Retail with Iconic Allure

by Suzanne VanGilder

 

Listen to that idle. Pop-pop…pop-pop…pop-pop… So distinctive. It’s the sound of an engine with a V arrangement of cylinders, two pistons and a crankshaft with one pin. There’s only one bike on the road today that makes that sound – Harley-Davidson, an American icon.

With 640 independently owned and operated dealers in the United States and 1100 worldwide, there is no doubting the broad allure of the Harley-Davidson brand and related culture. Harley-Davidson offers anyone – motorhead to executive, grease monkey to grandmother – an invitation to the open road. Part of what makes Harley-Davidson unique is the degree of customization the brand offers, from handlebars and pipes to boots and bandanas. Owning a Hog is as much an artistic expression as it is a speed sport. Robust retail opportunity? Darn right.

“I call it ‘transition.’ You see customers come in and you see their personality. Whether they're shy, introverted, an outsider or whatever they are as an individual,” says Mark Wheelihan, owner of Harley-Davidson of Greensboro. “You watch them get bikes, and they meet new people and have new experiences. It becomes a part of who they are. In two to three months, they are more confident, more social. They’re more adventurous. You see a banker come in and within a few weeks he starts letting his hair grow a little differently, maybe he grows a goatee. A year later he’s wearing sleeveless shirts on the weekend and has a Harley-Davidson tattoo. It changes the people who ride.”

Wheelihan, who has a lifetime of retail expertise in markets ranging from shoes to luxury cars, is not speaking in hyperbole – the numbers back up his observation. “Even in mall environments that have a high repeat count, there might be 10 to 12 touches in a year,” says Wheelihan. “When someone buys a Harley-Davidson we have 10-14 touches a month. We have to keep things moving, because once a person comes into the fold and the family, they are there a couple of times a week. So we have to move product around.”

Yet just as each Harley-Davidson owner is an individual, so is each dealer. From mom and pop shops that reach back four generations, to multi-location barons with big box mentalities, to retail-savvy enthusiasts with a love of the brand – it takes all types in all regions to spread the Harley-Davidson culture. Authentic regionalism is an ingenious brand strategy, provided the fundamentals of the brand are preserved. That is where the Harley-Davidson Retail Environments Group comes in. “They want individuality in the dealers, but they create standards to guide the specifications for finishes, lighting and concepts that enhance each section of the store. And they regularly update those,” says Wheelihan. “ They don’t require a remodel every five years, but that is about the cycle of rolling out new lighting and design concepts.”

 

Test Driving New Design Concepts…Vroom

There are three design firms that are approved to do new-builds and remodels for Harley-Davidson stores, but as far as materials go, the selection of finishes is pretty much up to the dealer. When Wheelihan recently remodeled his dealership, it happened to coincide with a dramatic change in design direction. For the past 20 years, the edict for showplace dealerships was big “wow” impact when people walked in – from architecture to interior finishes. Think chrome and neon. “Harley-Davidson decided to test with my store the idea of moving away from the building being the attraction. Instead the idea is to make the design more about the product. It was a pretty dramatic shift,” says Wheelihan. “So the challenge was how to do that and still maintain the warmth of the store without murdering out all the surfaces? How do we keep it interesting and stay away from the brushed steel and diamond plate that has been done to death?”

The solution, indeed all the solutions for the project, came from Greensboro, N.C.-based ATI Decorative Laminates, a manufacturer and fabricator of unconventional laminates. “We have eight different lines which all have the same purpose: architectural and interior decoration,” says Vern Combrink, vice president of sales for ATI. The company is in the sexy business. In addition to NuMetal – a line of traditional metal HPL that ATI distributes on behalf of Dekodur – the company manufactures seven lines of hybrid-laminated products that go beyond the ordinary. In its 75,000 square-foot facility, ATI has sections dedicated to lamination, vacuum forming, cutting, quality control, packaging and shipping. There is also an area for the Fusion™ process that produces large-scale graphic panels. ATI has significant storage on-site because it sells product both on a custom project basis (with a 5-10 day lead-time) and to stock big box retailers.

 

From Flash to Rumble

Wheelihan’s remodel used two specific ATI products in several applications. The first is Mirroflex, a decorative foil and PVC thermoplastic laminate available in sheet or panel. The product is vacuum formed to give it deep texture and installed without a substrate board. The result is a very lightweight decorative product that is Class A fire rated and easy to install. A specialty overlay film developed for ATI called “TuffCote” is added to give the product high chemical, stain and impact resistance. “We have between 90 and 100 patterns, and 35 finishes, so there are about 3500 possible looks for MirroFlex,” says Combrink. “It can look old world with heavy patina, ultra modern with subtle coloration and geometric designs, and everything in between.”

To tone down the space in the dealership, MirroFlex Cascade pattern in EccoFlex black finish was applied directly over the mirrored columns in the store. “We also used one of the MirroFlex ceiling panel systems with the Madison pattern in the same black finish,” says Wheelihan. “It is subdued, but still has interest unlike just a spray painted black ceiling, which is what a lot of businesses do. It is a more finished look.” A bubble-patterned MirroFlex adorns the store’s cashwraps, while MirroFlex in Sahara with a paintable surface custom finished in Harley-Davidson orange is used for the walls surrounding the “chrome consulting” area. “That is where we as dealers sit down with customers to do design on their motorcycles, so it is a work space,” says Wheelihan. “You can touch the Mirroflex and it is so solid that you can’t tell what the material is for sure. It holds up really great. This is the second time I have used ATI laminate in remodels in that store and it looks as good when you take it down as when it was put up.”

During the design process Wheelihan and people from the Harley-Davidson Retail Environments Group toured ATI to learn more about their materials and options. “One of the challenges was how to create more warmth with graphics,” says Wheelihan. “We came back wanting to do historic Harley-Davidson photos on large scale panels. ATI was able to blow up the images to as big as 72 feet while maintaining clarity.” The product is ATI’s Fusion, which is made using a proprietary process to infuse an image into the coating of the substrate, resulting in a graphic that is fused into the material, as opposed to digitally printed on the surface. “We can do Fusion on FRP, wood, aluminum, glass, tile, fabric and more,” says Combrink. “Greensboro Harley-Davidson chose plywood with a maple veneer because they wanted something a little softer than metal. You can actually see the woodgrain come through. Because the pictures are vintage, the substrate and the images married together perfectly for what they wanted to achieve.”

The Fusion panels are installed both as accents in the ceiling above the cashwrap and on the walls of the parts and motor-clothes departments. “We put the graphics behind the products so as product sells, pieces of the art are exposed,” says Wheelihan. “As you walk around the store, you catch these cool designs and it gets more interesting. Then when we move displays around, the graphic effect changes. It is a really cool concept and the result is fantastic.”

The completed remodel succeeded in meeting the updated Harley-Davidson retail criteria. In fact, Harley-Davidson’s Retail Environments Group was so pleased with the project and the materials that they granted blanket approval for any dealer to source any ATI product. “Their eyes bugged out of their heads because now they are thinking about all these possibilities,” says Wheelihan. “It turned out so well that they are looking at highlighting our store at the next dealer show in August.” At the end of the day, the materials and designs have to match the culture of the Harley-Davidson brand: Live to ride, ride to live.