very knowledgeable. Both groups recognize the value of specialty stores, seeing them as having great products and expert advice but higher prices.

Both groups expressed a desire to personalize their vehicles “to stand out from the crowd,” but they also had specific reasons for choosing to make modifications. While the general population was concerned mainly with
safety and reliability, the opinion leaders were looking for increased performance and enjoyment along with a sense of accomplishment.

“The information generated from the opinion leader program is some of the best research we’ve ever done because it’s based on first-hand experience and knowledge from the influencers who help drive trends in our industry,” said Tom Myroniak, SEMA vice president of marketing and member services. “Not only do we get an exceptional group of participants, but we are able to provide exhibitors and attendees immediate and in-depth feedback based on these influencers’ preferences, attitudes and outlook toward our industry and its products. By giving these enthusiasts access to the newest products, we’re able to learn what resonates and what doesn’t. Exhibitor feedback indicates they find this information incredibly valuable, and it undoubtedly aids in shaping future plans.”

The 2011 Opinion Leader Report points out that consumers highly value manufacturers’ websites as good sources of information, especially when there is a customer-service program that is staffed by knowledgeable salespeople who can provide help and explanations that solve problems. And while hardcore enthusiasts will continue to commit time and money to their automotive hobbies even in tough economic times, other groups can also be encouraged to make purchases and modify vehicles, especially if they are provided with messages about improvements in efficiency, quality, reliability, safety and saving money.

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