Bell plans to grab first place in helmet sales race

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — If you’re a motorcycle dealer, you probably remember the day that Bell helmets were a hot item in your store. But that goes back more than a decade.
Today, things are pretty slow for Bell. In fact, the company’s sales dropped a whopping 90% in the decade between 1990 and 2001 after Bell sold the brand to another firm.
And according to the latest J.D. Power survey of motorcycle riders, Bell helmets holds only about 4% market share.
But if you’re a Bell fan, cheer up. Things are going to be different. Soon. If the company’s marketing plans work out.
“Our expectation is that we will eventually regain market leadership,” says Greg Shapleigh, Bell’s vice president of marketing for powersports. “We want to be the Number One brand of motorcycle helmets again. We realize that won’t happen overnight, but that clearly is our objective — to regain (market) leadership.”
New Owner. New Products. New Marketing.
Bell has a history of excellence in manufacturing helmets. It produced its first headgear — a helmet for auto racers— in 1954, and five years later Bell was the first company to pass the Snell safety standards. It became known for innovation and quality. The company sold the worldwide rights to the Bell brand for motorcycle helmets in 1991 and production of the helmets shifted to Bieffe, the Italian manufacturer.
Late last year, Bell Sports reaquired the North American rights to the Bell motorcycle brand. Bell Sport has been producing bicycle helmets for more than 40 years and holds 69% of the bicycle market. It sells 7 million helmets annually.
Unfortunately, sales of Bell motorcycle helmets fell dramatically during the last decade because of problems at the Italian factory. Shipments often were late and fit and finish suffered. There were quality problems and difficulties with warranties.
“The fit and finish really lagged,” Shapleigh said during an interview with Powersports Business. “As the rest of the industry got better, Bell continued to fall behind. You can see the steady decline; the brand remained strong but people lost confidence in the company.” First, dealers stopped stocking. Then, consumers who couldn’t find Bell at the dealers, switched to other brands.
But it’s a new day, says Shapleigh, and soon dealers and consumers will see that.
Shapleigh’s first goal is to rebuild dealer confidence. “You do that by phasing out low quality or unreliable products,” he says. The company has upgraded eight of its 11 helmets for this year and expects to have an entire new line-up for dealers at Indianapolis next February. Time is a factor in development, but Bell maintains its own design and development operation here and can design and produce a high-end helmet inside of 24 months. Bell says it’s the only helmet manufacturer that does this work in house. Final tooling is done by outside suppliers and helmet production is done at plants in China and Italy, or at its own plant in Rantoul, Ill.
“We can do more actual research and development, we can innovate and try new things and learn in a very short time if it actually works,” Shapleigh says.
Delivery won’t be a problem, either, he says. He points out that Bell’s bicycle helmets are sold through mass merchandisers such as Wal-Mart which demands a 98% fill rate.
Shapleigh will launch a magazine campaign, beginning next month that runs through September, and will be seen by close to 2 million readers. “We’ll use programs like that to drive consumers into dealerships,” he says. “It will be clear that Bell is back.”

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