Every retail operation faces challenges, especially these days. And even though motorcycle shops have the advantage of selling fun, they cater to a 21st century customer who wants instant gratification. This means that the shop with the product—right here, right now—is the shop that makes the sale.
That fact isn’t lost on Shelton Davis, who owns and runs not one, but three Harley-Davidson dealerships all within fairly close proximity in Goldsboro, Smithfield and Durham, N.C. And while operating three locations can certainly be demanding, it also offers opportunities Shelton wouldn’t want to miss. As a Harley dealer for more than 20 years, he has paced the growth of his business while seldom resting on his success. “It’s about making a plan, setting up the road map and following it. If you stay on course, success follows,” he says. The plan must work: Shelton has received 16 Gold Bar & Shield awards for exemplary service from Harley-Davidson.
Shelton opened his first H-D dealership in Goldsboro in 1989. In the course of the next 10 years, he bought the adjacent property, built a new facility and established the shop’s presence while still operating the construction and vending businesses he’d had prior to the motorcycle shop.
Meanwhile, he purchased property at the edge of an outlet shopping mall in Smithfield and persistently lobbied the powers at H-D corporate to sanction a second location, just 19 miles from Goldsboro. It was an unusual placement for a Harley dealership, but Shelton reasoned that this facility could maintain longer hours (seven days a week till 9 p.m.) to match those of the other stores in the mall, allowing for better service for his customers. His Smithfield location opened in 1999 and soon spilled into a second building solely for Motorclothes. Then the old skating rink located behind the mall was purchased and transformed into a service center and warehouse. Owners can ride their bikes into the service facility, and if they choose to wait, there’s plenty of eye candy artfully arranged to tempt them to accessorize their bikes—more on that later.
In 2003 Shelton bought the existing Harley dealership in Durham, about 55 miles from Smithfield, overseeing new construction in 2005. As with the locations of the other shops, this one followed a similar strategy: make it easy to find and easy to get to. Each of the three Shelton’s H-D stores sits between two exits along a major interstate and can be reached via the service road. Similar in construction, they all feature inspired use of raised crosswalks and ledges where many of Shelton’s personally restored motorcycles are exhibited. But that’s just a small part of the merchandising savvy Shelton Davis possesses.
When a customer comes in looking for a part or a collection of accessories, Shelton has gone the extra mile to be sure that’s an easy process. “This is not a treasure hunt,” he explains with a grin. At all the stores, you’ll find collections of parts displayed and clearly identified by type: handlebars, windshield, trim rings, luggage racks, hardware kits, and more. There are also sections broken out by model, the various appropriate components grouped together and hung on the wall. Stands holding laminated pages from the H-D catalog specific to that model allow customers to easily find the part they’re looking for.
The same is true at the service center, where display cases, walls and free-standing displays offer clearly organized collections of parts that, Shelton has learned, ultimately promote more accessory sales. In addition, complete assemblies—say a front end or driveline unit—are displayed in this area, accompanied by an itemized list of the parts included, with individual prices and total cost clearly noted. A customer is presented with no up-charge or add-on surprises when they place the order.
This practice applies at the mall Motorclothes store, too. In the footwear section, every size in every style is on the store shelf so the customer knows what’s available and can help themselves. There’s very little clothing in the back room; it’s on the rack, organized by size (medium first for women, large first for men, as they’re the most common) with prices turned out for easy reading. In fact, prices are visibly displayed on every bike, every part, every T-shirt. “We’ve got nothing to hide,” said Shelton, adding that the price is vital information the customer needs. At the service center, an information board prominently shows prices for maintenance procedures, along with checklists of the precise operations included in the price.
Efficiency is paramount, too. When a bike comes in for service, the necessary parts are gathered into a bin ahead of time by the parts department so the tech’s time is spent working on bikes, not hunting for parts. And techs follow the same service checklists that are on display, working logically around the bike to ensure that all operations are performed. Each tech has two bays, so if work has to stop on a bike for some reason, the tech can move to the other lift and keep working. And to ensure accountability, Shelton requires that techs sign each work order when they finish.
Logically, Shelton’s H-D has a distinct advantage in their ability to draw on the inventory of three separate shops to provide what a customer wants, and they run trucks between the shops every day to do just that. A part that might take another dealer three days to get, Shelton can often provide the next day from one of his other stores, not only capturing a sale but satisfying today’s demanding consumer. But Shelton goes a step further by setting up each store as an inventory center for specific components, avoiding duplication and maximizing precious retail space. One store handles wheels, tires and oil. Another stocks most of the paint sets, windshields, seats and Evo parts. All of the stores stock a few of most everything; as items sell, they’re replaced from the others. The same is true for entire motorcycles. Shelton and his sales managers carry a master list in their pockets that includes available motorcycles at all three locations. It’s constantly updated and referenced as bikes are moved from place to place for purchase.
Shelton admits that one of the difficult aspects of having three dealerships is people management. Though he has an office at the Goldsboro store, he’s seldom sitting at his desk, preferring instead to be talking to his customers or filling in at the parts counter or any place at any store that’s short on help. The Goldsboro store also has the dyno and machine shop with services available to any of Shelton’s customer. “This way we keep control and reduce training time. Not everyone has to be a machinist,” he says, explaining that some specialization among his employees has created efficiency, too.
Addressing today’s leaner times, Shelton hasn’t made many changes. He credits part of his company’s present stability to being in control of the real estate, but “we’ve always run lean and mean,” he said. “If you want to find the cracks in the boat, you’ve got to put it in a storm.” Storm or not, Shelton’s isn’t taking on any water.