Conversion Vans, from Wanderluster to Utility Use

Welcome back to Conversion Vans! We know, we know, you’re thinking “Really…what else can they have to say about hippies living in a van?” Well, a lot actually. But we’ll settle for simply wrapping up this three-parter with some quick predictions about where the segment is heading.

If you’re just joining us, check out Part 1 where we discussed how conversions vans have really stepped up their game, as well as the unique new audience they’re attracting. And then take a peek at Part 2 where we explore some of the easy ways you can capitalize on this changing segment. Now we’re back to see just what the automakers have in store for the future of conversion vans.

So…Where to?

There will always be a part of the population that just can’t quench its wanderlust. But it’s safe to assume the #vanlife craze will eventually peter out, distilling into a community of true informed enthusiasts. However, that doesn’t mean that the popularity of conversion vans is in danger of dwindling as well.

As we mentioned in our previous pieces, those plucky kids choosing to live out of their vans make up a very small (yet incredibly media-savvy) percentage of the sales data. The majority of conversion van sales is still dominated by big cable companies and small trade businesses. And while the end of 2017 saw a slight dip in commercial van sales, overall the segment is showing strong growth. Even with the pack-leading Ford Transit showing an 11.1% drop in 2017, it was still the model’s second-best year since its debut in 2014, according to GoodCarBadCar.net statistics.

The head of RAM Truck brand marketing, David Sowers, said in an online interview from 2016, that “pent-up demand [built during the Great Recession] is being met, and there’s growth in small businesses since 2009 that’s also driving sales.” Before, customers had to rely on aging work vehicles because budgets were tight. Now, they’re ready to upgrade.

Aftermarket Gets In on the Game

The automakers are standing at-the-ready with some solid offerings, and aftermarket manufacturers like Penda are perfecting their product lines. “We have full coverage for the Ford Transit now,” said Don Johnston of Pendaform. “The wall liners are made of heavy duty material. Tradesmen really like this product and find it superior to anything else on the market. The wall liners come pre-drilled for shelving and feature quick and easy installation. Plus we now have insulation behind the wall liners, which cuts down on road noise and assists in temperature control,” he added.

The floors, which come in two pieces and are made of the same skid-resistant bedliner material, also complement the wall liners, so tradesmen can add whatever shelving they need. “These products are fully compatible with any racking or shelving units on the market today. We’re releasing wheel well liners—currently not offered by the factory—and we’ll be launching a ceiling product as well,” he added.

Tomorrowland

It’s evident these conversion vans present a ton of opportunities for small businesses and utility companies. The dawn of the electric/autonomous age is steadily creeping on the horizon, and car makers—specifically Mercedes-Benz—envision the light commercial van to be the superstar of this boom.

Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, announced last December, that the German automaker has big plans for its 2019 Sprinter. “The completely reconceptualized Sprinter will be a unique, holistic transport solution. A completely networked van as part of the ‘internet of things’ where we have already written connectivity into the vehicle’s DNA.”

That state-of-the-art networking will be made possible by the vehicle’s MBUX infotainment system. It monitors things like fuel and maintenance, and offers GPS and remote vehicle tracking. It even has a digital assistant who, according to Motor Authority, “understands natural-language requests like, ‘I’m cold’ or ‘The gas tank is empty.’” And that’s not even including the progressive technology that will be applied to safety and driving aids, or the wholly electrified model, also set to land in 2019.

“We are unlocking a new dimension in terms of efficiency, flexibility, connectivity, and profitability for our customers,” continued Mornhinweg. And you can bet that if Mercedes is putting this much stock into the autonomous future of commercial conversion vans, their competitors have their own plans too.

Bring It

Creative upfittings, cargo solutions, and regular vehicle maintenance have all been familiar challenges within the conversion van segment. And while these tech-loaded leviathans might be more than some aftermarket professionals bargained for, it would be wise to remember ol’ Annie Oakley’s jingle of “Anything you can do, I can do better.” Because the aftermarket has proven time and again that anything the automakers do can always be improved upon.

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