Getting back into the game

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Five years ago, Kurt Mechling was selling hundreds of youth units a year, but in the past 12 months, he’s sold only about 20.

As such, Mechling, owner of Performance PowerSports in Seneca, S.C., knows well the possible long-term ramifications of the just-ended lead ban on the youth powersports market.

“Between the economic changes and product not being available, I don’t even know where the demand is right now,” says Mechling, who notes that the previous sales boom was dependent on easy revolving credit during the holidays. “[A youth quad or dirtbike] was a big gift item that dad could get at the last minute. It was a hobby that parents could do with their kids.”

The one-two-three punch that knocked out the youth market, Mechling claims, was 1) the shift from promotional revolving credit to installment loans, 2) tighter family budgets and 3) the drop in vehicle availability due to the lead ban. “Product was still available, but the quantities were much less,” he says. “And, of course, the credit wasn’t there, and people weren’t buying $2,000 toys for their kids during the recession.”

All three punches continue to sting, so don’t expect a youth-vehicle renaissance. Still, you may want to note how Mechling marketed the vehicles during their heyday. “We were really set up to sell that product in the fourth quarter,” he says. Performance PowerSports offered a layaway program for the holidays, and even did Christmas Eve deliveries to people’s houses.

Because youth vehicles provide small profits — “I can sell a Shoei helmet with a better margin,” Mechling notes — dealers must market them creatively. For example, display the units at race tracks or community events (in addition to fun in-store displays and signs). Mechling even found a way to demonstrate vehicles at elementary schools by participating in a Safety Day program. “It was amazing how many families would show up at the store the following week because the kids wanted to see the ATVs and dirtbikes,” he remembers.

And don’t forget to promote gear. Mechling believes it should be marketed as sports protection equipment, like stuff worn by players of peewee football. “For protecting our kids, our message to parents needs to be: This is a sport. Equip them properly.”

Mechling praises Polaris’ longstanding policy of offering a free helmet and visibility antennas with every youth ATV purchase. “All manufacturers should be doing something like that,” he says.

When marketing to children, remember that much more is at stake than the $300 or so you’ll make off each vehicle sale, or even the subsequent gear sales. “Kids who get their first bike in your store one day will be teenagers and later on adults,” Mechling says. “We want to have a customer for life.”