Motorcycle Sales Are Improving, But Could They Be Better?

Source: Harley-Davidson

While the recession hit new car sales hard, for most Americans, owning a car is a necessity. They may have held on to their cars for a few more years, but eventually, they had to buy more cars. That means that even though new car sales in the U.S. dropped significantly for a few years, total new car sales in 2014 were higher than they were in 2007, and only slightly lower than in 2006. The recession bankrupted several car companies, but the ones that remain are generally strong and selling well.

Motorcycle sales, on the other hand, aren’t looking that great. For the vast majority of buyers, motorcycles are second or third vehicles, and not necessities. Even as the economy is improving, a lot of people still feel the pressure to avoid excess, and it appears that means either buying used motorcycles or not buying motorcycles at all.

RevZilla did a great breakdown recently that highlighted just how bad the situation is. Despite total sales of 1.1 million motorcycles and scooters in 2007 and 2008, total sales in 2014 were just 560,000. The biggest drop was in 2009, but instead of seeing steady increases year-over-year since then, sales have stayed stagnant. In fact, 2013 was worse for motorcycle sales than 2010 or 2011.

Motorcycle manufacturers have been struggling to recover after the recession, selling half as many motorcycles as they did beforehand. Unlike the car market, the motorcycle market has been much closer to stagnant than steadily recovering. Sales in 2014 were better than they were in 2013, and 2015 will likely be a better year than 2014, but it likely won’t be huge. The days of seeing more than a million motorcycle sales a year will probably take years to return.

Even with sales that are significantly lower than they were, motorcycle manufacturers haven’t given up. The typical motorcycle customer is changing, though, and the companies that are succeeding are the ones adapting to those changing customers. Harley-Davidson, for example, is struggling to keep profits up while sales of its highly customized and profitable top-of-the-line bikes take a nose dive. Despite that, Harley-Davidson introduced its Street 500 and Street 750 bikes to draw in new riders.

Source: Harley-Davidson

Companies like Ducati and Honda are making similar moves. These new bikes aren’t just for riders who can’t handle the power of a regular model; they’re also designed for city use, where raw power is less important than maneuverability. They’re designed for more potholes than a typical sports bike can handle without causing a back injury, and with spectacular fuel economy, they make it tempting for people who rely on public transportation to get around.

There will probably always be a market for traditional cruisers and sport bikes, but as older riders age out of riding, finding new riders to take their place is important. It’s not like there aren’t compelling reasons to ride motorcycles. A good, basic motorcycle costs less than the least expensive new car on the market, and it’s also cheaper to insure and maintain throughout the year. It will get better fuel economy than most hybrids, and even in areas where parking is incredibly difficult to find, there’s almost always a place to easily park a motorcycle. Plus, they’re incredibly addicting to ride. Who’s ever said that about driving a subcompact economy car?

If only a small percentage of American drivers bought a motorcycle for part-time use, it would blow the motorcycle market wide open. Battling over existing riders is going to be difficult and expensive, but with so much potential there, surely motorcycle companies could be doing more to woo new riders. More extensive advertising would be important, but so would creative advertising.

A lot of the potential new buyers are women. Advertisements and programs aimed at helping women realize motorcycles are just as much for women as they are for men could be huge.

With so much potential, it’s a shame motorcycle companies aren’t doing more to bring in new riders. It’s also a shame that what they are doing doesn’t get much attention.With a larger base of urban buyers and new riders, the sales of smaller, less exciting bikes would end up funding the development of low-volume bikes built for people who love riding fast. The new bikes are out there, but unfortunately, they can’t sell themselves.

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