Selling the two-wheeled dream

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I was having dinner one night with some folks from Costco Automotive, after Dealer Expo had closed for the day. We got talking about the difference between selling cars and selling motorcycles, agreeing that one of the more obvious differences is that most people buy their cars out of need. They have to get to work, they have to haul the kids and their gear, they have to go shopping and get their purchases back home again, and they want to do it in comfort. This is confirmed by the fact that most people who own motorcycles also have cars, trucks or SUVs for the same reason.

On the other hand, except in the most rare of occasions, no one really needs a motorcycle. A motorcycle can’t carry multiple passengers and has limited accommodations for hauling any extraneous gear. Most motorcycles are not capable of transporting more than one or two shopping bags. They can be miserable in the rain, almost intolerable in heat and humidity, and downright dangerous in snow, on ice or once the temperature drops toward freezing. And let’s face it, the MPG advantage we as riders once could lay claim to is rapidly being eroded by hybrids, diesels and, in some cases, efficient four-stroke internal combustion engines.

So why, in view of its impracticality, does anyone buy a motorcycle? Easy. Because they want one! I’m not sure if want is the proper term, I’m not exactly sure what the hierarchy of want’s synonyms is, but usually the want for a motorcycle is almost a sickness. I know, because I’ve had it for most of my adult life.

If you assume that the above statements about cars and motorcycles in our hierarchy of needs to be true, then selling a car should be a lot different from selling a motorcycle. It should be much easier to sell a motorcycle than a car. After all, we’re talking want versus need.

I recently ran across a quote from the former editor at Cycle World, Steve Thompson, who I think describes a motorcycle dealership best: “A motorcycle shop is where dreams become reality.” He made this statement in 1989, and I think it’s still true, but I also think that a lot of dealers have lost sight of this concept. In 1994 the great motorcycle sales depression finally ended, and in the market’s run-up to the 1.2-million-unit mark of 2006, many dealers simply became order takers. Granted, many of the customers who strolled into dealerships in that era were not necessarily driven there by a dream, but more by their desire to go along with their peer group, who thought motorcycles were cool. But I think many of us have forgotten about selling the dream.

Well, like it or not, our customer base is changing again. Sure, there are still some people buying so that they can assume some perceived “cowboy/rebel” persona. And with rising gasoline prices, we’ll probably be welcoming back scooter and small-motorcycle buyers by the thousands who are looking for less-expensive transportation. But the core buyer — the guy or gal who’s been with us through thick and thin — still has a dream. It might be the perfect motorcycle, or the perfect trip that can only be accomplished with the right motorcycle. Whether an experienced motorcyclist or a beginner, this core customer has a dream that can only be realized with a motorcycle.

While mulling over Thompson’s statement, I remembered a guy I spent some time with in Southeast Asia, Dave Wapperer. Wapperer’s dream was to buy a new 1968 Harley-Davidson Sportster — but not just any Sportster. His would have sodium-filled valves and an entire list of modifications and accessories that could, I assume, then be purchased from the factory. I don’t think a week went by that Wapperer didn’t mention that bike or the long list of extras he wanted with it. I don’t believe he ever mentioned how much it would cost, only the amount fun he was going to have riding it.

I never found out if Wapperer ever actually bought the bike, but I’d wager he did. His passion to possess that motorcycle was more pronounced than anything else we ever discussed.

My dream, before I went into the Army, was to ride through Europe to Afghanistan (ironic, in retrospect). I was in Germany and already had a bike, a sturdy 1958 DKW 175 two-stroke equipped with a luggage rack. Not glamorous by any means, but probably able to get the job done. Forty years later, I’ve been able to fulfill part, but not all, of my dream. I’ve been fortunate to spend some time in Europe on two wheels, but there are still a few places I’d like to visit, and frankly, Afghanistan doesn’t seem like such a great place to visit right now.

I know that selling a motorcycle isn’t a simple process. Ugly things like budgets, credit-worthiness, and other mundane issues come into play. But I don’t think that we should lose sight of the dream factor either. People buying a bike usually have a specific motorcycle in mind and a dream of how they can use it to enhance their life. Figuring out what those dreams are, and matching the bike to the fulfillment of those dreams should make the selling process a whole lot easier.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews May 2011 issue.

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