For those like me who live in Las Vegas, the annual ritual of the AAPEX and SEMA shows is probably taken a little more for granted than in other parts of the country. We get used to the throngs of people who regularly visit our convention-oriented city. But the AAPEX and SEMA shows are not only two of the largest conventions of the year for Vegas, they are the pinnacle events of the industry that we make our living in. This is as good as it gets for the automotive aftermarket.
The first formerly named "ASIA show" I ever attended was in Chicago at the McCormick Place Convention Center in 1981. A couple of us drove there from just outside of Minneapolis. The following year, it was held in Las Vegas. I'll never forget those first couple of shows I attended and how awe-struck I was at nearly everything I saw.
In those days, import vehicles were a very small part of the market. I don't recall there being a single booth that was import related. The "Big Three" (Chrysler, Ford and General Motors) were still enjoying their healthy grip on new-car sales. Honda, which was a respected name in motorcycles (but not cars, at the time), was certainly not threatening to any major automobile manufacturer, nor creating any problems for the traditional aftermarket. I guess many of us would say that life was easier back in those "good ol' days."
The annual aftermarket shows of that era were dominated by names of companies we had known and respected for years. BorgWarner, Champion, Echlin, Federal-Mogul, Raybestos, Standard Motor Products, Timken, Wagner and Walker were just a few of the big names. You could count on seeing mammoth displays of each of their products. Today, you can still find most of those, but many of them are now part of huge conglomerates, whose names you would not recognize as easily. In some cases, the big got bigger and others just faded away.
One thing you didn't find anywhere on the show floor 20 years ago was an entire section dedicated to offering replacement parts from all over the world. Anyone walking through the lower level of the Sands Convention Center during the show last Fall would clearly discover parts from every corner of the globe. This is the area where import specialists like me spend a great deal of time over the show's four-day run.
In today's global economy, no one is surprised to find the words "Made In India" or "Made In China" on the box of any popular and respected manufacturer's product. Almost everyone accepts the reality of today's global market place and how it has expanded worldwide manufacturing and the acceptance of products, regardless of where they're made. Things have changed so dramatically, that not only do we trust these products, we rely on the cost savings that are a benefit of international trade. There are many installers who will no longer accept a premium brake rotor in favor of an "economy" model if it's available for the application he's servicing.
The expansion of off-shore manufacturing has increased interest from all areas and brands of manufacturers. When that took place, everyone in the aftermarket got involved. It's not just import specialists walking through the trade show aisles of the overseas marketing contingencies anymore.
For many years, the success of our business depended on the supply relationships we had developed entirely on our own. If we did not import directly, we were dependent on finding someone who did. And we wouldn't stand a chance of keeping our shelves full of import parts by calling up a big-name manufacturer in this country.
Suddenly, everyone is thinking imports, especially our domestic friends. Many were surprised when GPI acquired WorldPac, so it was less of a surprise when Advance Auto Parts purchased Autopart International. Who will be the next major domestic aftermarket player to acquire a company with an import specialist background? Time will tell.
As for seasoned import specialists, you'll find us wandering around many of the same trade-show booths we've been working for years. Don't get me wrong, we love the glitter and glitz of the SEMA show as much as anyone. We have a real sense of pride about the way imports have influenced that side of the industry. The "tuner" market is growing every year and so are the many manufacturers offering products to supply this market. But, we feel right at home in "the basement" of the Sands Convention Center, rubbing elbows with the off-shore folks that have helped keep us in business. "Made In Wherever" has never been as important to us as "Made Us Profitable!"
Come on down to the lower level of the Sands Expo Center the next chance you get to visit the show. There is a lot to discover and a lot to learn.
Editor's Note: The 2006 AAPEX and SEMA shows will be held in Las Vegas from Oct. 31 through Nov. 3. Visit www.aaiwshow.com or see the ad on page 27 for more information.
Gary is the vice president of import specialist Meyer's Auto Parts in Las Vegas, NV. He also coordinates the activities and communications for a group of thirty import specialists from across the country called S.I.P.S., Society of Import Parts Specialists.