Used with permission, copyright 1999, Motorcycle Product News magazine.
The Waiting Game
Frustrated by a lack of support, riders wait for dealers to catch the Japanese cruiser wave
Near the end of my conversation with Denny Doyle, a Honda Shadow ACE owner from Littleton, Colo., he relayed a funny story regarding the first "biker wedding" he attended last summer. The groom was a local firefighter and ardent Harley-Davidson enthusiast, and had planned a ride with his motorcycling friends immediately following the ceremony. Doyle willingly obliged, and soon found that, out of 67 riders, he was one of only two people mounted on non-Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
"I just couldn't resist," says Doyle. "I stood up in front of the whole group right before we took off and I said can I ride up front? I don¹t want to be hit by flying parts or slip on spilled oil."
Although Doyle's comment was delivered in jest, before a group of friends who were very familiar with both his sense of humor and his taste in bikes, it wasn¹t entirely without merit. Doyle simply believes that Japanese cruiser motorcycles like his Shadow are the
best choice on the market, no matter what yardstick of performance, quality or value they are scrutinized against. And, if we look to the ever-increasing share of the market captured by such bikes, it appears that in this belief, Doyle is not alone.
Cruiser-style motorcycles are the hottest category going in motorcycling today. According to the most recent (1998) sales figures gathered by the Motorcycle Industry Council, cruisers account for a commanding 55-percent of the on-highway motorcycle market.
Japanese cruisers only account of 25.4-percent of total cruiser sales, but, judging from preliminary sales figures, this number will rise much higher this year.
Doyle is a co-founder of the C.C. Riders, a Colorado-based cruising club that now numbers nearly 100 bikes. Membership is open to riders of any marque, and currently includes every iteration of Japanese cruiser as well as eight or ten of Milwaukee¹s finest.
In his position, Doyle sees himself as a sort of motorcycling messiah, whose message is one of smooth, spirited and trouble-free cruising. So far he's had no problem finding riders who share his zeal. He and his Japanese cruiser-riding cohorts are now just
waiting for the motorcycle industry (especially at the dealer-level) to catch on and get behind this burgeoning cruiser revolution.
Riders of Japanese cruiser motorcycles love their bikes but are troubled by a lack of available accessories and, more importantly, by a lack of support from dealers in modifying the bikes to suit their needs. Dealers don't stock nearly enough parts and accessories for these motorcycles, riders say, and they make it difficult to order items that they don't have.
What can you, as a dealer, do to better satisfy the needs of these Japanese cruiser riders? Read on and find out what your customers have to say about their dealer experiences, in their own words.
Marc Mauss, co-facilitator of the popular Roadhouse at the shadowriders.org website (see sidebar) and owner of a Honda Shadow VT1100, is just one of the many Japanese cruiser riders that is frustrated by the lack of accessories available for his bike.
"For my Shadow, you can't do anything," says Mauss. "There is simply nothing made to fit my bike."
In the end, Mauss had to resort to his own creativity to make the desired modifications to his bike. For instance, when he was unable to locate a compatible set of hard saddlebags, he fabricated a mounting system to secure two Igloo ice chests which he covered with naugahyde. Same scenario with his driver's backrest the seatback from a common office chair modified to attach to his saddle. Even the windscreen, a generic Lexan shield designed to fit a variety of models, had to be modified for his particular application, with extended wind wings to shield his hands.
This lack of available accessories has had something of a chilling affect on modifications by many owners of these bikes. This is not for lack of desire. On the contrary, many of the people that I spoke with are riders in the most serious sense, who have no
qualms about spending money to increase the comfort and durability of their bikes.
Ralph Friedrich is the webmaster of Fast Eddy's V-Star Pages, an internet site designed to service riders of the V-Star and other Yamaha-branded cruisers. "The people that visit my website are very into modifying their bikes, into personalizing and changing
them, and making their bike unique," says Friedrich. "The only thing that¹s holding them back is the limited supply of aftermarket parts. Cobra makes a little bit, Jardine makes a little bit and Highway Hawk imports some stuff, but for the Yamahas that's about it."
Jo Ann Mlakar is just one example of an avid cruiser rider who is forced to balance her desire to customize with the lack of available parts. A pastor from Tionesta, Penn. who puts over 12,000 miles a year on her Shadow VLX Deluxe, Mlakar says that she rides
"every day that it doesn¹t snow." Despite all of the time that she spends on the bike, she has to date only added a windscreen and throwover saddlebags.
"There isn't a lot of aftermarket parts available, which is part of the reason that I haven¹t done a lot with the bike," says Mlakar. "Going to Americade and Laconia there's almost nothing that I could buy for my bike there, and that¹s a little frustrating."
Even riders who own the more popular and easily accessorized Japanese cruiser models, like the Honda Shadow ACE, are forced to rely on their ingenuity for some modifications. When Denny Doyle was looking for a pair of cushioned floorboards to quell the vibration from his ACE's big twin, he had to get them from the Harley-Davidson aftermarket. He uses a set originally made for Harleys, that have been fitted with an adapter kit made by a local dealer.
When you enter into a typical Harley-Davidson dealership one of the first things you notice is the wealth of accessories available for the Milwaukee-made motorcycles. The accessory department is usually the largest segment of the shop, dwarfing the space
assigned to display bikes or clothing. In fact, the accessory market for Harley-Davidson motorcycles is so vast and well-developed that a person can buy literally one of every single necessary component and build a Harley-Davidson clone bike complete without
using a single genuine H-D piece.
Walk into a typical Japanese franchised dealership, on the other hand, and you might see two or three pipes, a couple of saddles, and some universal-fit throwover saddlebags, at most. Why the discrepancy?
Some dealers say that it has to do with the diverse and non-interchangeable nature of the Japanese cruiser motorcycles. Harley-Davidson only makes two big twin engines, the 1340cc Evolution and the new Twin Cam 88. Stocking parts to fit only two engines, which change remarkably little from year to year, is relatively simple.
Stocking accessories for a Japanese-franchise dealership, on the other hand, is a potential inventory abyss. The Japanese cruiser category comprises 30-some bikes ranging from the single-cylinder Suzuki GZ250X to Honda¹s 1500cc six-cylinder Valkyrie. To try to stock even a basic selection of accessories for each of these models is impossible for all but the very largest shops.
"I'm definitely not stocking as many parts as I should, but I really can't," says Bob Felmlee of World of Wheels, in Seneca, Penn. "We might have to have fifteen or twenty different exhaust systems where a Harley dealer can get away with only two or three."
Felmlee says that another problem that discourages him from stocking big numbers of accessories is the constant changes and redesigns that Japanese motorcycles undergo, which often make parts obsolete before they¹ve been on the floor for more than a few
months. "It's a real problem ordering windshields and stuff for 1500 Vulcans one year then the next year they change the bike and they don't work."
This inventory quandary backs dealers into what seems like a no-win situation dealers can¹t afford to stock a full selection of cruiser parts but they can¹t afford not to either. Not carrying the parts, and not having a convenient system in place to order the
parts you don't carry, means losing a customer to a mail-order house.
"A lot of the people who visit my website refuse to order mail-order because they feel the loyalty to the dealers," says Friedrich. "But more and more people have no loyalty and are going mail-order because the dealers don't meet their needs."
Meeting the Japanese-cruiser customer's needs doesn¹t necessarily mean having the parts on the shelf and ready to walk out the door. On the contrary, most of the riders that I spoke with understand the dealer's position and have no problem ordering parts
provided that they arrive in a timely fashion and there is a return policy of some sort to prevent them from being stuck with an inferior part that they purchased sight-unseen.
"My dealer doesn¹t really stock a lot for these bikes, so I end up ordering everything," says Bob Kircher, a Shadow ACE Tourer rider from Countryside, Ill. "But he's real good about it, and the parts come in two to three days usually, a week max."
Damien Gonzalez, a Shadow VT1100 rider from California, is a little less enthusiastic about ordering parts because of his preferred shop¹s return policy. "Ordering is a problem sometimes because most shops won't let you return [an item] if you don't want it,"
says Gonzalez. "That makes it hard to order a part with confidence unless you've got a friend who already has one that you can see up close."
One dealership that has been especially successful in catering to the Japanese cruiser market is Fay Myers in Denver. One of the top selling Honda dealerships in the country, Fay Myers also sells Suzuki and Kawasaki cruisers, among others.
"We've identified cruisers as a growing market for us, and we¹ve changed the way we deal with them to make the most of this," says General Manager Lloyd Liebertrau. The first thing that Fay Myers did was make a more serious commitment to the category, giving
cruiser accessories more space on the floor and earmarking a greater portion of the budget for the cruiser accessory inventory.
"We stock just about everything that you can bolt on," says Liebertrau. "The market has expanded so much that there¹s no question that you won¹t have everything, but we try and stock any of the main flow stuff like saddlebags, windshields, engine guards and
Fay Myers also supports cruiser riders directly through financing a local cruising club, the C.C. Riders. The dealership covers all operational expenses for the club, including mailers and the internet service, and they provide the club room for meetings and other
"Harley-Davidson has done a good job of establishing clubs and organizations that make a rider feel like part of something," says Liebertrau. "The club gives them a place to meet, to encourage them and to not make them feel like some second-rate rider because
they didn't have a Harley. We want to help people riding Japanese cruisers to enjoy their bikes."
So far, helping Japanese cruiser riders enjoy their bikes has helped boost Fay Myers bottom line. Currently the Denver shop sees 30-percent of its business in the cruiser category, and it expects this margin to continue to grow, thanks to consumer interest and
increased commitment on the part of the shop and staff to this segement.
This increased commitment to the Japanese cruiser market is fine with Denny Doyle, who spends a lot of time shopping at Fay Myers. After all, he still has a little more chrome that he wants to add to his Shadow, and maybe a few performance upgrades to
make, later on down the road. Choices and selection are some things that he'd really appreciate.