Harley-Davidson tries to regain its coolness factor

Harley-Davidson tries to regain its coolness factor

Tiffany Camhi rolls up to work on her motorcycle.

Despite the eye-catching entrance Camhi makes each day, the Northern California resident prefers smaller motorcycles. Her 1983 Yamaha Virago XV500 is less in-your-face than a Harley-Davidson.

“I could never see myself on a Harley,” said Camhi. “They’re really loud and super expensive.”

The 30-year-old Camhi isn’t alone.

Harley-Davidson motorcycles have been a mainstay in the industry since the company was established in 1903 in Milwaukee. But the Hog maker has struggled of late.

Thursday’s earnings report marked the end of another difficult year, with the company posting a 6.7 percent decline in worldwide retail sales in 2017 compared with the year before. Motorcycle shipments were also at a six-year low.

Harley lowered its 2018 shipment expectations to a range of 231,000 to 236,000 bikes after narrowly meeting its target in 2017 at 241,498 vehicles. While the company anticipates increased international retail growth this year, retail sales in the U.S. are expected to be down, according to Michael Pflughoeft, manager of corporate media relations for Harley-Davidson.

To try to turn things around, the company has to inspire the next generation of bikers to replace the ones who are aging out. Millennials are proving to be a tough audience: They want smaller, cheaper motorcycles — the antithesis of Harleys.

The issue seems to be a generational one. Baby boomers fell in love with the oversized bikes as the symbol of romance on the open road. But younger generations aren’t interested in their parents’ motorcycles.

“It’s like the Cadillac or the Mercedes,” said David Beckel, an AllianceBernstein analyst who tracks Harley-Davidson. “You might turn away from it if you’re younger because it’s not your idea of cool.”

Light-weight, off-road, and electric bikes have gained popularity among riders, according to Jim Woodruff, chief operating officer of National Powersport Auctions, a motorcycle and powersport wholesale channel. So has the minimalist look.

“Ten to 15 years ago, bikes with a lot of plastic were cool,” Woodruff said. “Now it’s bikes that look more naked.”

Last year, in an attempt to give riders what they want, Harley-Davidson launched eight new Softail motorcycles. The consumer response to the line has been overwhelmingly positive, said Pflughoeft.

The smaller, more fashionable bikes, released just in time for the company’s 115th birthday, have the same powerful engines as larger Harleys. But some of the motorcycles are as much as 35-pounds lighter than previous models.

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