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Feb. 9, 2009 – Closer look at the wants of a growing motorcycle demographic

February 11, 2009
Filed under Features

By Matt Bolch
Contributing writer
If you aren’t catering to female motorcycle riders, then you are missing out on a significant sales opportunity.
The Motorcycle Industry Council is still completing analysis of its twice-a-decade owner survey, but results from the survey’s first nine months show the number of female owners has increased by nearly one-third over 2003 numbers to 12.4 percent of total ownership. Final numbers are expected in March.
An informal check with dealerships around the country backs up MIC data, with dealers saying that between 15-25 percent of motorcycle customers are women. But a dealer can’t sell to women by using the same techniques that work on men. The needs of women are different, and those who can fulfill those needs and make women feel comfortable in shops that have long catered to a male clientele will come out ahead.
Genevieve Schmitt has been at the forefront of the women’s riding movement for more than two decades and believes a fundamental shift is under way regarding how women customers are perceived by manufacturers and dealers.
A journalist by training, Schmitt found a way to combine her journalism skills with an entrepreneurial spirit and a love of riding into a wide-ranging career that has included television and print products. Her latest venture is Women Riders Now (womenridersnow.com), an online magazine founded in 2006 about women and motorcycling, featuring motorcycle news, motorcycle test rides by women, motorcycle videos and much more.
During the last quarter of 2007, Schmitt posted a 21-question survey aimed at women riders that is believed to be the first widespread survey of its kind. The survey drew more than 1,000 responses, and Schmitt has been using the information gathered from the survey in marketing and advertising initiatives and presentations.
“In one respect, the survey confirmed what I already knew and why I felt it was important to launch Women Riders Now in 2006,” said Schmitt, who also was founding editor of the former Woman Rider magazine. “Women are a viable demographic, and dealers and manufacturers should pay attention and focus marketing efforts on this group.”
In the survey, the most common answers about factors that go into motorcycle choice were riding position and riding comfort. The two next most-popular answers were the style/appearance/color of the machine and its performance. That would explain why most respondents prefer cruiser bikes far above any other style, although Schmitt says it’s interesting that one-quarter of respondents favor sport touring models. Schmitt says women make up a significant segment of some sport touring models, including the Kawasaki Ninja 650R and the Suzuki SV650.
“Women want bikes they feel comfortable on,” said Wendy Epstein, CEO at Mission Motorcycles, Daly City, Calif. “Touching the ground is important.”
Epstein estimates 25 percent of her customers are women, which she describes as “pretty low” in the San Francisco suburbs.
Women want fitted clothes, but the size of the store limits the selection Mission Motorcycles can carry. Epstein has a female employee in accessories who keeps up with fashion trends and helps buy women’s clothing and merchandise. “We pick and choose items we ourselves like,” Epstein said. “Men will wear anything.”
“It’s important for dealers to point out the ergonomic features before power and performance,” Schmitt said. “Style/appearance/color is about even with performance (in the survey), which OEMs should remember when designing products.
“Women will say, ‘I have a red Honda Shadow Aero,’ or, ‘I have a green Harley-Davidson Dyna,’” Schmitt says. “I do it, too. It’s how we classify our bikes.”
Killeen PowerSports is located near one of the world’s largest military bases, the U.S. Army’s Fort Hood. Nick Heitman, general sales manager, says 20 percent of the Texas dealership’s clientele are female, a number he partially attributes to the increasing number of women who serve in the military.
“I’ve been here three years, moving from an Austin dealership, and the number of female customers has been steadily growing,” Heitman said. Female customers tend toward lower-end starter bikes that have lower seat heights than those popular among men.
The store has been devoting more space to women’s apparel and accessories and has started ladies night events every other month. But as the popularity of these events grows, the dealerships wants to put on two a month.
Assistant Manager Noemi Nieto, who has been with the dealership for nearly eight years, believes female shoppers are more comfortable with her or a woman sales rep because they understand a woman’s needs better. “Women can feel a little more intimidated with the engine and the service schedule,” Nieto said. “All they want to know is whether it looks cool, how it sits and how fast it goes.”
Lower seat heights on 750cc and 1300cc bikes have expanded the models that women will buy, says Dusty Caldwell, owner of Open Road Honda, Mandan, N.D. He estimates up to 20 percent of his customers are women, a number that has been on the rise.
“In addition to bigger cruiser bikes with lower seat heights, women also are looking at bigger scooters, up to 600cc,” said Caldwell. He has seen women progress from 49cc scooters to 600cc scooters, then to motorcycles.
His wife, Annette Behm-Caldwell, is a partner in the business, and the couple treat male and female customers mainly the same, identifying their wants and needs before suggesting a particular model. If anything, Caldwell says male customers sometimes will ask for a second opinion from a males sales associate after speaking to a female.
A successful sales associate will appreciate the differences between male and female buyers but will not talk down to either group, Schmitt says.
“Women can recognize a patronizing attitude,” Schmitt said. “And remember, women talk more than men, so a woman’s experience at a dealership likely will persuade other women to go to that store or take their business elsewhere.”
Schmitt adds that a successful message to women shoppers, which likely revolves around the motorcycling lifestyle, appeals equally well to the guys.

For more information on the survey, contact Genevieve Schmitt at 406/333-4491 or gschmitt@womenridersnow.com.

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