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Cutting edge 12-volt retailers are welcoming the new category of name-brand OEM integration devices, but some say the products will be difficult to merchandise initially.
The new integration devices, first launched last year by Alpine and JL Audio, are being joined this year by devices from JBL, Kenwood, Panasonic and Rockford and by second-generation devices from Alpine and JL Audio.
Alpine admitted sales of its first OEM integration device last year “were disappointing,” but explained, “We have to recognize that this represents a significant change for the retailers both in merchandising strategy and their selling strategies, and we do not have the proper merchandising in the stores yet, and there is some reluctance to change,” according to marketing VP Steve Witt.
Some retailers are cheering the devices, which generally allow the connection of after-market products to OEM systems while leaving the OEM radio intact. Some of the devices connect amplifiers and speakers to an OEM system; some can add on iPods, MP3 players and satellite radio tuners. Some strip out all signal processing in the OEM system so the installer can start with a clean signal.
These OEM integration devices are considered the future of autosound, as 22.4 percent of the top 60 vehicles by 2008 will be inaccessible to traditional after-market products, according to Victory Technologies, Stoneham, Mass.
Audio Express, Scottsdale, Ariz., gives the category a thumbs up. Purchasing manager Paul Gosswiller said, “A year ago my attitude was as far as car audio was concerned, we need to do a better job. This is the better mousetrap that lets us do it. Now we can get into anything.”
Over the next 90 days, Audio Express will place OEM displays in its stores so that customers can see an OEM radio attached to Bluetooth and OEM integration devices.
“I would say within two years, it will be a very large part of our business,” Gosswiller said.
Others have the same high hopes for the future but are nervous about the present. Steve Medeiros, owner of Sound FX, West Warwick, R.I., says his installers and salespeople are still getting acquainted with the products. “We're pretty intelligent and we've been doing this a long time, but there's still a learning curve … and there's even a bigger learning curve for the customers.”
For example, he notes that while JL Audio's new CleanSweep and channel summing module CL-SSI should allow integration with any new vehicle, he is still a little unsteady when a new Mercedes SL rolls in.
Although the CleanSweep sums all the channels, “you have to make sure you have all the signals. The radio and the amplifier sometimes talk digitally, so there's no way to grab it from the radio.”
JL Audio marketing VP Manville Smith explains that the signal can be grabbed at the output of the OEM amplifier, if not from the radio. To help retailers adjust, JL Audio will activate a vehicle application database for integrating its CleanSweep into specific vehicles, Smith said.
“Nobody said this transition would be easy, but it is one that we must confront and embrace in order to be successful. It will require support from manufacturers and patience and perseverance from retailers,” Smith said.
Other retailer concerns include how much to charge for an installation that may take longer than anticipated and how to merchandise these products. What do you demonstrate and how?
Al & Ed's Autosound, Van Nuys, Calif., said it will start reducing the number of head units in its display board and replacing some of them with a “graphics panel” that shows an integration piece, said product manager John Haynes. “Our stores will have graphics and displays preaching OEM integration and showing the advantages of leaving the radio in place. We started doing it last year but there will be more dedicated space now to integration and also to Bluetooth and iPod integration. We see a day when a 12-volt store will have more selling vignettes than actual radios in the board.”
Some suppliers say the OEM integration devices require a return to old-fashioned car audio salesmanship. “Sales people used to have to demonstrate the difference between stereo and mono, or demonstrate that CD sounded better than cassette … Clerks aren't going to make it in car audio very long,” said JBL product marketing manager Andy Wehmeyer.
Medeiros explained the difficulty of finding a good, better, best selection to demonstrate. “Third-party devices may take a factory radio and convert a signal to a low level output for an amplifier. This device may cost only $29. A step-up level would be a preamp device that adds sound processing,” he said, noting that a demonstration of good, better, best solutions is complicated.
Suppliers say the complexity of the products could work in favor of 12-volt specialists as big-box retailers tend to shy away from installation intensive products when they first launch.
Many suppliers of the new devices said Best Buy and Circuit City will not carry their OEM integration products initially. Best Buy would not respond to repeated TWICE inquiries.
Kenwood car electronics VP Keith Lehman said, “The specialists are better poised to demonstrate these, just as they were years ago … It's an opportunity for the specialist to get a head start and become the experts at OEM integration.”
He noted, however, that the same could have been said for in-car navigation or mobile video in the past, so, eventually, these larger retailers will enter the segment.
Smith said that OEM integration “will create a powerful distinction between the autosound specialist and the mass retailers who won't be willing to address complex vehicle integration issues.” He added, “Let's all sell great audio again.”