Understanding how those “things” that your motorhome needs — or that you want — get from the supplier to you.
By Gary Bunzer
You’re sitting in your motorhome, and as you look around, you see many items in, on, and affixed to it. It probably has four propane appliances — a refrigerator, a cooktop, a furnace, and a water heater — along with a propane container, typically an ASME tank, to fuel those appliances. There’s a fresh-water demand pump somewhere, sucking water out of a plastic storage container and forcing it through the water distribution system to the faucets, the toilet, the shower, and ultimately into the waste holding tanks. You probably have an air conditioner or two (or more), a generator, a converter, and perhaps an inverter located somewhere on board. You likely have one or more slideouts. Of course, there are also windows and doors, a television antenna, roof vents, lamps, and many other pieces and parts. Okay, Doc, we get the idea. What’s your point?
Well, the point I’m trying to make is that even though the companies that build these coaches are called motorhome “manufacturers,” the factory doesn’t actually manufacture all of the components in, on, or affixed to the coach. The original equipment manufacturer (OEM), the maker of your motorhome, purchases many items from supplier manufacturers and installs them into and onto their brand of motorhome. Manufacturers typically buy the chassis, build the coach, run the wires, the plumbing, etc., and assemble all this into what we ultimately find on the dealer’s lot. The refrigerator may come from Dometic or Norcold, the water heater from Suburban or Atwood, etc. Individual suppliers are responsible for creating much of the equipment that the OEM installs in the motorhome.
There’s another segment of the RV supplier industry you may have heard me mention a time or two, especially if you’ve ever attended any of my seminars at an FMCA Family Reunion. I’ll often state, “Thank goodness for the aftermarket.” The RV aftermarket is the segment of the RV industry in which product manufacturers, inventors, and other creative types offer merchandise, parts, and pieces to anyone and everyone. In some cases, the dealer may have to order the equipment on your behalf, but it’s still available.
The aftermarket also is where you’ll find the “better mousetrap.” I’m not talking about an actual mousetrap, but a product that is oftentimes superior to the original part that came with your motorhome. Some motorhome builders (the OEMs) base their buying decisions on economics or availability, as opposed to quality and build value. This is also why price points at the retail level for similar products found in motorhomes vary — the better the product, the higher the price. It’s likely that better products will be found in more expensive coaches. This isn’t always true across the board, but it follows the methodology that’s been used since the modern era of RVing came about.
So, how did the manufacturer of your motorhome choose which products to put into the vehicle? The decision probably was based on several different methods. Bids may go out from the coach manufacturer to the product manufacturers to compete for a pricing structure based on how many “widgets” they may need at a given time. Likewise, product manufacturers may pitch their products directly to the OEMs, seeking favor by offering discounted prices, customer support, training, and other benefits. Sales reps and distributor reps also seek an audience with factory buyers to present their product lines.
The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) hosts the annual National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky, each fall. During this event, suppliers and manufacturers show off their wares, not only to each other but also to dealers, distributors, service shops, and others within the industry. Coach manufacturers also have a chance to see new products. The National RV Trade Show is not open to the public, so all the deals made in Louisville are on the wholesale side among suppliers, distributors, coach manufacturers, service facilities, accessory stores, and RV dealers.
In the RV aftermarket, the industry has traditionally used a two-step method of getting products from the originator to the buying public. The supplier manufacturer typically sells to a distributor, the distributor sells to a retailer (a dealer or accessory store), and the retailer sells to the consumer. Hmmm, maybe that’s three steps. At each step the selling segment realizes a profit. Obviously, the supplier manufacturer needs to make money in order to maintain production and to keep manufacturing new and current products. The distributor needs to make some money for storing and moving the goods, so the price is marked up a bit to the retailer. The retailer also needs to make a profit, so the price is marked up a little more, which is what the consumer pays.
This model isn’t such a bad deal. For one thing, the buying public has been conditioned to the process, and each segment performs certain functions at different levels to make the product available. But there’s a flaw I’ve realized in this retail model: some of the best products never get in front of the RVing public. Why? Let’s follow this scenario.
Someone comes up with a better mousetrap. (By the way, the RV industry is filled with brilliant inventors, tinkerers, and design engineers, many of whom are active RVers and have literally found a better way to enjoy the lifestyle.) The new widget is created, designed, vetted, and proven to enhance the RV lifestyle. So far, so good. After obtaining all the legal protection and business acumen necessary, the brilliant inventor approaches as many people and companies as possible in hopes of getting the new widget to market, since the inventor believes that the product is something folks will want and that it can make some money. In addition, the entrepreneur might rent a booth at a Family Reunion or take out a display ad in FMC magazine — anything to capture attention and create initial traction into the marketplace.
The distributor, however, may look at the product and decide it would be too difficult to sell to retail clients and therefore decline. Perhaps the cost is too high, or maybe the widget is just too radical or different. So, the cool new widget dies on the vine. Dozens and dozens of great products created by incredibly bright people never see the light of day. Or, if they do, it’s in a dim light at best.
Even if a distributor decides to carry the new widget and pitch it to retail clients, there’s no guarantee the retailer will opt to stock the store’s shelves with it. And the cool new widget has another chance to die a slow death.
At the same time, some creative suppliers try to pitch the new widget directly to individual coach manufacturers, hoping to convince these companies to buy it directly and install it on every RV that rolls down the assembly line. This tactic is usually far from lucrative as well. (Many hoops need to be jumped through just to get an initial appointment with the right person at the factory.)
The result is that, quite often, some amazing new products never get a chance to be seen by those who need them the most. That’s one reason I often seek out such products and introduce them periodically to readers of the “House Calls” column in Family Motor Coaching or on the RV Doctor Web site. It’s a shame that many good products languish in anonymity or receive only a cursory glance from distributors and OEMs, or meek exposure at a few local RV shows.
But with the Internet and the explosion of digital media, many supplier manufacturers are forgoing the traditional route and opting to create informative Web sites and sell directly to the RVing public. The good news is that there is truly no reason to have a great product fade into obscurity because of the lack of large capital backing, a shortsighted distributor, or a penny-pinching buyer at a coach manufacturing plant. Quality products — and I stress the importance of the word “quality” — now have a better chance of being brought to market, directly to the motorhome owner, and often at a lower price and at a larger profit margin (in some cases) for the supplier. Remember, there’s no distributor or retailer taking their piece of the pie in the business-to-consumer sales model.
This model does have some downsides. It takes just as much effort (probably more so) to go the direct route. A dedicated staff, refined production skills, creative marketing ideas, Internet and social media expertise, massive amounts of networking, and media exposure must be mastered and maximized before success becomes apparent. Supporters from outside the company, such as recognized endorsers and educators, are also needed. The ramp-up to market may take longer. But give credit to those who have eschewed the old methodology and embraced the new, because, thanks to them, all RVers have an opportunity to experience that shiny new widget after all.
Also, many suppliers who adopt this business-to-consumer strategy offer exemplary customer support after the sale, something that may be missing through the traditional method of marketing. This new strategy enables the supplier to create, nurture, and expand a personal relationship with their end-user customer without the middle people. This is especially crucial for small businesses, since it allows them to have a hand in their own destiny. I believe this is also important to the buying public. They have direct access to the actual supplier of the widget, thereby creating a longer personal relationship with the supplier. Plus, consumers usually have an opportunity to speak with a live human being rather than navigate through a maze of phone menus and messages with little hope of reconciling whatever issue they might have.
Of course, using this model, the supplier manufacturer has no excuse for poor performance of the widget or a blatant lack of concern, since coach owners, too, are becoming adept at using digital social media. Unhappy customers will broadcast their dissatisfaction quickly and overtly. This can be the death knell for suppliers not ready for this type of sales model. For many, though, it can be very successful. When designed and implemented correctly, it’s a realistic win-win for everyone.
Assertive motorhome owners also contribute to the success of these entrepreneurial supplier manufacturers. As mentioned, many participate on blogs and forums. Through these electronic information exchanges, folks talk about products new and old, good and not so good. Many RVers are very interested to discover what new widget is coming out next. This aspect of the RV lifestyle mandates an attitude of awareness that I often cite when I refer to those “serious RVers” — you know who you are — in my seminars and videos. It’s the proactive motorhome owner, performing due diligence and research, who often finds new and exciting aftermarket products. Don’t overlook the importance of your participation in exposing innovative and useful RV products to the masses.
I receive many e-mails from readers each year alerting me to new widgets. I appreciate your dedication in this arena. I research many new products and even install, test, and evaluate many I think may warrant an RV Doctor mention in an article, on the Web site, or in the “House Calls” column. So, keep your eyes peeled for that shiny new mousetrap and be sure to let me know what you think about it. And remember, RVing is more than a hobby; it’s a lifestyle.