Building a business comes with a distinct set of risks and rewards. You have to know the customer base to which you want to cater, and you have to find the best means to do so. Often, that means turning down opportunities that might work for some businesses, but not yours. It can also mean looking at opportunities you’ve previously written off in a new light. For years, Tim Walter and Haider Saba, partners at iMotorsports, headquartered in Elmhurst, Illinois, have grappled with these decisions, trying to determine what was right for their consumers … and when.
From Used to New
In 2009, Walter joined with Saba, who has been in the motorcycle industry since the 1990s, to open a motorcycle business. Their first location opened in the Chicago suburb of Roselle in 2010, but at the time, it only sold used motorcycles. Naturally, manufacturers approached them, hoping to get them to sell new bikes as well. However, Walter and Saba turned down those opportunities due to geography.
“All the manufacturers have off-road and dirt bikes. And, we’re really close to the city of Chicago, so having that type of stuff for us didn’t make sense,” Walter explains.
However, things changed in 2014. Not only did the business move to its current location in Elmhurst, but Can-Am also approached iMotorsports with an opportunity. While the manufacturer is best known for its diverse off-road lineup, it has also made a name for itself in the three-wheeled motorcycle market. Can-Am told Walter and Saba they could focus on solely selling the Spyder on-road model if they so wished, and the two agreed.
“It seemed to be a good fit with our motorcycles,” Walter states. The higher margins were another attractive point to the proposition. Spyder became the company’s first new franchise inventory.
As a result, when it came time to look at expanding iMotorsports’ lineup again, it only made sense to go with the Polaris Slingshot – another similar, on-road, three-wheel, high-dollar-per-unit motorcycle.
Opening in New Markets
Not long after adding the Slingshot to the lineup, Walter and Saba looked to expand the physical presence of the store. What they learned when looking at their consumer base surprised them.
“We took a closer look at where we were selling our used motorcycles and found we were selling a lot to Florida and a lot to Texas,” Walter says. “We were also looking at Atlanta, so when we were looking for a second store, we had those three areas to consider. Florida had the first dealership come up for sale in the right area that really fit into what we were doing.”
In 2016, the two purchased their first store in St. Petersburg, Florida. A year later, they opened a store in Orlando, Florida. Having locations in a completely different part of the country has actually helped the business grow more stable.
Walter notes, “It really offsets our seasonality up here in Chicago. Florida has pretty even business. They’re still busy in the spring just like everybody else is, but they’re slower in the summer because it’s too hot when we’re really busy up here in Chicago. It made perfect sense to try to offset the seasonality of Chicago as we expanded.”
By 2018, iMotorsports was ready to add more new, premium inventory to its lineup, starting with Indian and then Vanderhall. Later, Can-Am approached the company once more about selling its Off-Road lineup and Sea-Doo PWCs, but Walter and Saba didn’t think those market segments were a fit for the brand. However, when COVID-19 hit and they saw how everyone was getting back outdoors, they decided to reconsider.
“When we talked to Can-Am, they said, ‘Just because they might not use the units in your area doesn’t mean the people don’t live in your area and use them somewhere else,’” Walter recalls. So, they decided to try out the new brands. After selling the products for over six months now, Walter reports that iMotorsports has seen a good return on that decision.
Now, save for Vanderhall and Indian (which the company sells at every location), iMotorsports sells specific brands at each shop. For instance, St. Petersburg sells Kawasaki and Polaris Off-Road, while Elmhurst sells Can-Am Off-Road and Watercraft.
A Transformational Experience
Now, there’s more to understanding your customer base than just figuring out demographics. You have to understand the customer’s mindset as well in order to create a positive experience, and hopefully a loyal buyer.
To that end, Walter keeps this notion top of mind: When someone buys a motorcycle, it is probably one of the top five best days of his or her lifetime. After all, unlike purchasing a car, which is most often a necessity, buying a motorcycle/powersport vehicle is a hobby, so it’s something the customer is passionate about. Store staff needs to reflect that passion when interacting with customers.
“We sell fun. We sell a hobby. We sell a lifestyle,” Walter affirms. “For us, we’ve bought into that here, where we understand what an enjoyment it is to own a motorcycle or own a powersport vehicle. And, for all the staff years into it, we create that environment where it’s exciting to be part of.”
However, customer interaction shouldn’t just be about closing the deal – it should be about engaging with and helping him or her be prepared for this new journey. Customers love to talk about their rides and planned trips. Consequently, if you get a customer who’s brand-new to riding or entering a different segment, it’s part of a shop’s responsibility to ensure that the customer is aware of everything available to him or her, from apparel, parts and accessories to riding communities and events.
“It’s not a very transactional relationship with the customer,” Walter explains. “It’s very transformational. They become part of the community of riders, and they become a part of the hobby. I’ve been to different places where, if you’re walking in, [you] feel like you’re going to the grocery store and people are just there to be there – versus when you’re going into some place where the salesperson’s genuinely excited about what you’re purchasing and what you’re getting into. I think it makes a difference. You can feel that energy … as you walk into our building.”
In fact, fostering community and the love for riding is another way iMotorsports seeks to enhance the riding experience. For instance, Can-Am offers a rider’s educational course at local community colleges, and iMotorsports participates by loaning out units to use, especially since the dealerships themselves don’t have the space to hold these types of classes. In addition, at the Elmhurst location, the company hosts an Indian rider group monthly and lets it be headquartered at the building.
Pump Up the Volume
Of course, another major impact on the customer experience is having the inventory the customer is looking for. With the inventory shortages of late, most dealers have been suffering this pain point, and while iMotorsports is no exception, it has also always believed in retaining high volume so customers can find what they want, even during shortages. In turn, that volume gives the company a better ability to advertise.
iMotorsports’ staff also sees benefits from having a large inventory. “In my opinion, we have great staff because we have the volume for everybody’s commission, so they have more opportunity. It just seems to us that it really helps our ability to compete with surrounding stores … when you do more volume … You’re in a position to, I guess, win more business,” Walter says.
Thus far, the high-volume strategy has worked. Currently, iMotorsports is the No. 2 Spyder dealer in the country and is No. 3 for Indian, according to Walter. It’s even been as high as No. 2 for Indian and No. 2 for Slingshot.
Of course, the customer experience is not made on the sales floor alone. The service department also plays a critical role in keeping customers loyal. Walter believes communication between the service department and the customer is key to generating a continued positive experience.
For longer-term projects especially, keeping customers in the loop by appraising them of what’s happening – whether you’re waiting on parts, trying to diagnose problems or anything else – will give them a sense of ease. After all, if customers don’t hear from the service department after dropping off their vehicles, they feel stuck in limbo, wondering if your department is actually working on them or not.
Whatever issues your techs might be having with those vehicles, customers will understand. Take the parts shortage, for instance. Customers themselves have also felt the negative impacts of shipping delays and low inventory in other parts of their lives. So, while some things may be out of your control, Walter notes, a simple phone call isn’t.
Building on the success of the last several years, iMotorsports’ plan for the future involves more growth. Walter says the company is looking into more stores and even adding other segments. Granted, maintaining that growth has been iMotorsports’ biggest challenge thus far. Not only does the company suffer from the typical growing pains that come with adding a second and third location, but their three locations are in geographically distant and diverse states.
Even so, Walter knows they are up for the challenge. “My partner and I are both younger, and so for us it’s exciting to continue to grow and do new things, which is part of the reason we added the off-road, because that’s a segment we never were in before up here and something we think we can do well at.”