Booming sales of pickup trucks and SUVs are having a ripple effect for Thule, Yakima and other companies that make racks and accessories for the big vehicles.
They are selling to customers such as Taylor Roppolo, a 28-year-old professional beach volleyball player from Weeki Wachee, Fla., who doesn’t feel his vehicle is complete until it has a roof rack.
He recently equipped his 2017 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk 4×4 crossover with a Yakima MegaWarrior cargo carrier to transport gear on biking and kayaking adventures.
“I always get asked about my wheels and tires first — but the rack is a close second,” Roppolo said.
More vehicle owners are equipping their vehicles with racks and cargo carriers, especially on pickup trucks and small SUVs like the Renegade. Sales of Thule racks and carriers in the Americas rose 4 percent in 2017 compared with 2016 after adjusting for currency exchange, according to the company’s annual report.
The growth is due in large part to increasing sales of light trucks, which includes crossovers, SUVs and pickups, Grabenstein said. Light trucks accounted for 67 percent of total vehicle sales in the first quarter of 2018, according to industry firm Autodata Corp. That’s up from 63 percent during the same period in 2017.
As sales of accessories for light trucks increase, companies are changing the products they offer.
Yakima will introduce three new product lines in 2019 designed specifically to capture new owners in the growing light trucks market.
The products include a quick-attaching bar system over the bed of a pickup truck for transporting bicycles; a platform that fits into the bed rails to accommodate a rooftop tent with wind protection from the cab; and a rear sporting cage for overland-style adventurers carrying various types of equipment such as paddleboards.
“We needed to bolster the line, and this purchasing shift sets things up quite nicely,” Grabenstein said.
Owners of light trucks are more likely to customize their vehicles, said Gavin Knapp, head of market research for the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association.
In the $41-billion specialty equipment or aftermarket industry, products for light trucks accounted for nearly $23 billion in 2016, according to SEMA.
Light trucks have greater capability than smaller cars and sedans, encouraging owners to engage in outdoor activities. Many also come with roof rails and trailer hitches installed at the factory, making them more amenable to attaching racks and cargo carriers.
Hitch-mounted racks and carriers are the fastest growing segment of the business, said Chris Ritchie, manager of communications at Thule.
As recently as 2016, sedans like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry were the top-selling vehicles in the U.S. outside of full-size pickup trucks. Since then they’ve been surpassed by larger crossovers like the Nissan Rogue, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, many of which come with attached roof rails and the ability to add a hitch.
“You’re less likely to put a hitch on sedans than you are on a CR-V or RAV4,” Ritchie said.
Most consumers want to add accessories soon after buying a new vehicle, Knapp said. The fact that light truck sales are growing means that more accessories will be purchased for those vehicles than for slower-selling sedans.
In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, 26 percent of accessory and aftermarket sales were for pickup trucks, according to the 2016 SEMA Market Report. The report also found that 31 percent of all pickup truck owners purchase towing and storage equipment such as trailer hitches and cargo carriers.
Thirty-four percent of Ford F-Series owners were most likely to purchase such equipment. But customers of other brands are also active. For example, 17 percent of General Motors pickup owners bought or intended to buy hitch-mounted cargo carriers. For Ram owners the number was 14 percent.
“The hitch gives people more opportunity to do outdoorsy things,” Knapp said.
Americans are certainly getting outside more. Overlanding, a more accessible form of adventure driving than off-roading, has experienced rapid growth due to the rise of social media and growing capability in new trucks, among other things.
Grabenstein and Ritchie both said their companies have noticed a sharp uptick in fishing, kayaking and electric-powered biking as popular outdoor activities that are affecting sales.
Bike trends, in particular, have reshaped the industry. As vehicles have grown in size, adventurers no longer want to mount their bicycles to the roof and retrieve them so high off the ground.
“Putting a full-size bicycle on top of a car is a bit of a dance,” Grabenstein said.
He also noted that bicycles themselves are growing. More customers are transporting large “fat bikes” designed for snow and sand. Bike manufacturers are also adding electric motors to mountain bikes and beach cruisers.
Thule has a hitch-mounted rack called the EasyFold XT 2 designed specifically to hold e-bikes, Ritchie said, and another called the Vertex Swing Away that provides access to the vehicle’s bed or cargo space. Yakima launched one of its own called the Backswing in April.
Hitch-mounted racks have another benefit: they open up space in the rest of the vehicle. Upon purchasing his 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD, Paul Scheffler of Richmond, Va., set about making use of every available space on his pickup.
The roof has a rack with kayak carriers attached. The bed has a rack holding a cargo carrier. The hitch holds a rack for two mountain bikes. All of the accessories are made by Yakima.
“I have used Yakima racks for probably the last 10 years on numerous vehicles,” Scheffler said. He and his girlfriend camp and hike year-round and will do more now that summer weather has begun.
“My set-up allows me to have plenty of room for kayaks, bikes, gear and coolers,” he said.
Automakers want in on the trend, as well. Companies such as Ford and General Motors have partnerships with Thule to carry their racks, carriers and other accessories in dealerships. Toyota recently launched a similar program with Yakima.
“We’ve had more interest from auto manufacturers in the last six months than we’ve seen in quite some time,” Grabenstein said.
“It will be interesting to see where the dust settles,” he said.