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Playing it Smart: Companies Adapt Wheel Trends in a Recovering Economy

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The best thing about being at the bottom is that there is only one way to go: Up.

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2009 has been a dismal year for the aftermarket industry, especially custom wheels. Manufacturers and distributors felt the downturn in 2008 and held off on new styles that required capital investment in molds and inventory. Going in to 2009, orders were cut, canceled or just not placed. Inventories were already fat from a weak 2008.

Much of what has been on the shelf this year was leftover. Blowout sales have lit up faxes and e-mail inboxes all year. There are a lot of deals to be had, but there are fewer people buying.

As an industry, it has had one positive effect on how we look at ourselves and our businesses. No longer are we gluttonous with our product lines. Lean and mean is the way to survive.

Looking at the SEMA Show floor plan, it is evident that companies are scaling down, but is that such a bad thing? Let’s face it, the wheel and restyling industries had a Hummer mentality: Build it bigger, wilder and more arrogant than the other guy to garner media coverage.

Well, Hummer has fallen hard and is now in the hands of the Chinese, and the aftermarket side has decidedly toned it down. Exhibitors at the show are doing more with less. Expect to see new 2010 products follow this trend.

From what I’ve seen throughout the year, there seems to be a bit of stratification going on. You tend to have manufacturers building less expensive wheels to appeal to the masses or you have high-end wheel companies vying to grab business with fresh ideas, like changing the style or texture of the wheel. Several companies are producing more cost-effective wheels that look high-end.

One such company doing so is Konig. This company has been able to hold on over the last couple of years because it maintained its core business model. Instead of getting on the 24-inch-plus bandwagon, Konig kept creating styles that people wanted and sold them at a very reasonable price. It even manufactured a number of private label wheels for some large retail and wholesale companies. One of the newest editions to its lineup is the Illusion, which is built in 15- through 19-inch sizes.

See the bright aluminum accent on the face of the spokes? Usually, this is accomplished by casting an area slightly higher than the face and then milling it off after the wheel is powder-coated. This is a popular and inexpensive method to produce this type of effect.

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But what you may not notice is that this accent was created by running a ball endmill around the windows to enhance the window opening. This technique is much more time consuming (read: more costly) to produce than just chucking up a wheel and spinning it on a lathe for three minutes. This is a process where the wheel has to be positioned and indexed before it can receive the final cut.

I noticed some very interesting millwork designs at last year’s SEMA Show, but it was performed mostly on forged centers with 3-piece construction. In most cases, that’s $1,000 per wheel just to get started!

Konig is playing on the fact that many people like that type of design, but can’t afford to shell out the dough for the 3-piece. So they apply the process to an economical cast wheel and give it a look all to its own. This is one of the first applications like this that I have seen, but I have a hunch that others will follow and this could be the new trend for the next few years.

Another trend that I predicted was the multiple uses of a single design to maximize the style for several years, instead of one or two as in previous years. Here is a good example: Ultra Type 93.

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This wheel is offered in chrome, silver and black machined. Each finish changes the look slightly and helps spread the manufacturing cost such as molds and testing over several years, which lowers the overall cost of the wheel. Expect to see more of this trend for 2010.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have companies like MHT that are offering the multi-piece forged wheels in a dizzying array of options. Log onto the company’s Web site and click on Wheel Designer. From there you have the ability to create a one-of-a-kind wheel from thousands of potential combinations.

Choose from options to change the color or finish of almost every component of the wheel. Mix accent colors with carbon fiber prints or pick up the color of the vehicle in the wheel design.

Another high-end wheel manufacturer, Forgiato, also has a wheel designer that allows you to modify the colors and supply artwork that can be applied to the lip of the rim for a one-off set of wheels.

Finally, Modular Society also has a wheel designer function on its Web site.

All three of these high-end wheel companies use design elements that include milling the face to create an accent to complement the overall wheel design. Adding color to these areas to create a truly custom design has be­come quick and easy.

In the coming year, keep these Web sites bookmarked on the computers that are at the counter so you can quickly show a potential customer what your capabilities are.
Online wheel designers, like this one from Ridestyler, make selecting options for custom wheels fast and easy.
Another trend I see is the use of vehicle visualization tools to provide more than just images of wheels on stock vehicle photos. Burkson Technologies, Inc. has released a version of its Ridestyler program, available through various retailers’ Web sites, that allows the consumer to upload their own vehicle image and place wheels from the library onto it.

After choosing the vehicle that the customer has from the drop down menus, they can click on “Import an image of this vehicle from your camera.” The software prompts the consumer to attach the file and, once uploaded, the consumer positions crosshairs to show the centers of the wheels. I have used the program to help a customer visualize a very unique car that isn’t going to be in any stock vehicle library.

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Once used just for visualization, AutoWare Technologies’ NextWheels Online program has been integrated with e-commerce capability.

This program resides on several retailers’ Web sites and allows the consumer to choose their vehicle from a stock image, place the tires and wheels that they want on it, then click on a “Purchase” button. The tire and wheel data is transferred to the e-commerce site where the individual products are automatically loaded into the shopping cart. Once there, the customer checks out as usual and has the product shipped to their door.

With the increased emphasis on closing a higher percentage of sales as well as tracking consumer spending habits, programs like this will be integrated into more and more Web sites. It will be interesting to see how this technology will be marketed in conjunction with social networking in the coming year.

Speaking of that, be looking for next month’s issue where we will give you some insight into social networking’s inner mechanics and discuss how we will assimilate it into our lives and our businesses.

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