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Motors running at new Harley Davidson Lakeside dealership

With 2,000,000 square feet of prime retail space attracting 25m visitors each year Intu Lakeside Shopping Centre is, for most, a shopaholic’s paradise.

For one particular group though – motorcyclists – this car driver’s magnet is probably the last place they would think of going to for fun. That is until now. US bikers have Route 66, but from 30th July, two-wheel junkies here in the UK have a new haven – the part of A126 that’s home to the £1m Harley Davidson Lakeside store. 

Retail Design World visited the 750 square feet store - soft-opened for the last two weeks – just days before its official opening.

But while the store is fitted out to be unmistakably Harley, to meet strict brand guidelines and to appeal to what existing HOG (Harley Owners Group) customers expect, this hasn’t stopped manager Heather Whittaker from leaving her own mark. To appeal to those new to the brand the environment deliberately encourages exploration.

“As soon as you walk in, a shiny Harley blocks your path and hits you straight in the eyes,” says Whittaker, who has been with the brand for the last five years [before that she spent 18 years’ in shoe retail]. “It’s right in your way, but we specifically decided this, and raised it on a plinth, to not only announce ourselves, but to actually hide the rest of the area behind it. It means you either have to go around to the left, where the bikes are, or flow around to the right – to the merchandise area [T-shirts, jackets, boots, belts, wallets etc.] to see what’s in the rest of the store.”

Harley insists all UK stores (which are franchise businesses), use design agency Fresh Design Group, but Whittaker was insistent the bike stays in people’s way. “It forces you to move,” she says, “You literally have to look around the shop. We wanted to create discovery spaces, so it’s very much zoned, but with walls in the way still. A third area is our customisation area, but in contrast, this has been made incredibly visible, so customers can actually see – and take confidence seeing – our mechanics and fabricators working on customer’s own machines.”

Although the store’s building costs and kitting-out budget has been large, Jardine Motors Group, the UK-wide car dealership which owns it, can feel confident of its investment. Harley Davidson is enjoying a massive revival. European sales in 2015 were up 4.5% on the year before, thanks to everyone from Baby Boomers cashing in their pensions and rediscovering biking, through to Millennials wanting a slice of retro styling. However, this means there’s now no such thing as a typical customer, meaning the space has work a lot harder to appeal to everyone.

According to Whittaker though, it’s small touches that matter - like displaying bikes on real mechanics’ ramps. Not only does this mean customers can look all around (and even beneath), the bikes, it also reinforces the ‘garage area’ feel. Oil drums, biking furniture (old helmets, gloves, wooden crates), all add to the atmosphere, while a purpose-laid stark concrete floor ensure nothing distracts from the machines themselves.

A tricky challenge is communicating to customers that the iconic Milwaukee brand isn’t as expensive as many think [its entry level model costs just £6,000 – or £79 a month], but that it also goes all the way up to £30k bikes and beyond. “To do this, we’ve positioned the entry level range most prominently, as this will impress new people to the brand,” she says. “Meanwhile, those who know us, can still search out the higher-priced models if they want.”

Although Lakeside Harley Davidson obviously wants people to buy its bikes, the merchandise (Harley sells everything from solid silver wallet chains costing £1,400 to £9 badges), is so important it accounts for a third of the floor space. It’s crucial, says Whittaker to have plenty of rotating products people can buy during the quieter winter season, when people don’t tend to buy motorbikes. There is even a space selling Harley-branded baby clothes.

The customisation space comprises another third, with ‘only’ the last third left to display the vehicles themselves. However, the whole space is so large that people still have room to wander – another deliberate choice.

Whittaker says: “Not everyone will buy a bike – it’s a long decision process for some, so we want to create a comfortable environment to encourage impulse buying in the merchandise area. We also want people to hang around. Biking is a community; we have a local HOG chapter, and we want to encourage members just to turn up for a coffee mid-way through a ride. So, we’ve also created a lounge area too, with a free coffee machine and magazines.”

Open six days a week, Whittaker describes the overall retail environment as a “nurturing” one with discovery spaces, rather than a hard-selling one. She says: “We’re a social brand, it’s all very relaxed, but if people do want to talk buying, we have three sales desks too, discretely away from the bikes, to sit people down at.”

At least one of Harley’s nine bike ‘families’ are on display at any one time, and platforms to raise them up helps show them off better. Industrial lighting keeps the ambience cosy, and this is one retail space that shuns LED screens re-playing the same content. Here the bikes themselves do the talking.

“People often ask me what shoes have to do with bikes,” says Whittaker – who confesses to not actually owning her own Harley. “But retail is retail. What I would say though, is that we’re not just selling a product. We’re selling a dream, a lifestyle. It’s not as easy as it looks to get right, but we feel this space will become a real hub – not just for Harley fans, but all biking fans, in the local area.”