By Neil Pascale
WICHITA, Kan. — Subniching the niche. It’s a phrase CEO Sheldon Coleman uses repeatedly in describing the 2009 model lineup for the custom V-twin market’s largest manufacturer.
Big Dog Motorcycles will try to attract a larger part of the niche custom V-twin market next year by not only hitting a wide range of MSRPs — from the low $20,000s to the high $30,000s — but a new market.
The Wichita, Kan., manufacturer will celebrate its 15th anniversary by extending its range of pro-streets and choppers to the touring market, Coleman announced at the company’s recent national dealer meeting.
The company’s new touring model, the Bulldog, is slated to be available for less than $40,000 MSRP with a host of amenities. These include saddlebags to a two-passenger seat to a Sirius satellite radio combined, of course, with the company’s myriad of eye-catching graphics and paint options.
Big Dog’s goal of subniching the niche won’t stop there, however. The company has upgraded its low price point offering, is offering a high-end pro-street model that officials call the most “exotic” motorcycle the company has ever built and has lowered its MSRP on a number of models.
It’s all in an attempt to reach a broader selection of custom V-twin shoppers, which might have dropped somewhat in number but undoubtedly have become much more cautious in their spending.
Coleman remained upbeat about the custom market even in telling dealers that it “caught us by surprise by how tough it’s got.”
He later told Powersports Business that the company’s sales “had a 30 percent drop (in 2007) followed by a 40 percent drop” thus far in 2008.
“We were anticipating it to flatten out, but it never really stopped,” Coleman said of the market’s retail sales.
He used last spring as an example. The season, usually robust for Big Dog, never caught fire. “We just didn’t get the bell curve,” he said.
In response, the company has had to downgrade its personnel — Big Dog has had at least three layoffs, including a recent one — and will do the same with production. Coleman told dealers that Big Dog will produce fewer motorcycles than dealers will sell for the 2009 model line. That will be a repeat of 2008, a year in which Big Dog dealer inventories improved over the year-ago period, as Coleman said dealers were able to retail more bikes than theY purchased from Big Dog.
Although Coleman believes some dealers still have too much inventory, he does see some positive signs for the segment. Most notably, he has seen movement by contractors to purchase land for future development. Contractors, commercial or residential, make up the company's most prolific customer profile. In fact, Coleman told dealers the growth or decline of the nation’s housing starts closely mirror the company’s retail sales patterns.
The custom V-twin segment’s retail sales are not officially reported by any industry group but it is believed the sales numbers are down dramatically from the peak years, which occurred earlier this decade. Coleman told Powersports Business he believes the annual retail sales for the entire custom market was around 10,000 bikes a few years ago. Today, he sees that number closer to 3,000. “That might even be heavy,” he said of the annual sales figure.
Coleman believes this retail sales dive has bottomed out, expressing confidence that many consumers who have been cautious to make big purchases will re-enter the market. Coleman noted big-ticket retail items are historically the first to feel any downward trend in the economy, but also the first to see any upward tick.
Big Dog is aiming to entice that upward tick with what company officials called their biggest product launch in company history. That will include the Wolf, the high-end pro street model that will feature an exclusive engine, S&S Cycle’s 121-cubic inch X-Wedge. Company officials said they have spent the past couple of years working with S&S on the 1,976cc engine. The flagship Wolf will be longer than any of the company’s choppers, at 91?2 feet, and eventually have a saddlebag option. It’s scheduled to ship to dealers in early October.
Also unveiled at the dealer meeting was a second new model, the Coyote. The bike, one of four pro-streets models in the Big Dog lineup, replaces last year’s lower price point offering, the Mutt. Besides the new name, the Coyote will offer several upgrades compared to the Mutt, including billet rather than spoke wheels, new modified shocks, a softer seat and a longer kickstand. It also will be offered at $1,000 less MSRP than the Mutt.
It is not the lone 2009 offering with a lower MSRP. Big Dog lowered its price on the Pitbull and the Mastiff for 2009.
What does Big Dog expect to produce more of — its more expensive models or its lower price point offering?
“Actually the bikes will all feel a little bit more rare,” Coleman said. “We’re not going for volume. We will want a good mix that will sell well at retail.
“But the most sophisticated custom rider is going to be really aggressive about the Wolf and the Bulldog as it comes online.”
Copyright 2008 Powersports Business