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OPINION: A practical way to drive cycle sales

May 15, 2006
Filed under Columns

There’s something alluring about being part of an industry that survives not because it has to, but because consumers want it to.
And that’s a satisfying thought: making and/or selling something so well that customers conveniently sidestep the more pressing issues of the day to browse the showroom floor.
The problem with this perception is it can become so enthralling and easy that the industry becomes hesitant to become a need, rather than just a want. And with a notable exception, that seems to be the case for the motorcycle industry in relation to the soaring gas prices.
Crude-oil prices recently jumped to an all-time high of more than $75 a barrel. Prices at the pump are either driving toward or rising above the $3 mark, depending on where you are.
But there seems to be little interest or desire within the motorcycle industry to use that market fluctuation to move from being a luxury to a necessity. The reasoning for that I’ve heard is twofold: dealers have not told OEMs that there’s a more pressing interest by the public in regards to fuel economy information and that the possible gain from targeting car converts would be minimal.
Still, taking a closer look at how gas prices affect motorcycle sales seems warranted after looking at the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) statistics from 2005.
The largest monthly percentage increase for on-highway bikes, in comparison to 2004 numbers, came in September. The increase was nearly 45 percent. That upswing in sales followed the year’s highest oil prices. On Aug. 30, 2005, oil prices soared to $69.81 a barrel, according to the Department of Energy.
Oil prices remained high that fall and not surprisingly, on-highway motorcycle sales continued strong. MIC data shows October’s on-highway sales were nearly 20 percent better than the previous year.
Imagine what those numbers could be if there was a better understanding among the public about the difference in gas mileage between their SUV and a motorcycle.
According to OEM sources, only Suzuki and Harley-Davidson provide fuel economy numbers to the public. Part of the reasoning behind that is the lack of a standard test procedure for measuring motorcycle fuel economy. Motorcycle manufacturers, after all, are not required to calculate fuel data like auto manufacturers are. Plus the motorcycle fuel economy could be controversial because of the vastly different way riders get from here to there. After all, there is no device that measures how much throttle each rider uses and how that affects their individual gas mileage.
But cars also can have measurable fuel economy differences because of different driver habits. Even with only rough estimates, it seems sensible to provide the public an idea of the difference in fuel economy between motorcycles and their vehicles. Suzuki certainly thought so.
The company last summer ran an advertising campaign focused on fuel economy. The ad campaign started at gas stations with signs that read, “Help make your payments with the money you save on gas.” The signs had photos of five motorcycle models that all had gas mileages of at least 50 mpg and in one case, more than 80 mpg. Suzuki followed that up with in-store posters with similar messages. Dealers were later given access to ads that they could use locally.
Suzuki officials said it was a popular campaign that spurred a number of calls from dealers looking for more information on gas mileage. The company plans to use a similar marketing campaign in the near future.
Such interest has seemingly not been widespread, however. Harley-Davidson and Kawasaki officials said they have not heard that dealers are getting asked an abundant number of fuel economy questions from the public.
In Kawasaki’s case, the public is not provided fuel economy data. In Harley’s case, consumers have been given the data for a number of years, but it’s not exactly prominent. Fuel economy is just one of the many specifications provided on marketing brochures, a Harley official said.
Yamaha has not had any recent motorcycle ad promotions based on fuel economy.
And yet, all indications show high gas prices are not going away and that, surprisingly enough, the escalating energy costs are not leading to a recession. So the issue will continue to boil in consumers’ minds, but won’t significantly reduce their pocketbooks. Meaning they’ll be angry enough about it that they’ll eventually do something about it, potentially even buy a motorcycle.
Not swayed yet about the possible link between motorcycle sales and higher gas prices? Then consider these two facts.
First, recent studies have shown that mass transit use has climbed as gas prices have risen. If Americans can be forced out of their cars and into buses, you can bet a motorcycle will be an increasingly more appealing option as the months go by.
Second, the amount of fuel economy savings can be staggering. An Environmental Protection Agency Web site (www.fueleconomy.gov) shows the difference between a gas-guzzling SUV and a fuel economy small car can be up to or more than $2,000 per year.
Can you imagine what the difference would be with a motorcycle that had even better fuel economy?
Unfortunately, most consumers can’t because they haven’t been told. That’s because power and performance, not to mention reliability, have been the keys to profit. But it’s another “P” word that could increase those profits and drive the industry toward providing a need and not just a want: practical. psb

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