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A Trade Show That Gets to the Part of the Matter

The trends in 'aftermarket' equipment and other car-related items often start at the annual Specialty Equipment Market Assn. expo.

November 19, 1998|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — The verdict is in. Custom wheels remain at the top of the gotta-have-it list for automotive buffs, with brightly colored finishes and oversize measurements setting the style trend for 1999.

Close behind and as tightly linked as bread to butter are tires: in ever-increasing widths; with narrower side walls; and, from one major manufacturer, with colored bands of red, yellow or electric blue molded into the treads.

But popular as they may be, tires and wheels don't make up the entire catalog of parts and equipment that will jump-start the adrenal glands of car or truck enthusiasts this holiday season.

Think leather upholstery, high-performance shock absorbers, exotic wood trim kits for the dashboard, even practical items such as inflatable jacks and fitted storage bins for the cargo areas of sport-utility vehicles and minivans.

Nothing makes the enormous variety clearer than the annual car-stuff extravaganza put on in this desert town each November by the Specialty Equipment Market Assn. What's more, the SEMA show sets the retailing trends for automotive aftermarket products for the coming year.

"It is a really important place for us to get feedback from the rest of the industry and to gauge reaction to our new designs," says Jessie Korosec, a marketing specialist at Enkei International Inc., a Michigan-based manufacturer of custom wheels.

The company mounted a sizable display at the show this year, with a particular aim to capture the interest of wholesale buyers from Southern California--the nation's single biggest market for custom wheels.

The Diamond Bar-based trade group represents 3,400 auto-equipment makers, retailers and service providers from around the globe.

SEMA's reason for being is the promotion of neat stuff to make cars and trucks look, sound and perform better than they did when they rolled off the factory floor.

This year that stuff filled 2.2 million square feet of show space. There were 1,200 exhibitors crammed into the sprawling Las Vegas Convention Center, and at the last minute the show organizers set up a huge temporary structure in the parking lot to hold 100 more exhibitors who clamored to get in. More than 70,000 people attended the show, which is not open to the public.

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Much of what is displayed at SEMA is evolutionary, but there are always items there that are so new they won't be hitting retailers' shelves for several months.

The show highlights trends. And knowing those trends can make the savvy shopper a big star when the wrapping paper comes off:

* One of the items that drew most attention in the new-products arena was the air jack, an inflatable jack from Fresno-based Multi-Lift Inc. that can lift up to 5,000 pounds. The air jack weighs just under 10 pounds and is less than 4 inches tall when deflated; it expands to 12 1/2 inches when pumped up by a compressor that plugs into the vehicle's cigarette lighter battery. It uses a flexible bellows for lift, so it remains stable on uneven or loose surfaces.

The company is still signing up retailers. It says the jack--which comes alone or in any of a variety of kits that add an inflater, extra "riser pads" to give more lift and even an electric impact wrench to make wheel removal easy--should be at major auto-parts chains by the middle of December.

* On-board entertainment systems, usually in the form of small television screens and videocassette players installed in center consoles, have been popular with minivan and sport-utility owners. But because the systems are built-in and require some space, they haven't been readily adaptable to passenger cars. And some would-be owners are put off by the fact that the systems are in most cases permanently attached to the vehicle, meaning they go when it's time to buy a new car or truck.

* Several companies are now offering self-contained systems that come in removable consoles. And one firm, Meritt Electronics of Pismo Beach, Calif., has now put an entire system into a soft pack that straps in between the front seats and jacks into the cigarette lighter/voltage port. Meritt's Original Video & TV Traveler can be moved from one vehicle to another; it can be unplugged from the car and carried into the hotel room or camping tent to provide video entertainment when the driving day's driving is done.

Meritt is arranging distribution and says it will be several months before the systems are available through retailers. Meantime, information, including pricing, can be obtained on the company's World Wide Web site, at http://www.videotraveler.com.

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