Same Events, Different Crowds Gauge Market Shifts

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GOING TO A NATIONAL EVENT like Laguna Seca or Sturgis can sometimes tell you a lot about what's happening in the market.

Take Laguna Seca, for example. After the races are over for the day, an evening stroll down Monterey's Cannery Row tells you that the sportbike market is moving in a new direction. A majority of the bikes parked on both sides of the Row this year weren't ersatz race bikes as they might have been a few years ago. Most of the bikes were chromed and polished, with extended swingarms, slammed suspensions, wild paint jobs and huge rear wheels. Virtually every bike had been customized to a significant degree.

The riders at this year's Laguna Seca were different, too; Asians, Blacks and Latinos dominated the scene, most of them clad in colorful leathers and wildly painted helmets. Indeed, the sportbike market has a new style, offering the smart dealer new opportunities with a changing customer base.

180 DEGREES LATER

At Sturgis it was a totally different story. Here is a market that's aging and not changing too much. For those who still have hair, it's gray. Typical riding garb is a Harley T-shirt and jeans. If there's a helmet in sight, it's a novelty model — plastered with stickers denouncing helmet laws, or expressing the rider's political views — and usually strapped to the motorcycle rather than to the rider's head. The streets in Sturgis, Deadwood and other towns in the Black Hills are lined with Harleys of every shape, color and model, but it seems like the baggers dominate, and the most prevalent color is black.

At the convention center in nearby Rapid City, Harley-Davidson displayed its new lineup for '09. The big news? A new frame for H-D's touring models and new versions of H-D/Lehman trikes. The lot at nearby Black Hills Harley-Davidson was teeming with vendors selling bolt-ons of every description, lights, tires and anything else you might need to upgrade your ride. A large tent devoted to Harley-branded apparel was set up adjacent to the dealership, and customers crowded inside the tent as well as inside the building to buy an official Harley-Davidson T-shirt or other item of clothing.

I had a chance to speak briefly with Terry Rymer, the general manager at Black Hills H-D and the guy responsible for organizing the vendors during the rally. He said he was happy with the traffic and would be adding additional parking and vendor spaces next year.

In downtown Sturgis the scene was a bit different. Most vendors were just selling rally T-shirts, trinkets, food and drinks. It didn't look as if it was going to be a great event for some of these vendors — even on the fifth official day of the rally there was still an awful lot of inventory yet to be sold. It seemed like the affluent were still attending Sturgis and spending money, but the guys who were on more marginal incomes decided to take a pass this year.

Overall, Sturgis attendance seemed much lower — if anything because trash generated during the weeklong rally was down 30 to 40 percent when compared to previous years.

CHASE YOUR MARKETS

Obviously, Harley-Davidson is a closed market for most dealers, and while the number of metric cruisers has increased at Sturgis, it's still a relatively small part of the mix. That being said, as the Harley market ages, so does the general market for motorcycles, and it might be time for you to think about how to best cater to this still-active, still-affluent buying population. Lehman apparently makes trikes out of just about everything (although its focus is on Harleys, Gold Wings and Victories), but there's no reason there couldn't be a Concours or FJR trike as well.

The industry overall is slightly ahead of last year's sales, but the market is moving in new and different directions. The key to success is to be able to identify the changes and determine how best to mould your businesses to meet new customer demands. You can start by going to a some major events and observing what's new — and what isn't.

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