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Finally?

Is Harley-Davidson’s bloom fading? Are consumers deciding to wait? Are there simply too many choices?

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Has the bloom finally come off the rose? Pundits have been predicting it for about 10 of the past 13 years. The short-sellers are now jumping for joy and claiming they knew it would happen, they just didn’t know when … amazing how hindsight is always 20/20.

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Any reader who has been in the motorcycle industry for more than, oh, say, a year, knows we’re talking about Harley-Davidson, and their recent stock market fluctuations. As I write this in mid-April, Harley stock has been taking a pounding and getting pushed around to 52-week lows. But wait, isn’t the entire motorcycle industry showing the same sort of decline in sales? Yes indeed! But none is more romantic (or dramatic) as good old Harley-Davidson, especially to the Wall Street pundits who know nothing about the motorcycle industry.

What happened to cause the sales slump should be obvious. The Dunlop labor dispute slowing fall shipments, followed by the spring strikes by Harley’s own workforce were certainly well publicized. However, laying all the industry’s ills on the back of Harley just isn’t fair. So who should share the blame? Let’s divide it evenly among every OEM in the business that focused on making the biggest, baddest, fastest bike on the market and then targeted aging baby boomers and re-entry riders who haven’t even so much as slung a leg over a bike in 20 to 30 years. Not good!

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Put quite simply, the consumer got scared off. That fear, when combined with outrageous insurance premiums, certainly helped him/her stay away from your store.

But wait, there’s more. (Don’t worry Wall Streeters, we’ll get back to Harley’s fading bloom soon). The consumer is now looking at cruisers that costs more than a car. In fact, the price of many customs is often twice or even three times the cost of a small car. The reality is the average consumer simply can’t afford the bike he really wants, so he’s decided to wait.

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Don’t forget the fact that a good percentage of our prime market is in uniform and deployed overseas these days. Domestically another large segment is still waiting to see if their employer is about to send their jobs to China. How about all those in the construction industry? Contractors and construction workers have historically been a large part of our potential biker market. However, it seems as if they too are holding off until the home building boom comes back.

Would more bikes be sold if they had lower prices? Or, have we raised expectations so much that the customer has decided if he can’t buy what he really wants, he’ll wait. Naturally when he can buy a new Cadillac for the same price as a stock motorcycle, he waits.

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Virtually every motorcycle consumer magazine’s front cover shows off the latest offerings by all the major and minor makers alike. Of course the graphics rule. The more outrageous the design or the brighter paint the better the odds of getting that ego-gratifying cover shot.

Now for the big question — are there simply too many choices? Have the niches gotten so narrow the consumer is now at the mercy of a poorly trained salesperson attempting to sell a boutique-built V-Twin that is "better" than a Harley? An incompetent or ignorant salesperson demanding top dollar for a second-tier name is not a formula for future success in my book.

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Okay, let’s get back to Harley. The Motor Company has had more than a decade of double-digit growth. I don’t think there’s another company in the U.S. that can make such a proud boast. However, it appears their rampant growth has now put them in a tight spot with suppliers and dealers.

Just how big is the big V-Twin market anyway? The companies who make even bigger V-Twins than Harley — such as Big Dog and American IronHorse — are showing a similar slowing of sales. I’ve been told by reliable sources that their sales are down about 10%.

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Of course every segment of the powersports industry is now pointing their fingers at everyone else. ATVs and snowmobiles are slumping every bit as much as Big Twins. However, if we are to survive, we have to accept the fact that we’re all in this thing together.

The auto manufacturers have come to that conclusion and now all the major U.S. car makers are working with each other. While Harley insists on going it alone, it looks like the other Japanese OEMs are starting to sort things out and, to stay ahead of China, are actually cooperating with each other.

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So, what do I think is going to happen? We need a quiet period where we think about what we’ve accomplished and then find a better way to work with rather than against our competitors. Accept the fact that our customers are not only getting older, but they are also much better informed.

Reality rather than fantasy seems to be what is inspiring the next generation of riders — those TV shows about one-off bikes are starting to get old! Fantasy is not durable. Reality has come into the picture, and it appears it has arrived.

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So, let’s get real: let’s get back to the way we used to play. Let’s get back to riding with our customers; consider that many of them will become part of your extended family. The industry has been on a great ride for the past 13+ years, and unless you are one of those Wall Streeters, there is no reason to get out of the saddle just yet.

One more thing: while you are out riding, don’t forget to stop and smell the roses once in awhile!

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