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Harley's Midlife Crisis
As its riders age, are sales figures born to be mild?

Harley-Davidson turns a hundred years old this month, and business is vrooming. Some 264,000 of its heavyweight "hogs" were shipped to dealers last year. But there's a bump in the road ahead: Harley's best customers are now middle-aged men—baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964—and that doesn't bode well for future sales.

The median age of American motorcycle buyers was 32 in 1990; in 1998 it was 38. Harley's typical buyer in 2001 was even older at 46. Boomers' love for the brand makes sense. Harley's reputation as the tough-guy's bike of choice blossomed when boomers were young and impressionable. Plus, many riders can't afford the motorcycles, which can cost around $20,000, until middle age. The company's decision to market its leather-jacket image to white-collar workers helped bring it back from the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-80s.

Yet the same demographic that saved the legendary motorcycle company will cause it trouble in a decade or two. By then, boomers may be getting too old to buy motorcycles. The smaller, post-boom generation that arrived as birthrates declined in the 1960s probably won't supply enough potential consumers to step into boomers' motorcycle boots. And they're unlikely to feel particularly nostalgic for Harley's Easy Rider image and trademark engine roar.

Today bikers in their 20s prefer to ride something flashier and cheaper. So Harley is retooling its appeal with sportier-style cycles (like the V-Rod) and less expensive models. And it's going after a new demographic: women. The company's female buyers have already increased from 2 percent in 1987 to 9 percent in 2001. Since 1999 some 40 percent of the more than 16,000 people who have taken the riding lessons offered at many dealerships are women.

Of course, the aging baby boom won't be a bust for every industry. Demographer Cheryl Russell predicts that boomers who backpacked around the world in their youth will have time and money to set out again—this time in a bit more style. So travel businesses should prosper in the future. Another winner, already on the rise, is in the alcoholic beverage category. "Every generation has its own association with alcohol," Russell explains. "The World War II group drank hard liquor. Baby boomers will be drinking a lot more wine."

—Margaret G. Zackowitz

Web Links

Baby Boomers
Enter the forum on the Worldwide Community Website for the Baby Boomer Generation.

Official Harley-Davidson Website
Explore the vrooming world of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

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Schneider, Greg. "Rebels With Disposable Income," Washington Post, April, 26, 2003.


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