Romancing the RPMs

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WINDING THROUGH THE 13-YEAR-LONG UPSWING IN THE MOTORCYCLE MARKET HAS BEEN A LOT LIKE CANYON CARVING ON A SPORTBIKE: THRILLING, YET REASSURING. THE POWER PLANT RESPONDS TO EVERY TWIST OF THE THROTTLE, CLUTCH PLATES GO SNICKER-SNACK AS YOU SHIFT UP AND DOWN THE GEARBOX, AND SOFT, STICKY TIRES STAY GLUED TO THE ASPHALT. YOU HAVE ALL THE CONFIDENCE IN THE WORLD THAT THOSE FRAME SLIDERS YOU'VE INSTALLED WILL REMAIN UNBLEMISHED. Of course, some cager on a cell phone could drift over the centerline as you lean into the hairpin, turning your afternoon of riding into a call to your insurance agent.

Just as it takes a smart, experienced rider to dodge that bullet, it takes a smart dealer to navigate every twist and turn that the powersports business is putting in front of us these days. One such individual is David Roosevelt. Since launching Ducati Seattle in March 1999, he's paid close attention to his local market while keeping an eye on the entire industry. The result? He enjoys sales success year after year.

Ducati Seattle sells more than 120 new motorcycles annually and has been recognized by Ducati North America for its efforts. Its list of commendations includes:

  • The 2007 Ducati America award for best exclusive Ducati dealership,
  • The 2007 gold award as the national top parts dealer, and
  • The OEM's most improved dealer (again, gold award) for 2007.

For the past eight years, Ducati Seattle's overall sales has ranked in the OEM's top 10. The dealership has received awards for best showroom, and even Roosevelt was named 2005's "Mr. Ducati" — a title given to the dealer who represents the brand with the most passion. The dealership was the second Ducati signature store and the first of about 10 Ducati-only dealerships in North America.

From 1991 to 1998 Roosevelt (who is, incidentally, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt's grandsons) worked for Bellevue Suzuki and Ducati in Washington state. But it wasn't until Roosevelt attended the 1998 World Ducati Weekend in Rimini, Italy, that he decided to open a dealership.

"It was fast," says Roosevelt. "By December of 1998 I had put money down and leased a building, and by March of 1999, I had the store going."

Site selection was key to the speedy store launch. He bucked conventional wisdom by locating the business as close as possible to downtown Seattle, not on the outskirts of town. Ducati Seattle settled in the South Lake Union area near the iconic Space Needle. Microsoft cofounder and billionaire Paul Allen owns the majority of the property in the neighborhood (it's often referred to as Allentown) and at the time was developing the area to attract residents and businesses that would supertune the local economy.

Old industrial businesses were being replaced with newer biotech and technology companies that were employing just the sort of well-heeled customer base Roosevelt envisioned for his Ducati shop. Roosevelt watched the businesses being built, and when he saw that Marriott was building a hotel, he was certain he had found the right location.

"We knew what was going on with the neighborhood in terms of development," he says. "But when we saw the Marriott Hotel, that really made us confident." Why? Because the large hotel chain has a reputation for painstaking research when it comes to choosing a site for one of its hotels.

COURTING THE NONRIDERS

Once Roosevelt had Ducati Seattle in place, the key was spreading the word. The marketing budget was tight, so he and his marketing director, Walt Davis, had to get innovative. Apart from a Yellow Pages listing, Ducati Seattle focused on building relationships with local retailers who served the type of customer Ducati Seattle would want. For instance, the dealership displayed motorcycles on the sales floors of three designer menswear retailers.

Roosevelt and Davis also partnered with Club Medusa, a trend-setting Seattle dance club, to create "Club Ducati." They decked out the club in Ducati Seattle signage and banners, and put bikes on display inside and out. Ducati riders who showed doormen their Ducati keys entered the club free of charge, and once inside, they were given VIP treatment. For a minimal cost, Club Ducati helped brand the dealership and build a Ducati scene designed to entice prospective buyers into throwing a leg over. "We really wanted to brand the name of the dealership and prompt buyers to visit us," says Roosevelt.

His goal always has been to get nonriders into the store. Once there, they can start their relationship not only with the sport but also with the Ducati brand, and a genial, knowledgeable, patient and consistent sales approach facilitates this end goal. "Being consistent is important," he says. "Our tagline is 'The Ducati experience starts here.' We live that and believe that. So when a customer walks into the dealership you put on that show every time. You give them the full presentation of models and accessories, and there are no silly or dumb questions."

Roosevelt sees competition everywhere. Carbon-fiber road bicycles, plasma TVs and other expensive diversions pose just as much competition for his customers' cash as any MV Agusta or Moto Guzzi. "We had a visit from the CEO of Ducati Motor Holding, Carlo DiBiagio, and we drove past [outdoor sporting goods retailer] REI," Roosevelt recalls. "He asked, 'Who's that?' and I replied, 'That's my competitor.' REI can take my customers' money and get them into rock climbing just as quickly as I can get them into riding Ducatis."

JETS, CARS AND A FINE CHIANTI

Once Ducati Seattle had built some brand recognition in the area, it adjusted its promotions approach to emphasize in-house events.

Large windows and glass doors dominate the dealership's historic brick façade — so as to invite casual window-shoppers just as much as dedicated Ducatisti. Even though the space is only 5,000 sq. ft. big, it's decorated and merchandised to give customers plenty of breathing room. Multiple skylights within the 20-foot-high ceilings provide natural illumination. A gas fireplace staves off the Pacific Northwest chill, and fits nicely between the original columns and historic Ducati imagery.

In-house events are diverse and hip. Roosevelt invited a local club of Ferrari owners to display Italian rarities as part of an open house complete with DJ and hors d'oeuvres. Another open house featured then-Ducati racer Eric Bostrom, in person. (Bostrom, a fan of The Dukes of Hazzard, arrived at the event in one of the show's original "General Lee" 1969 Dodge Chargers.)

Sometimes it's all about timing. Ducati Seattle's five-year anniversary bash included a visit from three pilots and 12 crew members of the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, who happened to be in Seattle for the city's Seafair. "I got to know Commander Russ Bartlet over the past year, and he volunteered to come out unofficially with some pilots and crew," says Roosevelt.

Other events and efforts to keep close ties with customers include a party at a local Outback Steakhouse to welcome Casey Stoner when he returned home with the No. 1 plate. Ducati Seattle also has run local rides, hosted a Dyno Day, offered basic maintenance clinics, featured a 10-week language course in conversational Italian, and held an Italian wine tasting.

PG&A PER UNIT: $5,436

Roosevelt seems to have mastered the art of maneuverability when it comes to business. For 2008, "it's back to basics," he says. Translation: controlling costs. "Dealers are going to have to tighten their belts and watch inventory levels," he says. "A year-plus of inventory on hand can really hurt you. We have been successful at keeping it closer to a 90-day supply — with Ducati North America's help."

He's not opposed to recommending that dealers cut their store hours some and throttle back the workweek. Keep your "A team" on-hand at all times, but keep a careful eye on the overhead items — i.e. rent, flooring and overtime, he notes.

To generate revenue, Ducati Seattle focuses on the upsell. Sales associates are trained to offer Ducati riding gear and lifestyle clothing, accessories and extended service agreements. The dealership's sales of parts, accessories and clothing made up 46 percent of its third-quarter sales for 2007, and in terms of dollars, Roosevelt claims that Ducati Seattle sells $5,436 in PG&A per unit sold, compared to the national average of $2,847.

These are impressive numbers. "If you miss out on this part of the business, you aren't going to make it," he says. "We would love to see our parts and service pay 100 percent of the bills. We're not quite there [but] we're working toward it."

Roosevelt also has developed other revenue streams, such as a prepaid maintenance program. In September 2007 his dealership sold 40 percent of new bike buyers on the program, he says. Sure, 40 percent is a little higher than normal levels, but it's indicative of the business opportunity, he asserts. Prepaid maintenance is a component of Ducati Seattle's sales-and-service message: Create and build long-term relationships with new customers who will evolve into die-hard Ducati owners who want to keep their bikes in top shape.

"It's important to marry customers to the business," Roosevelt says. "If I don't make the sale up front, so be it. But if they come back for parts or service, I am going to make them my customer for life."

David Kopf is a freelance writer and marketing and communications consultant, as well as a past program manager for the Motorcycle Industry Council. He can be reached at david@dkcopy.com.