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It takes a biker village


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  • | 6:00 p.m. September 11, 2008
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It takes a biker village

Motorcycle dealer Scott Fischer is planning to build a biker mall that will bring together brands such as Harley Davidson, Buell and Kawasaki. The economic downturn brings new opportunities.

By Jean Gruss | Editor Lee/Collier

Scott Fischer is a realist, but he won't let the economic downturn sidetrack his dream of creating a biker palace in Fort Myers.

He scrapped plans for the brand new $25-million biker mall he envisioned at the intersection of Interstate 75 and Daniels Parkway in Fort Myers. Instead, he's spending about $4 million refurbishing the company's existing location at a shopping plaza on Colonial Boulevard.

An economic downturn has a way of sharpening your business plans, but it doesn't need to dash them. It's a lesson many retailers on the Gulf Coast might heed. "I want to lead change instead of being forced into it," says Fischer, president of Motorsports Solutions.

Like most retailers on the Gulf Coast, sales at Fischer's four Florida dealerships are down 20% year-over-year. But he has four other dealerships from Albuquerque, N.M. to Columbus, Ohio that balance out the sharper decline in Florida. Overall, the company's sales are down 10%. "A year and a half ago, we planned to cut back and tighten up," Fischer says. "As a result of that, our return on sales is not down and we've maintained profitability."

Still, about a year ago, Fischer scrapped plans for the new facility near I-75 because of the downturn. "The interesting thing that happened was we didn't have a backup plan," he says.

At the time he had bought the new property, Fischer had sold his Harley Davidson dealership property on Colonial Boulevard in a sale-lease-back transaction. But as the economy began to soften, the dealer's neighbors at the shopping plaza closed their doors. This gave Fischer an opportunity to lease most of the plaza for a reasonable $7 per square foot, net of expenses. "We could accomplish everything we wanted to do, we just wouldn't have the new high-tech architecture," Fischer says.

Fischer hired the Charlotte-based retail architecture firm Shook Kelley to redesign the plaza into what Fischer calls a "motorsports destination." It'll be a place where motorcycle enthusiasts can gather to listen to music, eat food, shop for accessories and attend seminars on bike repairs and other topics. An outside area will be lined with palm trees, with retail kiosks that sell sunglasses and cigars, and there will be seating for such gatherings.

The idea is to attract riders from a wider geographic area than just Fort Myers. With music and other entertainment, Fischer hopes to attract day-trippers from St. Petersburg, Sarasota and even the east coast of the state.

"We want to provide our customers with a place where they can hang out and meet others," he says. Fact is, you can buy a motorcycle almost anywhere, even on the Internet. What will attract customers to your store is the experience.

Fischer plans to add 2,500 square feet of retail space to the Harley store that will include draftsmen's tables to help bikers customize their rides. He will open a new Buell dealership next door that will have the feel of racing pits and other areas that sell Bombardier personal watercraft and Kawasaki motorcycles. In total, the motorsports mall will have more than a football field of space.

With Shook Kelley's help, Fischer discovered that the spare-parts employees were the people with whom customers related to best. He likens them to bartenders who are the center of life inside the pub. That revelation means the parts staff became integral to the stores' expansion plans. "They're moving us to another level of retail," he says.

In yet another store nearby, Fischer plans to open a lube and tire center for all major makes of motorcycles. It will be a facility separate from the other stores and with its own staff. "It doesn't have a name yet," says Fischer. "We're going through a branding initiative now and the name will be a part of that."

Construction is scheduled to start this month and the dealership stores will be renovated by the first quarter of next year.

Meanwhile, Fischer is seeing signs of an economic recovery. "The market has reached its bottom and we're seeing strengthening," he says of his motorcycle business. "Every store hit budget," he adds. "We don't see the constant decline."

The best-performing store is the one in Albuquerque. The only area of weakness is the sales of personal watercraft. "It's an expensive luxury toy," Fischer says. By contrast, Fischer says motorcycles are more utilitarian and cost less to operate.

 

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