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Five reasons why Harley Davidson failed in India

Already facing declining interest among young customers in markets around the world, the pandemic has only expedited the need for a restructuring. To stay afloat, Harley Davidson is planning to trim its product portfolio by a third and shrink its global footprint to 50-odd profitable markets

twitter-logoSumant Banerji | August 20, 2020 | Updated 18:04 IST
Five reasons why Harley Davidson failed in India
Harley Davidson has sold less than 30,000 units in India in 10 years

The iconic American cruiser bike maker has sold less than 30,000 units in India in 10 years. That is half of what Royal Enfield sells in a month. What went wrong?

The worst pandemic in 100 years has resulted in a massive churn in corporate board rooms across sectors and countries. For Milwaukee-based iconic American cruiser bike maker Harley Davidson, it is particularly intense. Already facing declining interest among young customers in markets around the world, the pandemic has only expedited the need for a restructuring. To stay afloat, Harley is planning to trim its product portfolio by a third and shrink its global footprint to 50-odd profitable markets. India could be among the countries most likely to face the axe.

Only last August, the company completed a decade in the market but longevity is no benchmark for success. In these 10 years, Harley has sold only a little over 27,000 units in the country-segment leader Royal Enfield sells double of that every month. Last fiscal, it sold a mere 2,470 units and only about 100 motorcycles in the first quarter of this fiscal. It isn't profitable either and there are no signs of a turnaround in the near future. Like other American auto majors-General Motors and Ford (which are merging their India business with Mahindra group), Harley found the going to be tough in India. The exit door is nearer than ever before. Here is what went wrong for the company:

Not a market for big bikes

On paper, India is one of the biggest two-wheeler markets in the world. More than 17 million two-wheelers were sold in the market last fiscal, more than anywhere else in the world. Yet, it is a market not for big burly and noisy leisure bikes in which Harley excels, but for puny commuter machines meant for intracity runabouts that cost less, are easy to maintain and dirt cheap to run. Over 90 per cent of them are motorcycles, scooters and mopeds with engine capacity of less than 150cc. Volumes in the super bike category with engines bigger than 500cc and where Harley operates, are restricted to just a shade over 25,000 units per annum. Quite simply, Harley isn't meant for India.

Incomplete portfolio

The smallest and most affordable Harley motorcycle in India is the 750cc Street 750 that costs Rs 4.7 lakh. The entire range that consists of more than a dozen bikes tops out with the 1923cc CVO Limited that costs upwards of half a crore. This kind of pricing even with attractive finance options, puts a Harley out of the reach of most Indians. What did not help matters was the company's delay in bringing out smaller displacement and more affordable bikes for emerging markets like India. Neither did it have options like off-roaders, which Triumph and KTM have, or out an out sports bikes like BMW. Though under a Harley logo it would have been an anathema to purists, straddled only with cruisers and tourers, Harley was boxed with a niche and small segment of the market.

Royal Enfield

In India, Harley Davidson found a fierce challenger in the Royal Enfield and by all means it came up short against the local rival. In fact, the growth of Enfield in the last 10 years suggests that entry of Harley only helped it. As its owner Siddhartha Lal says the noise and curiosity around Harley Davidson when it first entered India gave cruiser biking a new impetus in the country. Customers checked out a Harley and drooled over them but ended up buying the more affordable, lighter and easy to maintain Enfield. What hurt the American company more was that the Indian brand didn't sit idle instead. Without the baggage of needing to make only cruisers, Enfield brought out newer models like the Himalayan off-roader. More recently, it charted into Harley territory directly with the twin cylinder 650cc Interceptor twins. Enfield was ripe for the taking too and its massive market share meant even a small dent would have been enough for Harley to sustain itself. But it never even gave it a half decent shot. Dismissive at all times, Harley still doesn't have an answer to good old Enfield.    

Lack of a local partner

If you can't beat them join them. KTM and Triumph did it with Bajaj Auto. BMW did it with TVS. Harley remained in glorious isolation. The result is there for all to see. Though there were widespread rumours of a potential tie-up with India's largest two-wheeler maker Hero MotoCorp, the companies never admitted nor refuted such claims. Harley instead found a partner in Qianjiang of China, a subsidiary of Geely Motors, to make smaller bikes. The first such bike could be a 350cc cruiser that would put it bang in the middle of Enfield territory in India.  The only glitch-it is being developed with the Chinese market in mind and may never come to India. Had it been with an Indian company say a Hero, it would have been a different story.

Unsuitable for India

Another big reason why Harley could not sell in India in numbers it thought it should was many customers felt its suspension and chassis had not been tuned enough for India's pothole ridden roads. Faulty brakes and burnt clutch plates are the most obvious problems and repairing or replacing them are no mean tasks either. Social media sites are replete with customers narrating their horrid experiences-parts not available with dealers for weeks on end, high cost of service or recurring malfunctions. On numerous occasions, Harley had to also issue recalls to fix those problems. While the R word is no longer a taboo in India, it did the credibility of the company no good. The perception that went around was that the bikes aren't equipped to handle the rough and tumble of Indian roads. "Customers expected a no hassle ownership when they bought a bike for Rs 10 lakh and above. Instead, they realised they have a high maintenance white elephant," says a former dealer with the company. "It did not go down well with them." He isn't surprised a bit by what has become of Harley in India.

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