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Destination Dealership: BMW Motorcycles of San Francisco

Named a BMW Dealer of Excellence for 2011, Steve and Eric Wight’s dealership caters to the bay area and beyond.

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Owners Steve and Eric Wight are justifiably proud of their dealership. BMW Motorcycles of San Francisco is not only popular with customers in the San Francisco Bay area, but it was also named a BMW Dealer of Excellence for 2011, and it gets very high marks from online consumer ratings services. Not bad for only four years of ownership! But none of this would have happened if it weren’t for the Mini Cooper.

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BMW motorcycles have been sold in San Francisco for many years. Most recently, the franchise was owned by the same organization that sells BMW automobiles in San Francisco, and the BMW motorcycle dealership was housed in the same facility as the car dealership. Although there was some crossover from the car section to the motorcycle section of the dealership, the arrangement was never the best fit. When sales of Mini Coopers heated up, the car franchise made the decision to spin off the motorcycle franchise.
Steve Wight and his son, Eric, bought the BMW motorcycle franchise in 2008 after spending more than a year locating and renovating a facility to house it. San Francisco is not the easiest city to get around. Believing that a location with easy access to major freeways was key to attracting customers from outside the city limits, they chose a location on the corner of Sixth and Bryant that met that requirement while remaining close to the city center.

However, sometimes the best-laid plans go a bit astray. Eric Wight explains, “Our location was chosen for its easy access to both the East Bay and the peninsula, south of the city, where we believed that most of our customers would come from. Then the BMW dealer in Marin closed, and we started getting customers from the North Bay, which is difficult to get to from where we are. Thankfully, many of our North Bay customers are willing to battle traffic to get to us.”

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Selling motorcycles in a big city such as San Francisco can be a bit different than selling bikes in a rural area. Eric ticks off what he considers the “challenges” and “advantages” of doing business in a metropolitan area. The store’s success is due to their ability to use the advantages to help overcome the challenges.

“One major challenge is that we don’t have any excess space. We don’t have a parking lot. People come from out of the area, expect a lot, and are a little disconcerted when all they find is street parking. Another is the cost of living in San Francisco. The pay scale for our employees has to reflect what it costs to live here. We have to balance covering our costs with a labor rate that is competitive for the area.

“We do have a lot of advantages, being based here in downtown San Francisco, and one of them is the availability of mass transit. Due to the significant costs of managing and maintaining a fleet of loaner motorcycles, we don’t offer service loaners, but our customers who leave their bikes are not stranded — they can get home on the bus or Cal Trans [passenger railway] or BART [subway].”

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The San Francisco Bay area has year-round riding on challenging roads for the sport rider. Motorcycles are a recognized mode of transport, and many people commute on their bikes. “It’s a motorcycle friendly environment, for the most part,” Eric continues. “Unfortunately, the city of San Francisco has increased charges for motorcycle parking downtown in the last few years, which has discouraged some commuters from riding motorcycles. There is a lot of motorcycle and BMW-specific awareness, which helps. Another challenge for us is the increased level of business regulation in the city, but in general, city agencies are willing to work with us. Once we establish communication, San Francisco tries to be helpful.”

One very significant advantage noted by Eric is the high level of Internet sophistication in his locality. One important item that was acquired with the motorcycle franchise was the domain name for the business: www.bmwmotorcycle.com. This Web address helps the dealership attract a large online audience and as Eric explains, “We try to leverage our natural visibility.”

Since many motorcyclists in the Bay Area are Internet-savvy, Eric can spend a minimal amount of money on conventional advertising. “We tried doing ads in local lifestyle publications, but gave it up.” he says. Instead, BMW of San Francisco focuses its time and energy on improving the easy to browse website and monitoring online consumer rating services, such as Yelp.

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“With positive reviews, we try to identify what worked so that we can encourage and promote similar experiences for future customers,” says Eric. “Of course, different people want different things, which is why we always try to be sensitive to what our customers want. When appropriate, we follow up on negative reviews from customers to correct any outstanding issues. In the service department, we have structural requirements that prevent us from always offering the least expensive labor rate, but we believe we can provide a consistently positive repair experience. Our goal is to provide a professional service, and to achieve that goal we make sure that delivering on promises is a number one priority.”

The store’s website also helps conserve their limited brick and mortar space. New motorcycles can be stored elsewhere and displayed on the website. A full line of Wunderlich motorcycle accessories are available for purchase from an associated website, while the store’s primary e-commerce site offers online shopping for products by BMW, Touratech, Kriega and other aftermarket suppliers.

One last advantage has been the close proximity to the San Francisco City College motorcycle repair course, which has had unexpected benefits for the dealership. “We were putting together a day focused on women riders, and found that City College had a motorcycle repair course, with a woman instructor. Since then, we have referred a lot of our customers who want to learn to wrench there. We find that people who take the course have more enthusiasm for riding, and a greater appreciation for what our mechanics do on a daily basis.”

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Eric is looking forward to a new year of no surprises and incremental growth. “We are always looking for ways to lean costs, but I don’t want to replace people — I am looking for creative ways to use technology to make people more efficient. We had good growth in 2011, and incremental growth in 2012. I expect 2013 to be more of the same. Even with a slow economic recovery, we expect to be here for the long run and are planning our business accordingly.”  

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