For some time, Babbitt’s has been a major player on the Arenacross circuit, with Team Babbitt’s Gavin Faith earning the No. 1 plate in 2016. His teammates, Travis Sewell and Jacob Hayes, are cleaning up at stadiums nationwide.
When not at the track, the online arm of Babbitt’s sells OEM parts and accessories, as well as race gear, coast-to-coast. The dealership is now one of the largest dealers in the U.S. – and it all started in a little shop in Muskegon, Mich., located on the East Shore of Lake Michigan, north of Grand Rapids.
Ed Babbitt, tired of slowly driving a tractor around a farm, opened a Suzuki dealership in a small storefront in 1965. His son, Eddie, says he wanted to go fast. The dealership prospered, and moved down the road to a larger and better location.
Babbitt’s is still in that spot in Muskegon – although, after several acquisitions of neighboring land and additions to the original structure, the building is a whole lot larger than it was when Ed Sr. moved his operation there.
Mr. Babbitt was an early exponent of snowmobiles. By the early 1980s, he was selling Suzuki, Kawasaki, Polaris, and other makes. Snowmobile sales took off and turned a seasonal business in the Snow Belt into a year round business.
When the first Sea-Doos appeared in the late 1980s, Ed, Sr. was front and center, becoming the second Sea-Doo dealer in the nation. A Yamaha dealership was acquired in 2008, and then a Honda dealership in 2010.
Eddie grew up in the dealership. “I started working at 12 after school and summers, hanging around and getting in the way. I also raced motocross growing up. It was the best hobby.”
Inheriting his father’s knack for getting in on the ground floor, Eddie learned about plans to start the Arenacross series, and put a team together, (currently co-sponsored by Monster Energy, AMSOIL, and Kawasaki) to contest it.
“Arenacross benefits our business enormously – we sell dirt bikes across the country due to the team affiliation. People want to be part of the team effort. There’s a sense of camaraderie and brotherhood.”
My father was a farmer. He believed in hard work and long hours, and he wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. – Eddie Babbitt, CEO, Babbitt’s Online
Arenacross was just one of two business ventures Babbitt’s commenced in 2006. The second was Babbit’s Online. Internet sales were just starting to take off, and once again, Babbitt’s was in on the ground floor.
The brick and mortar motorcycle shop, and its OEM franchises, allowed Babbitt’s to sell genuine OEM parts, unlike many online parts businesses. The online parts business, with the Arenacross connection providing instant brand recognition, took off almost immediately and has contributed largely to Babbitt’s success.
In turn, the online parts business supports the brick and mortar motorcycle shop. “The online business is the biggest part of our success. We put a lot of people to work. However, the brick and mortar business is actually doing very well. The online business and our involvement in Arenacross are excellent advertising, and our parts availability through the online business ensures much better parts access for our local customers.”
Babbitt’s puts a great deal of emphasis on customer service. “Online, people buy – the first time – because of price. They buy the second time because of customer service,” says Eddie. “What I sell is very competitive. Forty percent of our customers are repeat business. We provide the best customer service any business can offer.”
Babbitt’s has an in house training program, with an employee specifically tasked to lead the training program in the call center. New employees go through the training program, then work with another customer service person for at least two weeks before they are set loose on their own.
Positive internet reviews are essential for a successful online business. Eddie personally goes through online reviews, and responds to most of them. Customers comment that the shop website is easy to navigate, with easily locatable exploded diagrams of each model, and quick response to online questions.
In order to build trust, Babbitt’s subscribes to the Norton online shopping guarantee, which provides free identity theft protection and a shipping guarantee. For customers who find they need parts while working in their garage at 2 a.m., the company has developed a free downloadable app, the Babbitt’s OEM Parts Finder App, which gives customers an easy way to find parts when using a mobile phone.
Babbitt’s sells parts for older bikes, as well as for new machines, which leads to increased loyalty and word of mouth recommendations – people with older bikes tend to join clubs and pass the names of suppliers around. In addition to parts, the dealership ships clothing and accessories, with an emphasis on off-road gear. Babbitt’s is also one of the few online stores that will ship oil and chemicals – important for customers in rural areas.
The typical customer for the brick and mortar business is the typical motorcycle /motorsports person who walks in the door of dealerships everywhere. Although with the emphasis on motocross and off-road adventures, Babbitt’s gets a lot of families with children. In contrast, the online customers, located all over the country, are most often people who have a strong interest in DIY.
Babbitt’s also sells a lot of parts to small repair facilities and, surprisingly, to other dealerships, who get a discount on Babbitt’s price. Although almost all sales are to U.S.-based customers, many of Babbitt’s customers are Spanish-speaking, therefore they hired a bilingual employee.
In addition to the Arenacross involvement, Babbitt’s regularly participates in regional shows and does a lot of open houses. Arctic Cat and Yamaha regularly partners with Babbitt’s to show off new models and gear. Sponsoring amateur racers increases visibility and credibility in the off-road community.
Babbitt’s is a sponsor of a well known regional event, Bike Time, which features a Wall of Death, motorcycle oriented competitions and concerts. The company does a lot of public service as well, one recent venture was to host the local Girls and Boys club and a meet-and-greet with their Arenacross team.
Eddie is optimistic about the future. “For the last three years, our brick and mortar has experienced steady unit growth. Conservatively, we expect 8 percent growth in unit sales every year for the next three years and 20 percent in store parts sales. Continuing present trends, we expect the online store to increase 10 percent per year,” he says. “The customer is the most important part of our business. Holding to this ideal is the reason for our success.”
Number of employees: 49
Primary Parts Suppliers: Arctic Cat, Honda, Kawasaki, KTM, Polaris, Suzuki and Yamaha