Bajacycles/Official Acerbis Store: It's Personal

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Not every powersports store can boast of having a mental hospital as a neighbor. Nor can its owners affectionately refer to it as being in something of a Twilight Zone of commerce.

In fact, Bajacycles/Official Acerbis Store has just a few things working against it if location, location, location were everything. That is, until you step inside the tiny storefront along a busy San Diego, Calif. boulevard. Here you’ll meet owners Enrique Ayala, Silvia Ortiz and their son Enrique Ayala II, and get a gander at just what careful planning and a deft aesthetic can do to 1,500 sq. ft. of retail space.

Bajacycles is a boutique operation in the very expression of the word, a store that wouldn’t look out of place plopped down among like-minded businesses on a narrow European lane. Smartly decorated. Precisely merchandised. Compact and concise. Ayala and Ortiz’s PG&A-only store highlights its products in a high-minded style on par with any other boutique retail operation.

And why not? This is precisely the target the couple was aiming for when it opened the store three years ago.

It’s also the rule that governs the store’s operations. Products are remerchandised every 60 days or so to keep things looking fresh. Customers are treated with one-on-one service. Internet buyers always get a follow-up call from a live person. These same orders are gift-wrapped for free during the holidays. Refreshments and free copies of Cycle News are offered to customers lounging on the store’s sofa. This service comes right out of a playbook informed by Nordstrom, Mercedes Benz and other high-end retailers, Ayala says.

As for the store’s location — a short distance from the U.S.-Mexico border — that’s a matter of circumstance that reaches back to the dusty expanses of Baja California. An architect by trade and a race fanatic by passion, Ayala, 50, traces his retailing roots back to the same deserts he’s been racing in since he was a teenager. This same connection to those Baja races has served him well since, playing an integral part in the store’s success.


IT ALL STARTED IN THE DESERT

Ayala’s story starts in the desert. Back in 2001 he was manning a stop somewhere along the route of the SCORE San Felipe 250 when along came Jim O’Neal, founder of O’Neal Racing, who was participating in the race. Ayala and Ortiz helped O’Neal with a sandwich and some hot chocolate before sending him off. Later, the two of them met up again and over some Mexican tea (“What we call tequila,” Ayala says), became friends. Somewhat later, O’Neal asked Ayala if he wanted to be the O’Neal Racing rep in Mexico. After opening stores, using O’Neal as their anchor brand in Baja in Tijuana and Ensenada, and in mainland Mexico in Guadalajara, Ayala expanded his brands to include the Italian off-road products manufacturer Acerbis. In 2006, Acerbis approached him about being the official importer for the company’s line of riding apparel. The company had pulled out of the U.S. market in 2004, leaving only its line of off-road plastics and parts among a couple of the big distributors. Now it wanted back in.

As luck would have it, one year at Dealer Expo Ayala and Ortiz had won a trip to the EICMA show in Milan, courtesy of the Italian Trade Commission. It was in Europe, while visiting the small boutique motorcycle stores that are common there, that Ayala found the type of store he wanted to run. He like the personal attention and focus on product knowledge — something he felt was lacking in most large motorcycle shops here in the U.S.

“When I went to Europe, the first thing they always asked me was my name and introduced themselves,” he says. “They ask you what kind of riding you do, what motorcycle you have. They ask one or three good questions and they give you all the technical aspects and they never mention the price. Never. That’s when I said, we need to do something like this in the U.S.”

From his previous experience Ayala knew he had a lot of customers in their 30s, 40s and 50s who wanted better treatment than what they were already getting in most powersports stores. “They have the same concerns like me. They say, ‘Look, I just want to go and be treated like a human being, not like a number.’” Ayala says he believes that he and Ortiz have created a store that meets this need. “We know most of our clients by name,” he adds.

To create this boutique atmosphere, Ayala started from the ground up — literally. While his store was still an empty shell, he had a bunch of his friends bring their bikes inside to do 360s and burn outs to lay looping strips of rubber across the concrete, over which he applied a clear floor sealer. From there, he added modular displays built by Acerbis from the same material as the company’s marquee gas tanks. These can be used as shelves, tables and wall displays and really help to brand the store’s main product line. Ayala and Ortiz are sure to take advantage of every square inch of floor space.

The size of the store has allowed Ayala, Ortiz and their son to be experts not only on all the products they carry, but on the customers who shop there as well. To help with this, Bajacycle’s guestbook features some very detailed questions asking customers to list their sizes for jerseys, pants, boots, jackets, gloves and helmets. Customers can also include whether they ride motorcycles, ATVs or UTVs, including the make, model and year of the vehicle. And finally they can include any special product requests they might have.

By having this information — which is stored in a database — Ayala can specifically target his customers with new products given the details they have given him. For instance, Ayala has a lot of customers who wear what he calls “porno sizes,” or XXX. “If we have a new chest protector that comes in that size, we can contact our customers directly with this information,” he says.

The idea is to create a very personal shopping environment for Bajacycles’ customers, much like the method used by other retail stores. “We’re picking up different clues from different industries,” Ayala says. “We’re trying to get away from the [retail practices of the] motorcycle industry.”

THE HEART OF RACING
Given Ayala’s background, it’s no wonder that off-road racing figures so heavily in the store’s operations. Ayala and his family attend about a dozen races a year — sometimes representing only Acerbis, other times selling his other brands — where they park their Acerbis Italia rig and set up shop. In 2009, they not only attended all three Score International Baja races, but also WORCS series races in Arizona and California, the AMA District 37 Big 6 series and the Glen Helen National, to name a few.

This is all based on advice given by Jim O’Neal, who told Ayala, “Go to where the racers are.” He listened. When first scouting for races to attend in the U.S., he noticed that there were no vendors selling anything. There were companies with big rigs representing their products, but nobody was selling anything.

Attending the Baja races on a regular basis has allowed the store to build a customer base of people from Baja California and mainland Mexico, many of whom will call the store ahead of the races and order products. Being a regular fixture at the events has also earned the store many repeat customers. Ayala adds that being bilingual as well as bicultural gives him an edge in understanding not just the language, but how the different cultures work.

The race work is also a big revenue stream for the store, accounting for about 35 percent of the store’s overall sales. Working the races in the U.S. is usually a more casual affair than setting up for business next to tech inspection at the Baja events. “At Baja, there is no time for anything. We sell about $700 an hour,” Ayala says. “We work from six in the morning to about midnight.”

Going to the races allows Ayala and his family to personally interact with their customers in that friendly, communal- like environment endemic to races and racers. And it helps.

Ayala says that when they’re in Baja, they always help people for free who might need a new innertube or a tire inflated, with one condition: “We say, ‘I’m gonna give it to you, but where did you buy that tire?’ They say whatever other store and we say, ‘Next time you should buy it from us because if I see you again in the desert I’m not going to help you out,’” jokes Ayala. “That’s the way we tell them and it works. They laugh and say, ‘Monday, I’m going to be at your store.’”

When attending the races, the store is always sure to advertise and feature a promotional item available only during the event. Should it run out of the product, it will honor the sale price at the store for one week. Even online customers will get the deal — Ayala will ship the sale-priced product to the customer free of charge as if the buyer had bought it on the spot.

“Our biggest expense is going to the races,” Ayala explains, “but it’s offset by the sales that we make and the customers we get.”

Ayala has plans to expand his operation, which include in the short term moving to a new location in San Diego’s Little Italy area where he can pick up the region’s tourist and foreign traffic. In the long run, he’s hoping eventually to franchise the operation with an emphasis on casual wear and the same boutique-style customer service that’s at the core of his business.

When people go into Nordstrom and spend $1,000, they’re offered mineral water or coffee, and a nice place to rest, Ayala notes, adding that the Mercedes dealer will even pick up and drop off a service vehicle from a customer’s office. Why not do this in the motorcycle PG&A business where a customer can easily rack up a $500 ticket? Free parts drop-off for local customers. Why not? Ayala asks.

“Why not give them a little bit more,” he says. “A lot of businesspeople only see the numbers, but that is being nearsighted. You have to look at the long run.”

This story originally was published in the January 2010 issue of Dealernews