Lights, Car, Action


Panzarella's idea germinated when he was working as a repo man in Florida. He repossessed a car that had a neon tube attached to its undercarriage. Curious about what a neon light was doing there, he learned the car was a custom show vehicle that was often on display. The neon light was turned on to highlight the car and give it an extra dose visual appeal.

Panzarella thought this was a great idea that could be applied to ordinary cars. The only problem: The light ran off a big transformer that had to be plugged into an electrical outlet. Panzarella, a diehard car enthusiast, knew he'd have a great product if he could just figure out how to build a transformer that could run off the car battery.

Eventually, he developed a new transformer, moved back home to New Jersey, and started his sales campaign by driving around at night in a car equipped with Undercar Neon. "People would stop me all the time and ask where they could get the product. It was hot," he recalls. "Police [officers], who tend to be car enthusiasts, especially liked it, and they stopped me all the time to ask where they could buy their own."

Building off that customer enthusiasm, Panzarella started building a network of car stereo distributors and dealers who sold his product, which he packaged in a do-it-yourself kit. He also picked up two big mail order accounts: Crutchfield, which specializes in car stereo equipment, and J.C. Whitney, a catalog supplier of auto parts and accessories.

For a while, Panzarella concentrated on adding new products, including neon lights for license plates, neon gear shifts and neon accent tubes to install under a car's dash or seat. Once he'd created his line of products, he wanted to attract attention, so he launched an event marketing program.

Panzarella decided to capitalize on Sound-Off competitions--contests to see whose car has the best stereo system--by introducing Glow-Off competitions (not affiliated with Sound-Off), where people bring their neon-lit cars to contests and vie for awards. The biggest Glow-Off, sponsored by a large auto accessory dealer, Number One Parts Inc., is held every September at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, attracting thousands of people. Events like Sound-Offs and Glow-Offs are the type of big attractions that build customer awareness and keep a product's sales growing.

In 1998, Panzarella decided the in-line skate market was ripe for his neon lights. People skating at night want to be seen, and safety is a prime concern of the thousands of in-line skate clubs that often sponsor night skating sessions. Once Panzarella ironed out the details of producing a neon light that ran on batteries, he was ready to take on the market. His ultimate goal was to sell to big retailers like The Sports Authority, Sportmart and Big 5 Sporting Goods. But Panzarella didn't want to just put the product in stores; he wanted to create the same drama and excitement he had with Undercar Neon.

He started by locating distributors that sold to roller rinks. Why? Panzarella wanted to create a "buzz" in the market, and this way, the visual appeal of a hot skater with neon lights could be seen by hundreds of prime prospects. Next, he got the endorsement of Scott Olson, inventor of the original Rollerblade in-line skate, who felt Sports-Neon had great safety features.

Just months after its introduction, Sport-Neon's distributor sales were way over projections. With the market buzzing, support from the father of the in-line skate industry, and high demand from consumers, Panzarella was talking to all the big retail chains and lining up sales agreements. By waiting until he created excitement in the market before approaching retailers, Panzarella gained negotiating leverage. The proven consumer demand should produce immediate sales once stores stock Sport-Neon.

In order to succeed, your product has to give customers a compelling reason to buy. Maybe the product has a better design than the competition's, is a better value, works more effectively, or has more features to help customers meet their goals. All these improvements require you visual communication of how and why your product is better.

Products with dramatic visual flair are easier to sell because people immediately notice them. In many cases, in fact, eye-catching appeal is the main reason a product sells.

If you want to match Panzarella's success, look for product ideas that turn people's heads and get them saying "Wow!" Capture their attention, and you'll capture success of your own.

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This article was originally published in the February 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Lights, Car, Action.

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