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Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Comment: By AMD Editor-in-Chief Robin Bradley

New season promises much, but don't look for a return to the "bad old days"

"Bad Old Days?" I hear you ask. "You mean the bad old days when we saw annual double digit business growth and sales flowed like milk and honey? They were 'Bad' days?"

Well, yes they were. Unsustainable growth is always bad growth, regardless of the percentages involved, and our case, and that of many other discretionary leisure Dollar spend industries, the growth we "endured" to 2006 was unsustainable on so many levels.

This isn't new news of course, and I am far from the only person to point to such blindingly obvious common sense - but hindsight is a tricky lens through which to judge the past, and at the time we here at AMD were among the only media types (especially media types) to be preaching caution about where the market was headed.

In a media industry whose independence is compromised by not wanting to burn the hype that pays the bills, the motorcycle press and wider financial and news media were almost completely silent in terms of there ever conceivably being the risk that the party could come to an abrupt end.

It was "King's Clothes" syndrome - but the parents came home unexpectedly early, and my, how the party crashed, and how naked everybody looked!

What is happening to us now, the growth we are enjoying rather than enduring, just needs to be judged realistically and seen for what it is. At this time the growth in the motorcycle industry, most but not all parts of the industry, and most but not all parts of the world, is certainly modest by historic percentage standards, and definitely still fragile in terms of macro-economic terms.

Yeah, yeah - I hear what you're saying - "Bradley is on his soap box again, turning out all the same words but just in a different order!" Well, given that we are emerging into an era in which our businesses are being conducted in an environment in which there certainly is a very "different order of things" informing market growth, too right, I am on my soap box again!

'don't bet the farm on growth yet'
I think having been the lone siren voice counselling impending doom when the milk and honey flowed kind of buys me that right!

Here is a startling fact - at present the rate of growth in new motorcycle sales, including at Harley and Polaris, and even in the modest low single digit growth many (but far from all) of our businesses are enjoying, is out-stripping wider economic growth.

Now sure there is "low hanging fruit" as delayed spending starts to find its way into dealership cash registers, but while the wider economic forecasts remain as marginal as they still are, nobody had better bet the farm on growth yet!

Low single digit returns on investment may not be sexy, but they are sustainable and, in truth, are the natural economic order of things, especially for a niche market that depends on subjectivity rather than need.

Nobody 'needs' a custom air-cleaner as such, nobody 'needs' to be able to go fast enough to be a ticket magnet - but 'needs' and 'want' have never been easy bed-fellows. While the former is definable, the latter is the product of an abstraction that can be nurtured, sure, but never again should our industry allow itself to get into a position of dependency on it.

That the 'custom' motorcycle market will continue to take a gradually larger slice of  overall motorcycle sales is apparent - the emerging competition between Harley-Davidson and Polaris Industries' Victory and Indian Motorcycle offerings will do much to galvanize consumers in the years ahead, and the likes of the Japanese big four, but above all the opportunities that the 'custom' motorcycle market may offer, is not going unnoticed by the likes of Triumph, BMW and Ducati.

Competition between OEs will stimulate growth, even if it is by taking sales from other sectors of the motorcycle riding and ownership experience.

However, how much of that growth will trickle down into the aftermarket, and in what timescale, remains to be seen. Some will, for sure - indeed some already is, but the 21st century motorcycle manufacturer looks to its own accessory programs as a primary income (and above all profits) source, and no longer treats it as icing on the cake.

So the competition that aftermarket parts designers and manufacturers now face is way different to the near vacuum that informed the explosion that started in the late eighties, and started, don't anyone forget, in a riding environment that twenty years earlier had been characterized by owners who were rebelling against extraneous accessories, clutter and weight on their rides-of-choice.

Ours always has been an industry defined by paradox, and it will need to be so again in the future if 'want' is to again emerge as being as bankable as the need for staples has been - a need that has been our sustenance since the market peaked in 2006, and one that nobody should again allow themselves to be diverted from, or else the farm could well end up on the block again.