Sport bike sales spike fuels optimism

By Steve Bauer
Managing Editor
With sport bike sales increasing for several metric OEMs in 2008, both manufacturers and dealers are looking for ways to capitalize on the increased interest in the segment.
Some companies, such as Yamaha, have introduced several new models to their 2009 lineups with the belief that the segment will continue to have strong growth as more former riders look to get back into the sport. Other companies, such as Kawasaki and Suzuki, are focusing their marketing efforts on fuel savings and the growing number of Gen Y consumers looking at the sport bike segment.
“There’s no question that this is a bright spot for this market, and we believe that as long as you keep fresh product coming in and keep people’s interest up, things will continue to go well,” said Kevin Foley, media relations manager for Yamaha’s motorcycle division. We can’t control fuel prices, we can only control what we can do on our end, and that’s to manufacture bikes that our customers want to ride.”

Sharp growth in certain segments
Foley says one of the largest growth areas for Yamaha in recent months has been the spike in sales of sport bikes in 750cc and under category, which he adds has really fueled the growth of the company’s entire sport bike lineup.
“This segment, especially the 750cc motorcycles, have really been growing, and that’s why we introduced for 2009 our FZ6R, which is easy to ride, has good mid-range power for beginning and intermediate riders and is priced very competitively.”
Tony Chatman, owner of Chatman Cycle in Seattle, Wash., agrees with Foley that the most requests he receives from customers are lower displacement sport bikes that still have plenty of power and the ability to “ride hard.”
“It’s been a trend I’ve really only seen recently, maybe the past six months or so, but there is really strong demand from my customers out there for bikes that offer intermediate performance capabilities,” he said. “I think there are more new riders coming into my dealership than ever before, and they don’t want to spend the extra money for the higher-powered bikes. But more importantly, most of them are pretty inexperienced and want a bike that they can grow with, and possibly trade in later when they’re ready to step up to another level.”

Fuel prices
One popular theory for the growth in the sport bike segment has been the rapid increase in gas prices in the past year, driving many former riders to come back to the market.
“I think it’s accurate to say that the rising fuel prices have certainly had an effect on sport bike sales,” said Glenn Hansen, media relations manager for Suzuki’s motorcycle division. “I don’t know how specific you can get in terms of exactly how many people (gas prices) are pulling into our market, but a quick glance at scooter sales gives you a pretty good indication that fuel savings are at the top of a lot of consumers’ minds.”
Mitchell Solomon, owner of Smokin Powersports in Chattanooga, Tenn., estimates that 60 percent of his customers purchasing sport bikes in the past year are returning riders looking to save money on gas.
“These guys aren’t looking for cruisers, they want a bike that will get them great gas mileage, and something that isn’t overly expensive or extreme in terms of engine size or accessories,” he said. “A lot of these guys got out of riding once they had families and settled down, but you’ll see them come in with their wives now, and they’ll head right for our sport bikes, looking at them as an investment more than just a toy.”
Foley agrees that gas prices are definitely going to influence future sport bike sales for 2009 and beyond.
“Since 2005, when gas prices really started to tick upwards, you can look at the Motorcycle Industry Council data and see there’s been a correlation between higher gas prices and an increase in sport bike sales,” he said. “You would be hard pressed to call that a coincidence, when you look at the raw data it really stands out. I still think this double-digit growth we experienced the past few years has been largely due to returning riders, but fuel prices certainly have a huge influence as well.”

Gen Y’s influence
Another question surrounding the growth in the sport bike segment is the effect that Gen Y consumers are having on sales. It’s a tough number to pin down, but Jan Plessner, public relations manager for Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A., says their impact can definitely be felt.
“Overall, Kawasaki sport bike sales are up on a MAT (Moving Annual Total) with an increase in popularity of entry level/price point models,” she said. “We attribute this to not only higher fuel costs, but also more Gen Y consumers entering the market.”
Plessner says the company’s new Ninja 250R has had a significant impact within this demographic.
“We know from our sales and reports from dealers that more and more younger riders and coming in and purchasing these bikes, which will have a large influence both now and in the future if this trend continues.”
Ethan Cross, owner of Cross Powersports in Oakland, Calif., says he’s seen an influx of younger riders in the past 12 months looking for an inexpensive, yet powerful bike that combines both style and performance.
“We’ve seen lagging sales in the high cc supersport category, but sport bikes in the 600-750cc category have been selling great,” he said. “What has really surprised me is the ages of many of the kids coming in here. They’re 17 or 18, and instead of saving money for their first car, they’re using it instead to buy their first bike, and in my experience they immediately gravitate toward the lower cc sport bikes.”
Foley says the Gen Y segment of the market is another demographic that Yamaha believes it will be able to attract with its new bikes.
“Our studies have shown that this demograpic really focuses on styling and look, but at the same time they want great performance at a reasonable price,” he said. “We believe that several of our new models provide that for them, and we’re optimistic that our sales numbers will reflect that.”

Female riders
A 2007 Yamaha research study found that nearly 30 percent of new sport bike riders are women. Although these numbers are specific to Yamaha, other manufacturers have noticed a growing trend among female riders in the sport segment, as well.
“We certainly acknowledge the growth in that area, and we’re working on projects that will appeal to female riders,” Hansen said. “There’s no question that there is a good growth opportunity there.”
Yamaha’s Foley says his company’s research study wasn’t all that surprising, considering that smaller sport bikes are a perfect fit for a woman’s smaller frame, allowing for the rider to control the bike much easier than with a cruiser, for example.
“The other thing we found in our survey is that color is a deciding factor for many women riders, and that’s why on the FZ6R we have four options, including yellow and white.”
Michael Hanley, owner of Hanley Cycle outside of Las Vegas, agrees he’s seeing more female riders looking to enter the sport, and a majority of his customers look first at sport bikes for the easiest riding option.
“Cruisers and even the larger cc sport bikes can be intimidating to both beginners and those with smaller frames,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of interest in Kawasaki’s Ninja 250 among my female customers, because it’s a bike they feel confident on and have control over.”
Hanley says he’s also observed another interesting trend among female customers in the past year.
“They’re getting so much younger,” he noted. “In the past maybe you’d see a woman in her mid- to late 20s trying out these bikes, and now I’m seeing teenagers and college students as my main customers. It’s amazing to me how much the demographic has changed in such a short time.”

2009 trends and expectations
Foley says he doesn’t see sport bike sales slowing down in 2009, even if gas prices continue their current tumble. He believes the current trend of solid sales will continue.
“We’ve invested a lot of R&D into introducing several sport bikes for 2009 because we truly believe there is a tremendous amount of growth opportunity there,” he said. “I think you’re going to continue to see us develop new products for this segment, because we certainly don’t foresee it becoming stagnant anytime soon. If gas prices stay high, that’s fine, but we believe it goes beyond just the prices at the pump. There’s a movement out there from both returning riders and new riders toward this bike segment.”
Plessner agrees that the segment should continue to be an area of growth for the industry.
“We’ve seen enough growth in this area for a certain amount of time to understand this isn’t a trend that’s going to disappear this year or next,” she said. “We have several popular models our there that are leading our sport bike sales, including the top-selling sport bike from July 2007 to July 2008 in the Ninja 250R, so we’re excited about the future growth potential for these bikes.”
Hanley believes sport bikes will be his biggest seller in 2009, and he’s ordering from his OEMs accordingly.
“Besides my scooter sales, sport bikes are my biggest sellers,” he said. “I’m actually more confident in ordering more sport bikes than I am scooters, because I’m worried that those sales will dip significantly if gas prices go way down. I don’t have the same concern with my sport bikes, so to me that adds a lot of confidence when I place my orders.

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