“Dad, I want to learn how to ride a motorcycle.”
When my daughter expressed interest in joining the motorcycle riding community, I was excited and supportive. The parent in me wanted her to learn proper riding and safety skills, and to have fun in the process. After an MSF course and her MC endorsement, she began shopping for her first bike. I quickly saw firsthand just what a horrible experience entering the motorcycling community can be for a new rider, especially female riders. We have to do better if the motorcycle industry is to grow.
It’s no secret that motorcycle sales in the United States are on a sharp decline. In the decade between 2007 – 2017, they dropped by more than half from one million to only 472,000 (source: Statista). Harley-Davidson feels this decline as badly as anyone, bleeding 10% of domestic sales between 2017 and 2018. It’s a trend that saddens most of us who love the sport of motorcycling, and believe the world is a better place with more people riding rather than driving.
Much of the decline is attributed to three key factors:
- An older demographic “aging out” of riding. This is true of the entire industry, and especially painful for Harley-Davidson, who relies upon baby boomers to buy their premium-priced heavyweight cruisers. As baby boomers age out of riding, the audience shrinks.
- A new demographic of millennials aren’t taking up riding. In many cases, they aren’t driving. Some don’t even get to Starbucks until 10 a.m.! It’s harder to sell motorcycles to someone who has never had an interest in riding.
- Ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber, along with shared-ownership and pay-for-usage programs being piloted by major manufacturers are changing people’s ideas about owning vehicles, especially in urban and suburban areas.
Most manufacturers are actively trying to expand the audience of potential motorcycle buyers by attracting new audiences to the sport. By creating more approachable and affordable motorcycles, they hope to attract more young riders, more female riders, and more people who might have historically been intimidated at the idea of owning and riding a motorcycle.
Examples of success include Ducati’s Scrambler line of motorcycles, which features smaller-displacement bikes than Ducati is normally know for. They have many Scramblers under $10,000 and a huge spectrum of customization options including bright colors. Ducati calls it the “Joyvolution,” and it’s the antithesis of hardcore. Triumph’s Street Twin also stands out as an approachable bike, with a low seat height, sub-$10K price point, and easy-to-operate controls. “Street Twin buyers represent the widest age range of any of its Bonneville models and many are new riders, plus more than twice the ‘normal’ number are women–no doubt attracted to the Twin’s sub-30-inch seat height,” writes Rider Magazine’s Jenny Smith. Finally, H-D’s Street 500 and Street 750 models are smoother, quieter, more modern and affordable than the traditional hog. You’ll find similarly great bikes from every major manufacturer.
The manufacturers are putting in the effort with models to attract new buyers, but the sales continue to plummet. Why is this? After visiting six dealerships with my nineteen year-old daughter, armed with her brand new motorcycle endorsement, I’m convinced that a significant part of the problems is the dealerships. Specifically: the sales staff trying to sell these bikes to a new audience of potential riders is disconnected with what it feels like to try to enter the sport.
BMW, Ducati, Harley-Davidson, Honda, and Triumph were all primary targets for her shopping. I was intent on not making decisions for her, but rather to offer my experience and advice when she asked for it. My role was less as Dad, and more of a buddy along on the shopping trip.
At three of these dealerships, the reception is what one might associate with a pre-1920s mindset about the sexes: The man is there to make decisions and is the only one in the party to be engaged; The women is just there to support the male shopper however he sees fit. There are loud echos of this in modern workplaces and schools, where women face challenges that most men aren’t even aware of, even as men contribute to them consciously or unconsciously.
This manifests immediately with a hearty “Welcome! What can I help you with?” directed at me, rather than my daughter. I was conscious to let her walk in ahead of me. In one of the cases, I had a longstanding relationship with a bike shop employee, so I did initiate the conversation, but it was to introduce my daughter as the buyer. Despite my explicitly identifying her as the shopper and the decision maker, every question came to me, not her. Every query about a model came to me, not her. It was as if she didn’t exist when it came to interest in motorcycles.
I would have hoped for an exploration into what she’s researched, if there are styles that speak to her, whether she has ridden anything or not. Most importantly, I hoped for a conversation about what type of riding she expect to do, and what her aspirations are for a motorcycle experience in the coming years. These are the conversations that help a salesperson get a new rider onto the right motorcycle, but they can’t be effective if they aren’t directed at the rider herself!
A general dismissal of the new, young, female rider was an unfortunate norm.
You’re not qualified, dear!
When a new rider has gone to the effort to enroll in, pay for, and successfully pass a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, and use their certification of completion to get that magical badge of honor on their driver’s license, they’re proud.
A motorcycle endorsement represents that the state considers them competent to ride, and every new rider deserves a congratulations on the accomplishment and a warm welcome to the world of motorcycling.
Despite ignoring my daughter, most dealerships did end up inviting her to test ride. She was looking at starter bikes, so there was little concern about her ability to handle them properly during a brief test ride.
At one dealership, however, every aspect of her ability to ride was questioned and undermined. Upon arrival, the we had to listen to fifteen minutes of the salesman explain how he believes that the MSF courses aren’t legitimate. My daughter stood there patiently listening to him bemoan that the classes don’t introduce hills, so they shouldn’t be giving students MC endorsements. He insisted they don’t get up to highway speeds, and shouldn’t be licensed. He demanded that the state refuse to acknowledge MSF graduates because they hadn’t spent considerable time in real traffic conditions.
In short, her introduction to motorcycling at this dealership was an invalidation of her license, the skills she had learned, and her right to ride. We should have left. I appreciate that no weekend course can fully prepare a rider for what will take thousands of miles to learn, but if a goal of salespeople at dealerships is to invite new riders into the sport, invalidating them upon introduction is not the way to do it.
Next on this dealer’s agenda was to “qualify” her to test ride their bikes with a barrage of questions. The questions ranged from “What did you learn in the MSF class?” to, “Has your dad let you ride his bikes yet?” This was a surprise to her, as other dealers had invited her to test ride. When she began looking quizzically about the questions, the salesman barked, “You have to convince me that you deserve to ride my motorcycles. That’s what these questions are about. Putting you on a $10,000 new motorcycle and having you drop it and your dad having to buy you a damaged bike that you don’t want isn’t the experience I want you to have.”
Consider for a moment: half an hour in, this guy has invalidated her license and questioned her ability to ride, put an onus on her to prove that she is qualified to be his customer, and struck financial fear into her under the assumption that she’s not buying her own motorcycle. I lost count of layers of wrong involved in this approach. We were invested at this point, but test rode quickly and left, never to return.
My daughter wasn’t the only sale lost as a result of this guy’s approach. I will never make a purchase there again. No bikes, no personal watercraft, no parts, no service. If a shop can’t treat a new rider with respect, can’t appreciate the need to grow the community of riders, and can’t engage a female buyer as a competent rider and purchaser of motorcycles, then they don’t deserve anyone’s business.
High five on the endorsement! Ready to ride?
One local dealership – Triumph of Seattle – stood out amongst them all as having the right approach to welcoming new riders. When we first visited, my daughter hadn’t yet taken the class. We were doing very early shopping. But Andy in sales warmly welcomed her to the shop. Not me, but her.
She explained where she was at in the shopping process, and despite not being ready to buy that day, Andy spent over an hour with her. He suggested bikes that might be a good fit for her. He insisted that she sit on them. He held bikes up so that she could experience a riding position. At one point, he had a parts clerk fetching alternative seats to put on showroom bikes to test out different feels of seat height and firmness.
The focus was so squarely on her getting familiar with options and experiencing them first hand, that I actually left for a while to check out gear for myself and browse some other makes of bike at their sister dealership next door. When I returned, Andy was insisting that she come back with her endorsement ready to test ride her top picks.
That’s exactly what we did. And when we returned, Seattle Triumph was waiting for us with a high five for her on the accomplishment of an MC endorsement. They sent her out on a Street Twin, her top choice. She bought it there a week later.
More riders = better riding
It doesn’t matter whether you enjoy riding solo or with a group. More people on motorcycles is a win for everyone involved in the sport. Manufacturers have a larger market to sell into and create more options for shoppers. Dealerships move more bikes to more people, boosting their small business and local economies. Gear shops put get on more people and more bikes.
Best of all: We riders get to share the road with more fellow riders who generally pay attention to the road, wave to us as they pass with a smile, and consume less petrol, can park more densely in the city, and congest the freeways less during commutes.
All of these benefits require a new generation of riders who will be increasingly diverse. Potential riders who are young, female, or otherwise underserved by today’s motorcycle industry need to be welcomed to the sport with open arms. Salespeople are in a unique position to make that experience great, but it’s time for them to do a consistently better job of it.