Dealers jumpstart the 2012 motorcycle-riding season

Publish Date: 
Apr 24, 2012
By Arlo Redwine

It’s an unseasonably warm Saturday in mid-March. Scott Poupard, owner of Monroe Motorsports in Monroe, Mich., is rarely absent from his store, but today he’s attending his daughter’s dance competition. March is a slow month, anyway.

Poupard’s cell phone rings. It’s an employee back at the store, which is being overrun with customers.

“Are we having an open house that you didn’t tell us about?” the tense employee asks. “There’s so much traffic in here — are we giving something away for free?”

Nope. People are just ready to ride.

Indeed, dealers nationwide are reporting earlier-than-usual spikes in sales and service due to warmer-than-usual weather. Industry statistics support their claims. But are these sales additional, or just early? Does the recovering economy have anything to do with it? And what about dealers who sell snowmobiles? For them, the mild winter was at best a double-edged sword.

Consider Bob Weaver Motorsports & Marine near Buffalo, N.Y., the nation’s “snow capital.” Owner Bob Weaver says he has more leftover snowmobiles than he’s had in 40 years because of light snowfall. But February motorcycle sales were up threefold compared to last year.

“We brought out the bikes and the bike clothing a month to two months early,” Weaver says. “We have been nonstop busy. I could hire more salespeople, more parts people, more service people. I just can’t find the help.”

Even Weaver’s sled sales were good until January, when people began to realize the white stuff wasn’t coming. Snowmobile sales nationwide through November were up year-over-year by about 25 percent, according to Minnesota-based research firm Power Products Marketing. So even with the brown winter, final sales numbers will be up slightly.

Weaver believes that strong pre-season sales were due to last year’s heavy snowfall. Similarly, this season’s disappointment will make next year difficult. “Nobody’s going to buy early,” he predicts. “They’re going to wait to see snow again.”

Lack of snow also hampered sled-related repair orders and PG&A sales. Poupard says he has about $100,000 in leftover snow clothing. He had doubled his order after running out of inventory last January. Across the lake in Wisconsin, local media report that snowmobile registrations were down nearly 40 percent, mostly due to closed trails.

But back to the good news. Harley-Davidson dealers reported a 30 percent year-over-year increase in bike sales through mid-February in a dealer survey conducted by the financial firm Baird and cited by the Journal Sentinel. Warm weather contributed to a 46 percent surge in Harley sales in the Midwest, the newspaper noted.

Tim Sherman, owner of Signature Harley-Davidson, a dealer in northwest Ohio, believes the rebounding economy is a factor. “We had a mild winter, but we started to notice the customers’ attitudes toward spending really improving last fall for the first time in three years,” he says. “And our holiday season followed right along.”

Signature returned to summer hours and seven-day weeks March 1, one month earlier than normal. “The guy who used to buy an extra jacket even though he didn’t need it — he’s back,” Sherman claims. “And people are replacing the bikes they had to sell when things got dicey three years ago. We’re talking to customers who tell us that.”

This increase in demand comes following a few years of falling OEM production numbers and a recent decline in repossessions. Because of this, used-motorcycle values increased roughly 4 percent in February, says Black Book’s Ricky Beggs, adding that used-sled values declined by about the same percentage. “There is usually an uptick this time of the year, but it started a little earlier this year and slightly stronger than the past couple of years,” he says.

Of course, the people who bought bikes in February and March may be the same ones who would have bought in April. “Motorcycle sales are up significantly for the timing, but I don’t know if they’ll be significantly up for the whole season. It’s too early to tell,” warns Johnna Diedrich, GM of Gieson Motorsports in Rock Falls, Ill.

But there’s also a major benefit simply to a spread-out motorcycle season, argues Joe Boise, owner of Cyclewise and Ducati Vermont in New Haven. “Sometimes in the spring we’re so backed up that you can’t get to everybody in sales or service,” he says. “So the early start will make it less demanding on the staff.”

Scott Poupard of Monroe Motorsports believes some of his winter bike customers were would-be snowmobilers. “The bike traffic I think is extra,” he says. “The same guys also ride ATVs; they also do snowmobiling. They want to spend their money on something.”

Joe Hengeveld, owner of Northland Motorsports in Flagstaff, Ariz., points out that a mild winter in his area still means temperatures in the 20s and 30s. So his store didn’t sell many streetbikes, but it did enjoy unusual dirtbike sales through early March because of light snow coverage.

The Motorcycle Industry Council predicts new-motorcycle sales will decline modestly this year after flat sales last year.

Perhaps less contentious is the idea that the mild winter will lead to more miles ridden. Several dealers report customers removing their bikes from winter storage, or requesting spring prepping, four to six weeks earlier than normal.

Both Parts Unlimited and Tucker Rocky say that motorcycle-related sales exceeded their forecasts for January and February, with Tucker specifying a double-digit increase compared to last year.

ADP Lightspeed’s ongoing “Same Store” survey of about 200 Harley-Davidson dealers and 1,000 metric dealers indicated that February revenue from parts, service and sales combined was up by about 12 and 13 percent, respectively, compared to the same month last year.

The ADP Lightspeed statistics for metric dealers take into account all vehicle types, so they likely would have been even better if ATV-related sales had been removed from the mix.

Or maybe not. Sales of four-wheel-drive ATVs may have bottomed out in November, according to Dave Crocker of Power Products Marketing. “At least for three months, large-bore ATVs have bested the prior-year months,” he says. “It will be interesting to see if that’s an ongoing trend, or if it just falls back down again.”

Even overall ATV sales were up in December, Crocker adds, largely because of the reintroduction of kids’ quads after the lifting of the lead ban. He also predicts another strong year for side-by-sides, though not as strong as last year when the industry benefited from a parade of new models.

Many of Poupard’s winter ATV and UTV sales in Michigan are tied to snow removal, so the mild weather hurt their numbers. “Right now if I went to my parts department, they probably have four dozen plows that are sitting there,” he says. His dealer friends relate similar stories.

When sharing year-to-date trends, Tucker Rocky notes that sales of ATV-related items are down slightly compared to last year —poor snow plow sales offsetting the strong finish for ATV items at the end of 2011.

Again, it’s the importance of timing. But as the motorcycle industry enters its traditional sales season, dealers are hoping that the great start of 2012 was about more than different timing — that a rebounding economy coupled with high gas prices (but not too high) will make for a great middle and end of 2012, as well.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews May 2012 issue.