A Minor Shift

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When l decided to head off to college after a false career start (several, actually) years ago, I suddenly found myself associating with people nearly 10 years my junior. The gulf between our world views was pronounced. No matter how deep I looked, I couldn't see my 16- to 18-year-old self in many of them. Not in their work habits or sense of responsibility, not in their level of maturity, and this is saying a lot.

The kids — a relative term — with whom I was serving coffee and scones were of an entirely different mind-set. Granted I hadn't been looking for a lifetime gig at 16 either, but I had been raised to view employment as more than a way to earn clandestine beer money. I accepted the obvious differences in technological savvy, but there was a lackadaisical approach to work and life that annoyed me and left me slightly jealous.

Flash forward a dozen or so years and I'm again considering the habits of lazy, shiftless youth. A conversation I recently had with Jamie Cheek of Cardo Systems started me considering the generational shift I first recognized back at Java Centrale, and how it will impact the retailing world in general and the powersports market in particular.

Cheek was telling me that his goal is to educate dealers about the company's Scala-Rider Bluetooth headsets. Dealers need to know how to respond when tech-smart customers come in asking for products. In some cases, dealership employees went blank at the mere mention of the word Bluetooth.

For a lot of younger people technology is part of their everyday existence. They grew up with it and understand it intimately. It goes beyond the Internet, wireless technology and gaming. It informs all their decisions. Not only is a Bluetooth headset through which they hear their GPS unit's turn-by-turn instructions not high-tech, it probably seems dated. While I'm still gee-whizzing over Apple's iPhone, others are saying, "Of course. What's next?" The point Cheek was trying to make was that many dealerships aren't prepared to answer the FAQs. Technology isn't exactly urgent in the daily rush of business triage.

Dealernews research maestro Don Brown has long been analyzing and reporting on the chasm that's opening between baby boomers and Gen Y. Brown has forecast some of this new buying demographic's habits, which looks to be much different from its predecessor's. The cruiser market's decline is the most obvious indicator. Another is the splitting and merging of market segments that's resulted in bikes like Ducati's Hypermotard.

On the employee relations side, a longtime dealer perplexed by his younger workers sought outside counsel. The outline he got back revealed some stark differences between his boomer workers and those considered Gen Y. While the older guys saw employer loyalty as a way to work their way up, the whippersnappers had an attitude described as "If I can't take Saturday off, I'll quit." The younger group demands and embraces change, prefers teamwork and is vision-oriented. But it has also been coddled by parents, tends to be self-absorbed, needs nurturing and finds it difficult to make decisions. Reminds me of my co-workers who didn't know how to work a broom or the one who called in sick only to stop by later that night with her friends to pick up her paycheck.

There's a coming (if it's not already here) change that stretches from customer base to employee pool, and affects everything from aesthetic and technological demands to managerial style. Many dealerships have already felt it, as have the OEMs and aftermarket industry. This change demands to be understood.

Dennis Johnson, Senior Editor dennis.johnson@dealernews.com