Remember the tag line for Jaws II? “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…” Well, you don’t have to worry about sharks, but if you’re a dealer in new motorcycles, and you’re cautiously optimistic after surviving the worst downturn in motorcycle sales in 25 years, steel yourself for another kick in the berries.
The Earthquake, Tsunami and nuclear disaster that struck Japan two months ago isn’t in the headlines every day, but its effects are still being felt. The affected region is home to many large and small component manufacturers, so even if a motorcycle factory isn’t in the damaged (or worse, radioactive) area, it’s still causing problems for Japanese motorcycle companies.
Yamaha dealers I have spoken to are complaining that there is no more 2011 product coming at all. The new Super Ténéré, originally to be delivered to lucky deposit-holders in April, will now likely not be delivered until October or November—deposits may be refunded to customers who ask for it. Yamaha Motor has acknowledged that “supply could likely be tight.”
Kawasaki told me that “adjusting our production schedule is routine for us, so at this point we are adjusting as needed.” Nevertheless, one Kawasaki dealer I spoke with indicated all of his remaining  orders are canceled. In other words, if it’s not in his showroom or in his warehouse right now, it’s not coming.
Honda is sticking by the somewhat vague statement it made on April 1: motorcycle production in its Japanese factory resumed on March 28, but “The parts supply to the factories remains very fluid and we are monitoring and managing this process carefully. Global production of American Honda Powersports products should not be impacted for the foreseeable future, but we will keep you informed of any supply issues if they should arise.” In spite this proclamation, a multi-line dealer told me his orders for the CBR250R have been pushed out into June. Is it because of supply problems? Possibly, or possibly not.
Suzuki didn’t respond to my query (was it something I said? Or the 100-yard rolling burnout on the Burgman scooter at the last press event? I swear that wasn’t me…), so we can’t say what’s going on with that brand.
A different dealer principal with a multi-brand store told me the shortage of product is due to more than just the disasters. “When the economy started to fail [in 2008], the OEMs were ramping up production to meet the demand” they had expected based on several strong years [sales had been strong and rising prior to that time]. This led to “warehouses filled with non-current product, so in response, they had promos and dealer incentives to move bikes, and they cut back on production.” That strategy backfired when the quake struck. This dealer went on to state “Warehouses are empty and they can’t fill them. There’s going to be a real shortage as the economy comes back, and [the OEMs] are downplaying how devastating this is.”
This dealer reported that of the 12 CBR250R orders he placed for 2011, 10 were canceled. “I have full-page ads and I can’t supply the demand.” Only 60 percent of his total Kawasaki orders have been filled, mostly bikes built before April.
That story was echoed by yet another Yamaha dealer I interviewed, who placed a large order on April 1st. Everything from that order was canceled except for 5 scooters, 3 cruisers and a single YZF-R6. In a normal year, he sells between 40 and 60 R6s, but only eight 2011 R6s will roll through his doors.
BMW dealers may be experiencing delays and difficulty getting product. A BMW dealer I visited had a paucity of new models on the floor, and the sales manager told me that he had been vigorously trading with other dealers to keep models in stock and meet customer demand. As for the sizzling new K1600 six-cylinder touring models, delivery seems to be delayed on these as well. BMW North America says there is nothing unusual about the supply of BMW models for 2011 or 2012, but it’s telling that a recent request to test the G650GS may be turned down, as the units designated for the press fleet may be instead sold to hungry dealers.
Triumphs and Ducatis are also getting thin on the ground. A salesman at one dealership told me Triumph stopped producing 2011 models with about half of his orders unfilled. “I could sell three Street Triple R’s right now,” he told me (I’m withholding his name and the name of all the people and shops I’ve visited or called to protect the dealerships and personnel from any negative impact on their business relationships with OEMs) but there are none to be had. He’s also tried to locate models to trade or buy from other dealers, but, according to him, they’ve “sold out every model, at every dealer across the country.” And still, no Tiger 800s have arrived in his dealership, and his shop has only been promised one. Fortunately, 2012 units will start arriving as soon as August.
As for Ducati, the Bologna firm is selling bikes as fast as its little red heart can make them. Ducati North America claims sales are up 50 percent for 2011, and while that’s great for Ducati, the firm can only build as many units for the USA as it plans for, as USA models can only be sold in the USA and vice-versa. The factory plans production numbers based on dealer orders, and dealers were probably feeling pretty conservative when they sent in their orders last fall. I’m guessing we’ll see greater numbers of Ducatis for 2012.
So what’s the bottom line? It appears Japanese OEMs were hit with a double whammy. To start, they may have been on the tail end of cutting back production due to the poor economy in an effort to clear existing inventory when the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster struck knocking out factories and/or important component suppliers. The Europeans, on the other hand, although they may also have been, to a somewhat lesser extent, impacted by a shortage of Japanese-sourced components, appear to have planned production levels for the U.S. market (based on pessimistic dealer estimates) that are, in many cases, substantially below demand.
If I were savvy enough to give dealers advice (and I’m not), I’d tell them to invest heavily in used inventory and work hard to hold their profit margins on the units they still have. I also hope they can weather this particular storm and last another year—anybody who has kept the lights on this long deserves to stay in business.