Sept. 7, 2009 – Focusing on the true purse strings of the industry

Do pilots take crash courses?
How can there be self-help “groups”?
If space is a vacuum, who changes the bags?
Any serious fan of the late, great George Carlin will remember those one-liners as vintage Carlin, an absolute wizard at dismantling overused expressions.
In tribute to Carlin, here’s a question worth pondering for any powersports retailer: Why are our wallets controlled by purse strings?
Forgo the irony and attempt at humor for a bit and consider really the more important question: Why are we, as an industry, so attached to the person carrying the wallet and not the purse? Are we really doing enough to change the industry’s overwhelming reliance on the male consumer?
This topic is critically important to consider now because so many of our industry players have shrunk their marketing and advertising presence so that the “coolness” of motorcycling seems to be diminishing in the public’s eye.
Of course, there are certainly valid reasons for this. Expanding marketing budgets while sales plummet is not exactly a recipe for longevity. Yet, the importance of stretching our consumer base beyond the wealthy white male seems to be getting lost.
Many really, especially bright dealers I speak with are focusing on “getting back to basics.” In other words, working harder for the unit sale. That means following up with consumers who don’t buy. Or calling the consumer that did buy 18 months ago and asking them if they’ve seen the latest and greatest model.
Those are indeed important initiatives but they cannot be the end all, be all. Yes, we must work harder, but we also must work smarter. We cannot allow a huge and incredibly influential demographic — the true purse strings! — to remain such a small and inconsequential player in the dealership.
We cannot expect our industry to rebound in any kind of significant or fast-paced manner if we do not buck the current trend of women accounting for only one out of every 10 new motorcycles sold in the United States.
Think about this: There was a recent study published by STORES magazine that looked at all the U.S. public retail companies that had more than $300 million in sales in 2008. Of those companies, which one do you think had the highest organic growth in 2008 on a percentage basis? It was a company that, as one U.K. media outlet put it, was “the fashion sensation of 2008” with an apparel line that was “the antithesis of respectable office wear.”
American Apparel. You may have heard of the company, I had not. But “the fashion sensation of 2008” grew its revenue by more than
57 percent last year. In a recession!
What’s more, the company appeals to the
20-something crowd, that insanely huge
“Gen Y” population that carries a purse that experts judge carries $200 billion or so annually.
Youth plus fashion equals an incredibly bright retail future. And one, by the way, that is no big stretch for the motorcycle industry to take part in. But it won’t happen by sheer luck or happenstance, like the rise in new unit sales we saw following the gas price hikes of 2008.
A couple of business initiatives to consider to delve into that profitable youth plus fashion blend:
Hire female staff. Women can be infinitely pickier than male consumers in terms of their retail wants and needs. For example, don’t expect the female shopper to go up to a male parts counter guy and ask them for a larger-sized T-shirt or jacket. It won’t happen.
Scrutinize your apparel. If you have a wall of sport bike jackets, are 75 percent of them designed for the young guy and not the
20-something girl? By the way, I’ll pass along advice imparted by Jennifer Robison, Tucker Rocky’s retail environment specialist: Don’t
forget the middle-aged women. Make sure your apparel offerings are deep for this really
influential retail demographic.
Know your research. Could your sales staff tell you the No. 1 reason for buying for male bike consumers vs. women shoppers? Earlier this year, Powersports Business published an article that looked specifically at that topic. Women’s most important factor in choosing a motorcycle: rider comfort. (If you or your staff don’t know the other top reasons,
e-mail me and I’ll send you a PDF of the article.)
It’s true, we have to do more with what we have. Dealers have to do what’s necessary to become profitable with fewer consumers coming through the door. But we cannot lose sight that this industry has an immense opportunity in women shoppers.
The comedian Carlin, in that trademark voice and hilarious manner of his, once asked: Do pilots take crash courses?
To me, the industry needs a crash course in marketing to women so we can get out of this retail nosedive.

Looking ahead
Something not to miss in coming weeks:?Our 2009 Market Data Book. Of chief
importance, it contains a nationwide dealer survey on the impacts of the recession.

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