Truck accessories are big business. And though many outdoorsmen continue to purchase parts at retail outlets, each year more are letting their fingers do the walking by ordering aftermarket accessories from mail-order companies. No doubt, this approach is convenient, but pitfalls abound for the unwary. So for those who prefer to shop via telephone and credit card, here are some tips from Larry Diehl, marketing director for Off-Road Unlimited-an Arizona-based 4×4 outfitter that sells retail and mail-order.
A Little Knowledge. . .
We’re seated in a small spare office behind the showroom at his Scottsdale, Arizona, store.
Through the walls come the sounds of business-ringing phones and the raspy whine of impact wrenches. Diehl settles in, and then launches: “First of all, whether you deal with a retail store or mail order, you need to know your truck. The more you know about your truck and the parts you want to install, the better. One of our most common problems is that customers often don’t even know the kind of truck they own.
“You’d really be surprised. They don’t know whether they’ve got an F-150, C10, or K1500. They don’t know if the truck is a short-bed or a long-bed. They don’t know if the pickup is a compact or full-size. They don’t know the size of the engine or the gear ratios. Many times, they don’t even know what year the truck is. If you don’t know your truck, there’s no way you can order accessories intelligently.”
“What’s the most common example of this problem?” I ask.
“Gear ratios. Most guys have no idea what it is.”
“Why is that important?”
“Because tire upgrades are one of the most common changes a truck owner wants to make. If you go to a larger tire without changing the differential gears, you’re going to have a power loss. You hit a deep trough of mud-well, you’re just going to sit there because the truck is underpowered. And that can burn up the engine as well as the transmission.”
“That explains why so many guys complain about poor performance after they’ve installed larger tires,” I say.
“You bet. But there’s something else as well. With some guys, after you explain that all this gear work can cost a couple of thousand dollars, they tell me, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that. I just want the tires.’ And I’ll say, ‘You can do it, but you’re not going to go anywhere.'”
A Different Beast
Diehl pauses, swivels in his chair for moment, and then gets back to business. “Okay, mail order. It’s a completely different beast than retail. Many mail-order shops have staffs of professional salesmen whose whole job in life is to upgrade you. These guys are all on commission, so they’re motivated to sell you more expensive components. You may call about a set of shock absorbers that cost $128, but get pressured to move up to another set of shocks that cost $240 a set. Granted, these are probably much better shocks, but you may not really need them. What you need to do here is explain the application. If they insist that you need the more expensive shock, call another store. Otherwise, wham-bam, they’ve got you.
“If a mail-order firm doesn’t have an 800 line, don’t call ’em. Why should you call on your own dime? There’s enough of us out there that are more than willing to pay for your phone call. Technical advice is very important, and a mail-order house should provide it at no cost to you. If you’re asked to hang up and call another (toll) number for technical advice, beware. Why should you have to make another call-at your expense-tto get this information? And after you get your information, how are you supposed to place your order? You’re gonna hang up and call the guy right back on another number? No. But that’s how some companies do business.”
Diehl acknowledges that shipping and handling charges are a sore point with customers. “I know that consumers get really upset about shipping and handling charges. But let me tell you: I have to pay someone to put product on the shelf. I have to pay for the shelf space that a product sits on. I have to pay someone to pull product off the shelf. I have to pay someone to package it in a box. I have to pay for that box, and I have to pay for that box to get out the door.
“There’s no way around it-the cost of freight gets passed on to the consumer. Now, when you see free freight-let me tell you, you’re paying for it. Shipping and handling can be built into the cost of the part, or it can appear as shipping and handling charges. Either way, it’s there, and you pay for it. In fact, there are some companies that make their profit off shipping and handling. They’ll advertise really low prices and then nail you with high freight charges. So, find out exactly what you’ll be charged for freight.
“Ask if they’re selling factory seconds. I get so tired of this. Many big companies buy up all the factory seconds. There’s nothing wrong with this-as long as you’re told it’s a factory second. But many times you aren’t. Typically, factory seconds have some blemish or flaw that you’ll never see, and the part may work just fine. But, a factory second is often sold ‘as is,’ which means it doesn’t have a warranty. If the part fails, you’re left out in the cold. Now, a lot of people don’t mind buying factory seconds-as long as they’re told what they’re buying. The logic here is ‘if it’s a deal and I can save $20, fine.’ “
The Power of the Package
Diehl sits back in his chair, but then bolts upright. “One other thing,” he says. “One of the best ways to save money is to put together a package deal. After you verify all the part numbers, you can say, ‘Tell you what, so I get this front bumper, this rear bumper, and this 5,000-pound winch. What’s my best deal?’ If you’ve done your homework, you can make a killing here; they’ll offer a deep discount to the guy who is going to spend a lot of money.
“Buying everything you want at one time saves you money-even if it means spending more at the time. You’ll not only get a discount for volume, but you’ll spend less on shipping if the order can be boxed together and shipped out as a single unit. At any rate, buying parts piecemeal can cost you a fortune in shipping. To save your money, go to package and do a one-time deal.”
“Anything else?” I ask.
“Yes,” Diehl says. “If you buy retail, you’ll pay retail prices; if you buy mail order, you’ll pay mail-order prices. But a store that is both retail and mail order, like us, can save you plenty. Our retail prices are going to be lower because we get wholesale volume discounts, and because our retail is so strong we can afford to lower our mail-order prices. Your guys save either way.”