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Americans Spend More to Personalize Their Wheels

March 8, 1995

DETROIT (AP) _ Selecting a new car makes a statement about your style, a public proclamation of your individuality.

So say the salesmen. The fact is, the intoxicating thrill of owning new wheels fades as fast as that new-car smell once you sober up and realize your chariot looks just like thousands of others on the highway.

Automakers have an answer to this fashion problem: Accessorize. From protective front-end covers called bras to rear-end spoilers, Americans are buying more accessories for their new cars and trucks.

``People want their vehicle to be them,″ said Kathy Bommarito, a General Motors Corp. spokeswoman. ``They want to personalize it.″

Most of the major automakers report accessory sales rose in 1994. Chrysler Corp. says it had its best year ever, with overall sales up 38 percent and truck accessories up 77 percent. Toyota’s U.S. accessory sales rose 18 percent, a record for the Japanese automaker.

``It’s a huge market out there, which is why you see stores like Pep Boys and Trak Auto,″ said John Koenig, manager of accessory sales and marketing for Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. in Torrance, Calif.

Accessories should not be confused with options, more costly items such as air conditioning and automatic transmissions that usually are factory-installed.

Dealer-sold accessories sometimes are practical: roof racks, mud flaps and fog lights, for example. But just as often they are mere fashion statements, things like gold nameplates and fake roll bars whose only function is to look sporty.

Some of the most popular accessories are plush floor mats, running boards, pickup bed liners, custom audio systems and security devices.

Toyota says it found a hit with real-wood, stick-on dashboard trim. ``It’s an inexpensive way to make the interior of the car look very rich,″ spokeswoman Terri Epport said.

Auto parts stores and catalog companies such as J.C. Whitney Co. of Chicago also say accessory sales are up. They focus more on those who have owned their cars for a while or have just bought a used car.

Auto dealers have the edge with new car buyers who are most likely to spend money on accessories when they buy their vehicles.

``Once they leave your showroom, they’re going to go out and spend it somewhere else,″ said Dan Biggs, a Ford Motor Co. marketing planner.

Accessories can add hundreds of dollars to the price of a new vehicle, but buyers often are persuaded to plunk down the extra money by including the cost in their financing.

``It only increased my monthly payment by a few dollars,″ said Tim Lowry, who recently bought a 1995 Dodge Ram dark blue four-wheel-drive pickup. ``I got a real good deal on the accessories.″

Lowry, a 25-year-old paramedic in suburban Pittsburgh, bought a security system, fog lights and a bed liner with his new truck. He also plans to buy a bed cover and tubular running boards.

``A lot of this stuff is for looks, but it also has a purpose,″ he said. The security system was his priority: ``My truck’s worth over $30,000. I don’t intend to let anyone else have it.″

Accessory sales increased last year in part because more vehicles were sold. But automakers and dealers also have been paying more attention to marketing.

Chrysler persuaded 350 dealers to set up accessory boutiques in showrooms last year; another 350 are planned in 1995. Rich Rae, director of sales and marketing for Chrysler’s Mopar parts division, said it’s an easy sell.

``Their selling rate of accessories on a per-vehicle basis is four times that of the stores that do not have the display areas.″

Toyota formed a separate department to develop and market accessories three years ago and saw sales soar, Koenig said. ``They were always lumped in the parts area. Accessories always got the back seat.″

Ford last year formed a special accessories team that decided to focus more on custom products and do away with generic items like sheepskin seat covers that can easily be found elsewhere, Biggs said.

GM also is offering more custom accessories, such as cellular phones designed only to fit specific models.

Each of the Big Three automakers now incorporates development of accessory lines with the creation of each new vehicle model.

Chrysler did that with its popular Jeep Grand Cherokee sport utility vehicle a few years ago. The accessories sold so well that the company later did the same thing for the low-priced Neon sedan. To Chrysler’s surprise, the Neon accessories sold just as well, Rae said.

``We found the Neon buyer, that `Generation X’ customer, was buying accessories that their predecessors never bought.″

End adv for Sunday, March 12