LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE

Economic indicators: Sales of cars, trucks and ... tchotchkes?

Larry P. Vellequette covers Chrysler for Automotive News.Larry P. Vellequette covers Chrysler for Automotive News.
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Economists have long known that certain retail-level transactions -- such as the number of packages handled by UPS or FedEx -- are good indicators of the economy's overall strength or weakness.

But does the same hold true for branded automotive tchotchkes?

Last year, Chrysler Group's Mopar parts and service brand sold more than $50 million worth of licensed neon signs, pens, clothing, calendars, bar stools, clocks, tables and even remote-controlled toy trucks.

The 2012 sales were nearly triple the amount of similar branded goods Mopar sold in 2011 and included everything from a $2.50 toy metal car to a home garage storage cabinet system that cost $11,500.

In all, Mopar has developed more than 200 of such branded items that it now sells on the Internet but mainly at kiosks in dealer service areas.

Mopar's branded trinket sales pale in comparison with the merchandising juggernaut that is Jeep and the automaker's other brands, which together racked up $1.3 billion in merchandise sales last year, according to a Chrysler Group spokeswoman.

Yes, that's billion with a "b."

The biggest chunk of that dough comes from Jeep, which grabs consumers fresh from the womb with Jeep-labeled strollers and infant seats and holds them -- and their pets -- for life with a plethora of clothing, key chains, dog leashes and camping equipment.

I haven't found a Jeep-branded casket yet, but I'm sure there's one out there somewhere.

That kind of money makes it clear that there was more than one reason why Jeep was widely considered Chrysler's most valuable asset during bankruptcy proceedings.

Which brings me back to Mopar.

Unlike Jeep, Chrysler's parts and service brand doesn't have a natural fan base to sell to except as a common identity for all of Chrysler Group's brands -- "Ma Mopar," as the automaker is sometimes called.

That sales of Mopar's branded merchandise have climbed so fast is a testament that the Mopar brand itself is valued again by consumers. That this is happening less than four years after the automaker's very existence remained in doubt is no small thing.

But no matter what the brand is, if consumers are willing to spend their hard-earned money in the service line to buy a hat or a T-shirt or a penknife just because of what it says, that's something dealers need to notice.

It's an indicator, as economists say, that perceptions may be shifting.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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