Kauai Harley-Davidson keeps cruising

LIHUE — Kauai Harley-Davidson keeps cruising the island despite declining sales nationwide.

The Milwaukee-based company is placing a renewed emphasis on attracting more customers as the industry grapples with years of declining sales and an aging customer base.

The Puhi dealership, which generates much of its income from renting motorcycles, was the first stop for Kyle Silvernail, who was visiting Kauai from Chugiak, Alaska, along with his family.

“I’m renting it for a week while I’m here,” he said. “It’s cold in Alaska. We only get four or five months of real riding time up there.”

In addition to the iconic motorcycles, the Kauai store also rents and sells Kawasaki UTVs and Yamaha motor bikes at its full parts and service department. Many of its daily customers are visitors looking to purchase customized Kauai Harley-Davidson gear, including shirts, wallets, hats, shot glasses, travel mugs, umbrellas and poker chips.

Canadian Cole Magnusson, visiting from Winnipeg, Manitoba, with his family, was celebrating his 19th birthday and was eager to check out the Kauai store merchandise.

“He buys a Harley-Davidson T-shirt every time he comes to Hawaii,” said his mom, Marilyn Magnusson. “It’s minus 40 degrees Celsius back home right now.”

Owned by Aloha Auto Group, the Kauai Harley-Davidson also caters to island farmers and ranchers with off-road Kawasaki Mules and other all-terrain vehicles. With just nine employees, the store is showing increased sales through radio advertising and online shopping, according to sales manager John Baroni.

Nationwide, Harley-Davidson sold 124,777 new motorcycles through nine months in 2017, down from 135,581 during the same period the previous year, according to the company’s most recent earnings report.

The Motorcycle Industry Council says the median age of motorcycle owners increased from 32 to 47 since 1990. About 46 percent of riders are over 50; only about 10 percent are 30-34.

Harley-Davidson launched its “Riding Academy” in 2000 to teach people to ride and attract a new generation of riders amid big demographic shifts. Plans for the academy on Oahu are in the works, with potential support from the University of Hawaii.

“Some of the aging Baby Boomers, which have been the guts of Harley-Davidson’s purchasers, they’re getting older and some of them are just getting out of the sport because they can’t handle the motorcycle anymore,” said Clyde Fessler, who retired from Harley-Davidson in 2002 after holding several executive positions over 25 years.

In addition to riders getting older, a slow economic recovery has made it harder for millennials to buy new motorcycles, said Jim Williams, vice president of the American Motorcyclist Association.

Among the newest models, a 2018 Softail Slim starts at $15,899 and a 2018 Sportster Forty-Eight at $11,299.

“The younger generations are buying plenty of motorcycles; they’re just not new,” Williams said.

But it’s not all the millennials’ fault, said Robert Pandya, who managed public relations for Indian Motorcycles and Victory Motorcycles. Pandya recently launched “Give A Shift,” a volunteer group discussing ideas to promote motorcycling. One of their conclusions, he said, is the idea that “if mom rides, the kids will ride.”

Currently, women are about 14 percent of the riding population, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

“The biggest possible opportunity in motorcycling is to invite more women to ride,” he said.

Among the ways Harley- Davidson is trying to reach younger riders is by having motorcycle role-models like Jessica Haggett, the founder of the “The Litas” all-women motorcycle club, be a voice for the company on social media. The company is also focusing advertising efforts in male-dominated sports like the X Games and UFC events popular with younger viewers.

“I think we have to work harder to gain share of mind with young adults, for example, in that they have other activities in their lives. They’re on screens, they’re connecting socially, they’re involved in gaming, they’re involved in other things,” said Heather Malenshek, Harley-Davidson’s vice president of marketing.

She said the easily customizable Sports Glide model that launched in November and the aggressive, performance-driven Fat Bob also have younger riders in mind. In all, the company plans to release 100 new motorcycles over the next 10 years. During that time, the company also hopes to gain 2 million new riders.

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