Fueling innovation in the automotive aftermarket

July 22, 2019
Working in a consumer-focused industry, we hear the word innovation tossed around quite a bit.

Working in a consumer-focused industry, we hear the word innovation tossed around quite a bit. Having worked within the aftermarket industry for nearly 20 years, I have seen a handful of innovative products hit store shelves and perform quite well. However, when speaking with industry veterans in the aftermarket about innovation, the conversation often comes to a halt with comments about how innovation is difficult in this space and we will never see something like the iPhone introduced in our industry.

As vehicle technology has evolved over the years, even the most hard-core DIY’er likely walks into an auto parts store fewer times per year than they did ten years ago. Longer oil drain intervals and more reliable original equipment parts have permitted this behavior. Yet, we know in the world of retail, the rule today is “innovate or die.” Innovate your stores. Innovate the products sitting on shelves. Give the consumer a compelling reason to walk through your door.

While we do not expect to see an iPhone-esque innovation hitting the automotive aftermarket, there are certainly examples of products that have driven category and store performance over the years. We can first look at products that had a strong presence on the professional side of the business, such as clay bars, headlight restoration kits, odor bombs, and most recently, ceramic coatings. These are products that professional detail shops, body shops, and dealerships used long before they found their way onto retail shelves. With sales today at over $60 million annually, it has been shown that when they are packaged well, priced right, and come complete with clear, how-to instructions, these products actually can perform very well at retail locations. I’d be remiss not to also mention the example of turning a can of refrigerant into a DIY kit inclusive of the tool needed to recharge an AC system. That was a huge success, which – according to The NPD Group’s Retail Tracking Service – now makes up over 50 percent of category sales, helped drive up average selling price, and actually grew the category by making it easier for the consumer to do the job on their own. Are these examples of true innovation? Maybe not in the same sense that most people define innovation; but they can be considered innovative uses of products now available on retail shelves in the automotive aftermarket that help drive foot traffic back to retail stores.

Another great example of a product that was originally meant for one application but eventually grew to have a huge consumer following for a separate application is Plasti Dip. As noted on their website: “Plasti Dip International has been developing and manufacturing specialty coatings and adhesives since 1972, and it all started with our most popular product, Plasti Dip. The air-dry rubber coating began as a grip solution for tool handles and has become a DIY commodity for crafters, handymen and automotive enthusiasts.” From blacking out chrome wheels to changing the color of an entire vehicle, the peel-able coatings category became a huge retail success when people realized they could apply the product, then simply peel it off again when they tired of it.

So, why am I keeping an eye on these uses and reuses of automotive aftermarket products? While the automotive aftermarket industry may not be as innovative as consumer electronics, there must be products in the market today that will become popular and compelling for reasons we haven’t yet dreamed up – reasons that will likely drive foot traffic and category sales volume. Stop and think about the products that already exist in your arsenal that you might be able to bring to store shelves. Maybe there’s a product on the professional side that – with some creativity – could become a true retail success. Will you be the outside-the-box supplier who brings fresh and innovative ideas to your next buyer meeting? I hope so.

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