Dressing Up Is Big Business

Looking good is the best revenge. At least that's what millions of Americans seem to think when it comes to their personal chariots. From car jewelry (gold kits) to facelifts (custom body panels) to makeup (custom paint), U.S. vehicle owners like to keep their rides looking fresh, fancy and fun-loving. You see customized vehicles everywhere these days from little import coupes with giant wings tacked on the rear to giant SUVs with running boards applied under the rocker panels. Altering passenger vehicles has become big business, but how big? The answer may surprise you.

Americans paid $24.86 billion for products to accessorize their cars and trucks last year, according to the latest research reported by SEMA, the Special Equipment Market Association. This amount is more than Americans spent on golf and golf equipment in 2000, and a lot more than they paid to see the movie version of "Pearl Harbor." It reflects a seven percent increase from the $23.24 billion consumers spent to customize their vehicles in 1999.

The specialty equipment market has grown every year since 1988, except for 1991 when the aftermath of the Gulf War included a 3.7 percent dip in custom auto parts and equipment sales. Except for 1991, the growth in the accessories market has been higher than the growth in both disposable income and the gross domestic product (GDP) for the past decade. Clearly, something is afoot here. But just what are Americans spending their hard-earned auto aftermarket dollars on these days?

Glad you asked. Exterior and interior appearance accessories such as sun roofs and wood dash kits take the largest share of the market, at 55.6 percent ($13.8 billion). Wheels, tires, and suspension products account for 24.5 percent of the market, at $6.0 billion, while racing and performance parts had retail sales of $5.0 billion (21.2 percent of the market).

"Appearance accessories sales continue to grow healthily," said Jim Spoonhower, SEMA vice president of market research. "Products for trucks dominate the accessory market, with domestic truck products taking 65 percent of the segment and import trucks taking 10 percent. That means that three out of four dollars spent on accessories are spent for truck, van, and SUV accessories."

Some of the most popular truck accessories are trailer hitches, bedliners, hood and side window deflectors, rear sliding windows, and toolboxes, according to the latest SEMA consumer survey. Other popular truck accessories include several items to give sport utility vehicles even more utility, things like roof racks, bicycle carriers and running boards.

But, wait, there's more. This year's SEMA Show, which concluded its run in November, offered these new products to add to your automotive wish list:

Indiglo Sport Pedals are "racing-look" pedal covers that actually feature neon inside. The pedals, which can be turned on for special effect at night, are available for both automatic and stickshift vehicles in nine exotic colors and in satin, chrome or black pedal finishes. Retail: from $64.99 to $79.99.

The Liberator plugs into a vehicle's power point (cigarette lighter socket) and automatically records tax-deductible miles, so you don't have to keep a notebook in your car to write things down each time you drive for work. Once logged, you can download the data and use the PC software to print IRS-approved forms for tax deductions. The Liberator also automatically tracks traffic conditions through an RBDS radio connection and provides traffic information specific to your route. When there's a problem ahead, it provides an alert and suggests alternate routes and their current conditions.

If clutter covers your passenger seat, think about StufStop. It's like a seat belt for your stuff. The neoprene-style fabric restraint fits any bucket seat and secures around the back with Velcro. And unlike many organizer options, it doesn't have to be removed when a passenger climbs aboard; someone can sit comfortably in a seat with the StufStop in place, without the stuff in it, of course. Retail price is $22.95.

Cleveland-based Luigi Fraschini buys a bunch of automotive stuff for Christmas. It drives his wife crazy, but many people think she was crazy just for marrying him.