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Things are looking up with the economy as two big-ticket sales items — cars and homes — have rebounded this fall. It also bodes well for mobile electronics retailers who, along with the rest of the retail community, may see a healthy holiday selling season both in stores and online.

Autos were driven off lots at the highest sales rate in four years, according to the research firm Autodata. Overall, a total of 1.19 million cars, trucks and SUVs were sold in the U.S. during September, a 13 percent jump from a year ago. Japanese and German manufacturers led the way.

Boosting car sales were several factors: consumers who needed to replace aging vehicles, an influx of fuel-efficient cars now on the market, and cheaper loans.

GM, the largest U.S. automaker, said sales of its mini, small and compact cars almost doubled during September. Ford's small car sales rose about 73 percent. Chrysler said its September sales increased roughly 12 percent from the year-ago period. The company said it sold 142,000 vehicles, and each of its brands had gains, led by an 18 percent increase at Dodge largely because of the introduction of the Dodge Dart. Volkswagen said it sold 48,000 Volkswagen and Audi brand vehicles in September, a 32.4 percent increase from a year ago.

The nation enjoyed another year-over-year surge in home prices (9.5 percent) in August — a sign that the housing industry, too, is making a comeback. The National Association of Realtors forecasts U.S. existing-home sales to rise about 9 percent this year.

Both key trends reflect rising consumer confidence in the economy, a reassuring sign heading into the all-important fourth quarter.

Even with political uncertainty and fiscal challenges, the holiday season looks promising with a projected 4.1 percent increase to $586.1 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.  

According to the NRF, it’s the most optimistic forecast the association has released since the recession.

“In spite of the uncertainties that exist in our economy and among consumers, we believe we’ll see solid holiday sales growth this year,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Variables including an upcoming presidential election, confusion surrounding the ‘fiscal cliff’ and concern relating to future economic growth could all combine to affect consumers’ spending plans, but overall we are optimistic that retailers promotions will hit the right chord with holiday shoppers.”

For the first time in its history, Shop.org just released its 2012 online holiday sales forecast, expecting sales to grow 12 percent over last holiday season to as much as $96 billion. Shop.org defines the holiday season as sales in the months of November and December.

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Right around the corner is National Teen Driver Safety Week. Held October 14-20, it focuses on tomorrow’s drivers — a group that represents some of the highest-risk motorists on the road.

Car crashes, according to Toyota’s Collaborative Safety Research Center (CSRC) based in Ann Arbor, Mich., are the No. 1 cause of teenage deaths every year. In-car distractions can only increase that number even more.

Take into account modern hazards like smartphones and texting and it’s no wonder that companies like Toyota, Ford and Bridgestone are all stepping up with initiatives to make sure younger drivers stay safe. Aftermarket companies are also upping their efforts to combat driver distraction with products that can keep motorists focused.

Toyota has now teamed up with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) to conduct a study of 5,600 teens and adults. Results will be released as soon as data has been processed. The study is looking at teen attitudes toward risks like texting and driving in an effort to identify effective recommendations to keep teen drivers safe. Also under the microscope are risk factors that get less attention, but sometimes pose even greater threats to young drivers. 

The survey includes newly licensed drivers between ages 16 to 18 and parents of drivers in the same age group. It also will feature a sample of teens and parents from the same household, making it one of the first studies to examine teen and parent driving behaviors in the same family, as well as examine the role that parents, peer behavior and cognitive development play in driving behaviors.

Beyond national findings, the study will include results from several metropolitan areas across the country, including Chicago, Houston, Long Island, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

For it’s part, Ford teamed up with Variety, the entertainment industry trade publication, to encourage safe driving at the annual Power of Youth event in Los Angeles this month, which honors the charity work of young actors such as The Jonas Brothers, Sarah Hyland, Diego Boneta, Jordin Sparks, and others. The Ford Driving Skills for Life (DSFL), a comprehensive driving skills program now in its ninth year, was on the set of Paramount Pictures Studios at the event to take hundreds of teens through a driver distraction course and provide safe driving tips from professional drivers.

Ford also held demonstrations of its MyKey technology, which the company calls an industry first, designed to help new drivers develop safe driving habits. Parents can program the “Do Not Disturb” function that blocks incoming calls and texts while the “No Belt, No Tunes” feature silences the stereo system until front occupants buckle up.

The company’s presence at the event was representative of Ford’s commitment to elevating the importance of driving safety among the newest and youngest drivers on the road.

One of the newest teen driver safety programs kicked off earlier this month by Bridgestone Americas. The Bridgestone Teens Drive Smart Driving Experience is a free, half-day program designed to equip teens and young adults — ages 15 to 21 —with the skills to handle the challenges of today's roadways. Sessions combine classroom instruction with hands-on driving exercises to teach defensive driving skills and reinforce smart decision-making on the road. The event just wrapped up in San Francisco and is now headed to Houston on October 6-7; Phoenix on October 20-21; and Nashville, Tenn. on November 3-4.

For their part, aftermarket companies are also developing products. Scosche has its cellControl, introduced earlier this year at CES, which disables the use of unsafe cell phone applications while driving. Bluetooth signaling blocks drivers from being able to text message, email, or make phone calls. The system, with an MSRP of $130, activates automatically when the vehicle is in motion to create a safe driving environment for everyone on the road.

Parking assist systems are another area of growth for the mobile electronics industry. Alpine’s new back-up sensor systems include the entry-level HCE-C104 rear view camera (MSRP $99.95) to the HCE-C305R ($499.95) ActiveView rear camera system, which detects moving objects behind the vehicle by giving both audible and visual warnings.

The company’s VPX-B104R VPASS (Visual Parking Assist Sensor System) with MSRP of $249.95 mounts to a rear bumper and has four ultrasonic reverse sensors. When used with an Alpine camera system (like the one mentioned above), the VPASS system helps drivers back into a parking space. The system gives both audible and visual warnings for total peace of mind for the driver.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2012 -- By Jaime Sorcher

For those in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, there hasn't been much of a winter, and many in the remote start business are already looking ahead to spring.

According to the Northeast Regional Climate Center based at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., this is one of the warmest, least snowy winters on record. The combination of winter's prevailing storm path with warmer temperatures has meant little or no snowfall. For those who live up and down the East Coast, it's quite a change from last year.

At Soundcraft Car Stereo in Waterford, Conn., the Christmas pre-sales of remote start were not what was expected or hoped for, according to manager Josh Brunelle. "We haven't had any real snow. Usually by this time of year, we would be doing three remote starts per installer a day. But this year's winter is the exact opposite of what we had last year. We only had that one major snowstorm earlier [October] in the year."

The winter of 2010-2011 had blizzards that pummeled the Northeast dumping a total of 56 inches on New York City alone by the end of January, while Boston had tallied 40 inches. In fact, a year ago three winter storms qualified as Category 3 (Category 5 is the most extreme), which means at least 10 inches of snow has to fall. Other factors include the area impacted and the population of that area.

With temperatures hitting 60 degrees several times already this winter, folks are doing just fine without warming up their cars in the morning.

Gene Avras, owner of Precision Sound in Dedham, Mass., thinks the "season" may be lost. "Weather is definitely a good push and this year the weather we have has not been a help. Winter never started here, so people are thinking about spring now," he says. "They're not thinking about remote start."

Just as the weather dictates slower remote start sales, some retailers are taking the hint and readying for a possible early Spring.

According to Mike Molchan, owner of MM Innovations in Allentown, Pa., things have been quiet on the remote start front with weather a definite factor. "Any time it gets real cold, there's a surge in business," he says. "Christmas was slower this year, but now people are already looking for warmer weather, so what we're seeing is our car audio business picking up."

And with Spring comes another set of issues, unrelated to weather, commented Avras. "There's the price factor, too," he says. "With new vehicles, the automakers are making it more complicated. What used to be an 8-bit encryption is now a 120-bit encryption. Now the price of labor goes up and so does the cost of the components."

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