Memories of Dealerships Past

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IN ALL LIKELIHOOD, the current decline in motorcycle sales isn't going to end anytime soon. There are too many things working against any kind of recovery. The First National Bank of Home Equity has been unequivocally closed, thus cutting off the funds our customers were used to having. And then there are the consumers who've driven our business for the last 40 years — the boomers — who are getting to the age where they're beginning to bail out of the market. Gen X has chosen to do something else other than ride motorcycles, and Gen Y participation is still an unknown.

No matter which way it goes in the long term, in the short term we're going to see significant changes in the numbers, sizes, and brands carried by dealerships. When I started my motorcycling career back in the early '60s, the dealership wasn't just the place where you bought motorcycles; it was a hangout, a place where you learned the arcane knowledge required to be a motor- cyclist and where, after a year or so, you were finally welcomed into the brotherhood.

The local motorcycle store was typically a small building with a small showroom, a counter, a small shop area, and maybe some separate office space. There usually wasn't a "staff." More often than not it was a family affair with Bill (or Bob or Joe) who owned the store, his wife, and/or brother and sometimes his children taking care of anything that needed to be done. Bill was the head mechanic, salesman, parts guy and dispenser of motorcycle advice and philosophy. The rest of the family filled in where needed. You knew everybody who worked there, and chances were good that if you were a regular customer, they knew you as well.

Demands from the OEM were minimal. If the guy had a sign for one or more of his brands, he was ahead of the game in terms of brand visibility, and probably made his OE rep very happy. POP material was a sometimes thing. If it didn't end up on the wall in the workshop because it featured an attractive young woman, it was probably hung in a strategic position to block the afternoon sun.

Fundamentally it was the store that the OEMs have successfully been trying to get to change, or push out of business, since the mid-'80s. The stores didn't have specialists. They didn't carry a wide range of accessories (partly because there weren't any) and if there was something you needed, Bill or Bob could get it from his distributor within an acceptable time frame. The showroom wasn't segmented according to type of bike. It didn't have a "corporate look," and if there were only two brands represented, chances were one of them would be out of business within six months and replaced by some other obscure specialized motorcycle. What it did have was atmosphere. It had a nice feel and was a great place to spend an hour or two on a rainy Saturday when you weren't going riding.

Now I'll grant you that all of yesterday's motorcycle stores weren't like that. There were a lot of dirty, dingy, dark caverns, with an owner who must have slept nightly on a bed of nails and viewed his customers and their demands as forces of evil that must be defeated and repelled. But by and large, for whatever reason, most of us remember the local motorcycle store that we dealt with back then with fondness and affection. I wonder how many of our current customers will look back on their motorcycle past and view our stores with fondness and affection?

The other night I was reminiscing about the old days with my pal Dain Gingerelli, editor of Iron Works magazine. We got to talking about the shops we used to deal with way back when. We talked about how lucky we were to have had that experience, which led me to wondering if some aspect of those days may come back.

As our industry shrinks, many of the current large stores will fade, as there are no longer enough customers to support them. Medium-sized dealerships will no longer have the funds to invest in corporate makeovers, and I think most single-line stores will fade as dealers require a broader range of brands to attract customers to their stores.

Will the motorcycle store of the past have a place in the future? I like to think so. In some cases we're seeing it with the Euro brands. Dealers are consolidating Triumph, BMW and Ducati brands under a single roof. While the OEMs may not like this, it makes a lot of sense because the collective annual sales of these brands don't equal those of the smallest Japanese brand. The smaller dealerships can offer a slice of that old-store feel and attention that's difficult for a larger, more diverse store to offer.

None of us knows how the future will shape our business. I don't think business would be hurt by smaller stores that offer a less intimidating and more personal environment than some of the stores we've seen develop over the past 25 years. In fact, it might even help.

Mike Vaughan is the former publisher of Dealernews. You can reach him at mvaughan@mikevaughan.com or via editors@dealernews.com.