Things ain't like they usetabe

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Usetabe. [Use-ta-be]: noun. What no longer is.

At a certain age, it seems like the usetabes start accumulating at an ever-increasing rate of speed. Usetabes are those truths that for years seemed to be immutable, but suddenly with new information, they aren’t quite as sacrosanct as we thought them to be. These are things like, if you use the front brake of a motorcycle, you’ll be thrown over the handlebars; or the Japanese will never be a threat to big-bore motorcycle sales; or even remarks like “these (insert brand and model here) are the pinnacle of development. There will never be anything better.” As you think about your pile of usetabes, the first inclination is to think, “Cripes, I’m getting old.” While age is a factor, a changing world and new information are the primary causes.

My most recent usetabe came about as I was preparing to write this column. I thought there might be some info in the latest MIC Retail Sales Report that could form a germ of an idea. Maybe I might even go out on a limb and predict year-end sales numbers. All I had to work with was 2011 mid-year sales stats, which, as most of us know, are up slightly over last year.

The question then became, how do I predict year-end from mid-year?

A NUMBERS GAME
A logical approach would be to figure out what percentage of sales occur between July and December, and then, using an average of that percentage from several years as a guide, apply it to this year’s retail sales. (OK, I admit, this isn’t the most scientific method, but I have a B.A., not a B.S., degree, so I’m inclined to take a more-artistic-than-scientific approach to my calculations.)

I didn’t have access to a complete set of sales statistics from 2006, but I had enough information to calculate July-to-December sales for 2007, 2009 and 2010. As you may recall, 2007 was a high-water mark for the industry with more than a million units of motorcycles and ATVs sold, while 2009 and 2010 sales each amounted to about a third of the ’07 figure — no surprises here.

What was surprising — and what caused me to have a usetabe — was seeing the shift that’s taken place in what used to be the peak selling season. In the past, more than 50 percent of new units were sold in the first half of the year, with sales peaking before June. Sales then fell away pretty steeply for the rest of the year before reaching a soft landing in December, when they lifted a bit as consumers bought bikes as gifts for Christmas.

I think 2007 is a good example of how the market used to be, when 55 percent of new unit sales happened by the end of June. By contrast, in 2009 and 2010 only 28 percent to 29 percent of retail sales took place in the first half of the year, with the bulk of sales happening in the July-to-December period. I don’t have any documentation of monthly sales for the ’80s or ’90s, but if my memory serves me correctly, the bulk of sales happened in the first half of the year, even during the market’s long decline.

So what’s going on?

To be honest, I haven’t a clue.

There are a lot of things that drove early-season sales — scarcity of new and desirable models, for one. There’s also the sales of MX models to be campaigned during the summer, the urge to extend the riding season for as long as possible (also known as weather), and price reductions and other financial incentives — particularly on slow moving carryover items.

Without doing a lot of research, I’d guess that 2010 was an average year for new product introductions as a whole, and a very good year for the Europeans in this regard. Collectively, though, the Euros only constitute the market share of one of the big four, so how much impact can they have?

Sales of off-road bikes are down, but are they down enough to shift a buying pattern? Weather, as we know, plays a role as well, but again there’s the question, is it enough to shift the buying season for the entire United States?

I know from talking to dealers that financing is problematic, but again, does a person who can’t get financed at the beginning of the season suddenly qualify in July?

And what about deals? OEMs used to advertise their “deals” in the major buff books. This no longer is true — in fact, it’s sometimes difficult to find any OEM ads at all in any of the major enthusiast magazines. I’m still a slave to print, I find it difficult to read online magazines and I usually have no reason to go to manufacturer websites, but in researching this column, I did. I found that all of the Japanese OEMs have cash-back and/or low-cost financing touted on their websites, and they probably did last year as well. But when it started and how long it lasted I can’t tell, and once again, is it enough to cause such a major shift?

OK. I give up. I’ve got questions, but I’m having a difficult time coming up with good answers. I’ll bet you as dealers have some insight on what’s caused the sales season to shift, why, and how it’s impacting your business. I know how it used to be, but not why it is now. So if you’d be so kind, drop me a line at mvaughan@mikevaughan.net or editors@dealernews.com, and let me know your opinion of the source of the sales season shift.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews October 2011 issue.