Originally published in Slipstream magazine, March 2016.
Welcome back for the second part in our three-part series analysing the State of the Motorcycling Industry. Some of you let us know last month that you were surprised at how opinionated the piece was, and you know what – you’re absolutely right. It’s my opinion that the motorcycle industry has become complacent, far too willing to continue operating the same way, year after year, continuing to assume that business-as-usual is just fine. We’re all behaving as though the 2007 financial crisis was just a temporary blip and that we’ll soon be back to the glory days of the previous decades.
As motorcyclists, we’re part of the problem, and could almost qualify for our own, fourth entry in this series. We scoff at anyone managing more than 40mpg as “not riding it properly”, make fun of scooters as “not proper bikes” and insist that we need 1000cc engines to be able to overtake on the motorway. We buy bikes with shiny electronic toys we don’t always need and encourage manufacturers to build ever faster, more powerful, and more expensive models by voting for them with our wallets.
What’s worse (and TVAM is, fortunately, a rare exception here), motorcyclists often actively discourage new riders by perpetuating elitist, laddish behaviour and stereotypes. One of my friends quit riding entirely due to the “culture” that surrounds motorcycling, and another almost gave up after being wholly turned-off by the macho pro-speed attitude of the bikers he encountered. It’s something worth thinking on.
But enough of that – please do continue to send your comments, criticisms, and challenges to my opinions and statements. They are my own, not those of the club or of Slipstream itself. This series is meant to stimulate debate so that we can all put our heads together and figure out as a group how to help motorcycling continue to exist for many decades to come!
Seeing the last fifty years of motorcycle development laid out neatly across the winter’s large trade shows and museum/classic events demonstrated that our industry has changed very little in that time. Furthermore, the bikes themselves have changed only in increasingly incremental ways in the past twenty years. With a few notable exceptions, we’re still selling motorcycles like it’s the 1970’s; dingy shops with threadbare couches and well-thumbed magazines sporting one or two manufacturer’s current models.
This is usually accompanied by a selection of questionable used stock in various states of neglect, spruced up for the punters with a quick layer of spray-on wax. A successful dealership is one that has upgraded to an unpainted, corrugated steel warehouse, as though we’re shopping for bikes inside an oversized shipping container. Lexus showrooms these are not!
The sales staff are, generally speaking, a couple of older chaps, amiable at best and disinterested at worst, who may or may not know anything at all about the models they’re selling. Modern retail left these independent shops behind a long time ago, and the only purchases made here are by individuals who already know what they want and merely need somewhere to take delivery. Frequently squirrelled away on industrial estates there’s no chance of luring curious passers-by into these establishments, and anyone making the effort to interest themselves in this whole motorcycle thing is unlikely to come away sufficiently inspired to take the plunge. Let’s face it, folks – the only thing that’s different compared to 1977 is that PCP exists.
BMW clearly share my perspective, because they’ve tried hard to modernise motorcycle retail from the ground up, with Triumph and Ducati copying them as fast as they possibly can. Their showrooms are still tucked away, requiring a determined, concerted effort to locate and visit. But once you arrive you are welcomed by (relatively) knowledgeable and helpful staff and are offered a coffee in a spacious canteen area decorated by photographs of other BMW customers enjoying their bikes in exotic and exciting locations.
You won’t be asked what bike you want. Instead, you’ll be asked what you want to do with it. Don’t know? Then they’ll happily talk you through the possibilities. Don’t ride yet? Then they’ll set you up through their own training school, fees for which include discounts on the gear they sell in-store. You can go in curious, and come out sometime later dressed top-to-toe in branded textiles with a fresh license, the keys to a new R1200GS and a bemused look on your face. Oh, and a considerably lighter wallet.
Sadly, the only people doing a good job of bringing in new riders and giving them everything they need to embark on a successful and happy motorcycling career are doing so at a considerable premium. The target market and membership fees are strikingly similar to golf – those with plenty of money and time to burn, which almost always means empty-nest baby-boomers. No-one else has the spare money to spend on a £15k+ toy, and I’m afraid that, more often than not, that’s what these are.
I’m a huge fan of Suzuki’s machines because of their mechanical simplicity, reliability and generally lower prices. But nothing about their dealers or their marketing is going to inspire someone used to frequenting their local Lexus or Mercedes-Benz showroom that motorcycling is what they should be spending their money on. Yamaha is trying hard to woo younger riders with slightly improved advertising and a brace of affordable and fashionable models, but their dealerships and showrooms are still gamely trying to lure customers into dimly-lit mazes crammed handlebar-to-handlebar with a bewildering confusion of new and used bikes.
If you require evidence of all this, go visit a couple of your small, local bike shops, if you can find them. Notice the faded labels on the racks of accessories, the dust and cobwebs gathering on the bottles of oil. Observe the stained walls and ceilings, dim lighting and misaligned signs stuck to the grubby glass windows. In the late ’90s, no-one might have cared because their attention would have been held by a brace of just-launched sportsbikes, and we weren’t yet buying all our accessories and consumables online for less money. Now, all those same customers are buying KTM and BMW adventure bikes, mostly on manufacturer-supported finance schemes, direct from upmarket showrooms.
All that’s left are a raft of cheap, older used models, nominally only of interest to those of lesser means or lower expectations. With no experience in shopping for old, used motorcycles, or knowledge on how to maintain and repair these well-worn examples, such shoppers are instead being lured into Honda dealers by promises of £70-per-month finance deals on brand-new, fully-warrantied 500cc machines. Their spacious, clean, well-lit, showrooms are the icing on the cake, and staff are likely to respond to a query about the UK’s confusing license structure with helpful advice rather than an anti-EU rant. It’s no surprise that many independent establishments, often in business for decades and in many cases staffed by experienced enthusiasts, are closing down everywhere.
And I’m afraid to say that I’m not in the least surprised. Manufacturers have wised up to the fact that the sales environment matters, that having a corporate identity is important, and are requiring their franchised dealerships to commit to meeting their visual and presentation standards. Small shops can’t afford this, leaving them with few options. Attracting existing motorcyclists isn’t really the trick, after all; creating a store that the bike-curious would be inclined to step inside is the real challenge, and these old-school bikers have no idea how to appeal to an unfamiliar audience.
And who exactly are these potential new motorcyclists? Well, it’s fairly simple; its anyone who isn’t us. And anyone who doesn’t already ride is going to take some serious persuading to give it a go, with so many other toys competing for their disposable income, and cheap finance putting commuters of all stripes in reliable, comfortable and safe four-wheeled transportation instead. We may only get one chance to hook them; one visit to an uninspiring showroom may be all it takes to put someone off forever. Dealers need to get it right first time.
To start with, the sales environment needs to match (or exceed) the standards of their automotive equivalents. A BMW Motorrad showroom is a lovely place to visit: spacious and well-lit, with examples of every model easily accessible for inspection. Sales advisors are easy to find, coffee and biscuits freely available. Comfortable seats are flanked by inspirational photographs and posters, each detailing enticing possibilities of your possible future on two wheels. The premium brands especially need to nail this piece; someone used to frequenting a Land Rover or Lexus showroom won’t give a dingy little corner shop a second glance.
Next, brands need to consider opportunities for synergies. BMW often maintains their car dealerships right next door to their bike dealerships. Yet clearly the best possible potential customer for a £15k motorcycle is someone who’s waiting around while their £60k SUV gets new wiper blades fitted. Instead of two separate buildings, knock down the walls between them and dot the odd RNineT and S1000R around in between the cars and SUVs. The options package on a new luxury car can easily exceed the total cost of a mid-range motorcycle, and monthly payments for an F850GS are nothing to someone used to renewing their X5 lease every couple of years.
Honda and Suzuki are missing similar tricks. Put a CB500F or PCX125 next to a Honda Jazz and you might get a few people pausing to wonder whether they really need all that metal just to nip into town. Teenagers ogling a Civic Type R they can’t actually afford might be tempted to consider a CBR125 instead. Especially when they see the price difference, as well as the relatively high performance of even a lower-powered motorcycle.
Then take a long, hard look at your staff. Are they all middle-aged white men? Maybe try diversifying your workforce a little. The automotive world has a reputation for patronising and cheating women and minorities, and younger buyers want different things from biking than previous generations. Hire sales staff who can relate to the audience you’re trying to court, and you stand a higher chance of attracting visitors from outside of your existing, already-saturated demographics.
And then make sure that those staff actually care about the bikes, the brand and the future of biking. Commission schemes that encourage up-selling to more expensive, profitable motorcycles make for an irritating hard sell that has buyers walking away rather than signing up. Furthermore, it encourages staff to profile their customers. Arrive in a luxury saloon and a suit that screams “I have money” and you’ll probably get friendly, attentive staff. Drop by on an old bicycle in a faded hoodie and jeans and you’ll get bored, irritated responses at best, and be ignored entirely at worst.
I understand, really; a broke 21-year-old graduate isn’t going to be padding out your commission cheque this month by putting their name down for a new Panigale V4 right away. Maybe you don’t want to waste your time answering their questions about CBTs and what the cheapest helmet you sell is. After all, you don’t want to risk being tied up with that nonsense when Mr Moneybags could walk in at any moment, looking for someone to hand his credit card to. You need to be available for customers who are actually going to make it worth your while, and help you hit this month’s sales targets!
Thing is, that mildly-curious 21-year-old won’t ever become a Panigale-buyer if he or she is turned away at the first hurdle. I was hungry for bikes when I first started riding, and so I pushed through this nonsense, becoming an obsessed motorcyclist despite – not because of – almost every biker and salesman I encountered. It may have taken a number of years to get to that point, but I shudder to think how much money I now personally contribute the motorcycle industry each and every year. Few people are willing to make the same effort I did, when there are far easier options across the road in the various car showrooms.
Persuading all your sales staff to think long-term may be difficult; it may be impossible, at which point you need to fire them all and hire different people. You’ll certainly need to change the incentives that drive much of the world of motorcycle retail, forgoing short-term profits in favour of long-term growth. A lot of businesses seem to have trouble with this concept these days; just look at Wall Street.
Employ enthusiasts, who are there because they love bikes, not because they’ll do anything to persuade someone to trade in their old bike for the top spec version of the latest model. Don’t tell me it isn’t possible, because I worked in retail for a number of years. The company I worked for actively encouraged staff to suggest cheaper models where appropriate, treating every single customer as a series of future sales, rather than pushing for that one purchase today. Funnily enough, they’re still one of the most valuable, successful retailers on the planet.
Finally, think hard about the location of your showrooms. Car dealerships can get away with lurking on industrial estates because people are willing to go looking for them; they need a car, everyone has a car, it’s the default. Car dealerships also need the space, because a used lot and showroom for today’s behemoths takes up an incredible amount of room. In Milan they sell Vespas in department stores, parked amongst the top-fashion brands, with trendily-dressed staff on-hand to answer questions for the casually interested.
It may not be feasible for every brand to rent prime high-street locations or units in shopping centres, but I’ve lost track of the number of Tesla stores I’ve seen opposite a TopShop. And guess what; they have passersby casually wandering in to see what all the fuss is about, perhaps while their partner is trying on the seventeenth pair of shoes next door. It may be expensive to do business this way, but times are changing. Selling bikes the same way we did in the 70’s doesn’t work anymore – it hasn’t worked for years. And I consider it highly unlikely that the first manufacturer to invest in high-profile showroom locations will be the first one to go out of business.
Biking needs to adapt. Do we want teenagers buying iPhones or scooters? Do we want graduates opting for Fiat 500’s or Honda CB500F’s? And when they’ve got that promotion, will it be another set of golf clubs or a Triumph Street Triple?
Of course, once we’ve got them interested, we need to make sure there are bikes they can afford, but that’s a topic for next month…