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Let's Avoid "Weapons of Self Destruction"

For the RV industry, failing to understand the post-recession consumer would be a big mistake.  We'd like to share some advice on understanding the post-recession consumer and the trends that define them so that we don't self-destruct.

Gaining that understanding begins before the recession when home values were high, credit was plentiful and investments were booming.  It was common for consumers to spend freely on luxury goods, prestige brands, high-end technology, exotic travel experiences and second homes.  It brings to mind the marketing mantra -- "Whoever has the most toys wins."  In pre-recession times, many Americans would pay dearly to show they were affluent and successful.

In the RV market, this was seen in the dominance of larger units with all the bells and whistles, including kitchens worthy of an Iron Chef, over-the-top luxury touches, and electronics galore.

While the recession hasn't stopped cold the demand for such amenities, it has slowed the buying binge, bringing customers with a new mindset to RV dealerships.  For many consumers, the recession has also changed "shop till you drop" to "don't shop."  This means that shoppers will be more cautious and conservative about their RV investment.

Fortunately, the innate value of the RV travel experience and the versatility of our products mean that our industry can readily adapt to this new breed of careful shoppers — if we take time to understand them and respond to their needs.

According to the latest market research, post-recession consumers will be affected by these five new trends:

Simplicity. Consumers have had a lot to worry about over the past couple of years — investment and income losses, credit card debt, job fears — and they want to simplify their lives, reduce stress and have more time for themselves and their families.

They're cutting back on eating in restaurants, reducing air travel, and they're doing without luxuries like spa and salon services, instead focusing on simple family pleasures like board games and picnics.

These consumers are ripe for the message that RVs simplify travel by putting them in control.  RVers go where they want, when they want...in their own home on wheels. No hassles — RVing is the family-friendly way to travel affordably, eat home-cooked favorites on the road, and enjoy the stress-busting effects of the outdoors.

These buyers will also be attracted by product lines that offer comfort, durability and quality, but not necessarily all the extras emphasized in pre-recession product development.  Experts advise that offering diverse product lines with multiple price points is the key to market recovery in these times of frugality.

Discretionary Thrift. In our current state, even those with good incomes and significant wealth are economizing — even if they don't have to.

Disillusioned with excessive consumption, these consumers are seeking value without paying big name premiums.  They are looking for savings at every opportunity.  The recession has made this kind of thrift fashionable — and parents want to pass this habit on to a generation raised on instant gratification.

RVs can be a good fit for this emerging consumer behavior.  An RV is an investment with long-lasting returns — not only in financial savings over other types of travel, but in memories that can't be valued in dollars.  These are the RV value messages your sales and marketing staff should be communicating — on your websites, in your sales brochures, on your lots.

For today's thrift-oriented buyers, fuel economy is also paramount.  The industry trend toward lighter-weight, more fuel-efficient products must continue in order to attract the buyers of today and tomorrow.

Mercurial Consumption. Before the recession, consumers were moving quickly from product to product to keep up with the Joneses and find "the next big thing."  This mercurial consumption still happens, but now saving money is a primary motive.

For example, when the recession hit, many coffee drinkers quickly replaced their Starbucks habit with a daily fix at Dunkin Donuts, McCafe or even 7-11.

As reported by USA Today, in the travel and tourism industry, there were mercurial shifts to camping last summer.  As cost-conscious families looked for options to replace their expensive pre-recession vacations, camping became an attractive alternative, even to those who hadn't tried it.

How do we make sure these new campers become confirmed RVers? Dealers, campgrounds and manufacturers should work together to create displays at campgrounds, dealerships or outdoor recreation shows to make sure campers know that RV camping is an ideal vacation alternative for the times, and for the future.

By now it may be apparent that these post-recession trends present opportunities to bring new people into the market that may not have considered RVing in the past.

But as these new buyers arrive, market research indicates we may find them fickle and harder to please than repeat buyers loyal to the lifestyle.  Should these new consumers experience problems with quality or service, they may go back to other options, or just stay home — after sharing their bad experience on the worldwide web.

Instantaneous Influence.
That leads us to our fourth trend: Instantaneous Influence.  The rise of social media has accelerated the potential for customer dissatisfaction, because now word of mouth is immediate and global.  This can work for us or against the RV industry.

If companies take the time to create their own Facebook, Twitter or MySpace pages, or encourage their customers to become Go RVing Facebook fans, they can turn their satisfied buyers into online ambassadors.

But social media isn't enough.  In today's business environment, it's more important than ever to treat the customer right and make products that don't disappoint.  Individual brands will almost certainly get just one shot to wow a new customer.  A bad experience may leave a sour taste forever.

Living Green. Our fifth and final consumer trend: Living Green.  In recent years, consumers have shown a rising interest in going green. They're recycling more, avoiding waste, conserving resources — and even spending a little more for products they perceive to be eco-friendly.  While the recession slowed this down, it's not going away.

For example, some companies that track car-buying habits suggest there's a landmark cultural shift underway leading to the rise of products like Zipcar hourly rentals and Smartcars.  These researchers have observed people questioning auto purchases like never before.  They are delaying their first car purchase, cutting back to one car instead of two or even three, or even riding bicycles.

Their reasons?  They want to save money and be more green.  Carmakers fear that these buyers, while extreme in their behaviors, may not return and may inspire others to follow suit.

What must our industry do to keep such a damaging cultural shift from ever happening to RVs? Manufacturers should be commended for their progress in making RVs more eco-friendly, but must continue to strengthen product lines that offer fuel-efficient, environmentally engineered units.  We must educate consumers to understand that research shows that RV travel actually conserves resources and impacts the environment less than flying, driving and staying in hotels.  Our future is Living Green.

As we look closely at these five emerging trends, it's clear that RVs can be the perfect vacation vehicle for the post-recession consumer.  We offer a simple, traditional, family-friendly outdoor experience at a cost far less than the competition.  And we can do it in a way that's friendlier to the environment.

Responding to these consumer trends in product development and marketing efforts will keep the RV industry from becoming the victim of Weapons of Self Destruction.

By: B.J. Thompson, RVIA Public Relations Committee Chairman and Gary LaBella, RVIA Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer
Thompson and LaBella, authors of this article, initially presented this paper on Dec. 1, 2009 at "Outlook 2010: Let the Sun Shine" at RVIA's National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky.

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