SYMpathy for the scooter industry
March 7, 2009
I recently learned from a third party that my friend and colleague Steve Guzmán of The Scooter Scoop was let go by SYM distributor Carter Brothers shortly after DealerExpo. When I asked Steve about it, he was modest and polite as usual, and I don’t pretend to know what happened behind the scenes, but it’s a real disappointment.
SYM, like many American scooter importers, has their roots in other powersports, and doesn’t really understand the American scooter market. While Steve was nominally a regional salesman for SYM, and his sales numbers were apparently below their expectations, his presence at Carter Brothers gave SYM a new and visible legitimacy within the scooter community. SYM is the brand on everyones’ lips this spring, and I think Steve had an awful lot to do with that. SYM makes good bikes, but I could never get behind Carter Brothers, at Dealer Expo last year they literally shooed me out of their booth for snapping a photo of the WoWow, then later emailed complaining I didn’t write about them. I wouldn’t have written so much about SYM this year, either, if not for Steve’s enthusiasm (And it was a slow year, there wasn’t too much else to write about, to be honest).
It’s hard to gauge the impact of sites like 2strokebuzz and TheScooterScoop on scooter sales, and I’m a modest guy and I hate to talk about numbers, but 2strokebuzz gets tens of thousands of unique visitors from around the world, even in a slow month. Last May and June (the peak of scooter-buying season), we averaged about 100,000 unique visitors per month. We have several thousand regular visitors, and many of those visitors, registered users and email/RSS subscribers work in the scooter industry, either as importers, dealers, marketers, journalists, or mechanics, or in an amateur capacity as rally and club organizers. There are even a few folks in Pontedera that check in from time to time. I’d imagine Steve’s site has similar numbers. Both sites have truly amazing Google power, as well.
When Piaggio came back to the U.S. and decided to completely bypass the existing scooter infrastructure, it cost them dearly. At the time we scooterists were indignant, but wondered if we really were irrelevant to the modern scooter market. These days, we know we’re not, and we know that Piaggio threw away a huge opportunity. Scooter purchasing decisions are not made in a vacuum, and the bulk of the information on scootering available to American consumers is generated by current enthusiasts. No print ad is as effective as a scooter on the road. The sight of a vintage Vespa parked outside a nightclub sent me rushing to the classifieds in 1995, and today, a Buddy Italia parked on a busy street surely generates a few trips to Google. Any scooterist can tell you how often they’re asked for their opinion in a new scooter purchase. Actively and generously supporting scooter forums, clubs, blogs, events, and rallies is the single most important thing a scooter company can do to influence consumer opinions. The results aren’t measurable in units sold, and it doesn’t happen overnight, but it works, It’s not a coincidence that scooter sales are highest in markets with a good vintage scooter scene and a quality dealer that supports local events. It’s not a coincidence that Genuine is so successful, Genuine and Scooterworks have been fully immersed in scooter culture for 15 years. Their support of clubs, rallies, and (as just one example) Alix Bryan’s P.E.A.C.E. ride gives them credibility with long-time scooterists and first-time scooter buyers.
I don’t know whether Patrick Owens’ HD200 Cannonball victory was actively supported by Carter Brothers from the start, or if it was a gift that fell in SYM’s lap, but it’s been mentioned in all their ads and marketing materials since, and (at least) doubled the buzz on a bike that was already getting stellar word-of-mouth. Steve’s sneak preview of the Symba created a similar buzz for that bike, (though in retrospect, it seems rather biased, seeing that Steve worked for SYM, or was pursuing a job there at the time). Those two events did more to publicise SYM to prospective scooterists than anything Carter Brothers had done on their own.
I’m not suggesting that the scooter industry pay off a fiercely objective independent media to get what they want. I continue to (probably foolishly) turn down advertising on 2strokebuzz because my credibility is important. What I’m saying is that Steve, and many other people like him, are absolutely and immeasurably valuable to the scooter community, whether working on the inside, the outside or both. The (finally) upcoming “Beat-Era” issue of American Scooterist makes it obvious that one man, John Avildsen (later to become the Oscar-winning director of Rocky and The Karate Kid) almost singlehandedly facilitated the scooter boom of the ’60s in his role as a scooterist, club organizer, journalist, and eventually as an employee of Vespa of America. When people look back at the current scooter boom (because it will always be booms and busts in the U.S.), Steve Guzmán will be remembered as one of the big evangelists of scootering in this era, and everyone at Carter Brothers will be forgotten. If Steve didn’t work out as a salesman, that’s a shame, but he had immeasurable value to the company, and given the timetable of his employment, we can’t help wondering if SYM realized this and brought him in for some DealerExpo credibility, media and industry contacts, and brain-picking, with the intention of jettisoning him after the show (Steve had a similar stint at LS Motorsports/Diamo/Italjet the year before, but not even Steve could bring Italjet credibility). If that’s the case, we’ll know Steve will find employment for a couple months each spring, but he deserves better. I’ve had several friends laid off in the past few weeks, and this economy is hurting all of us, but it seems to me that Steve got a raw deal. That negatively impacts my opinion of Carter Brothers (though not of SYM).
In another DealerExpo story that I’m still working on, you’ll learn that Taiwan is trying hard to position themselves as the new “You meet the nicest people on a Honda”-era Japan. That’s not going to happen if their U.S. importers don’t understand the unique market for scooters and stop treating them as a afterthought side business to motorcycles, ATVs and go-karts. Carter Brothers has made some progress in this regard,
but one company that never seemed to “get it,” Cobra Powersports has apparently lost their TGB distribution deal (UPDATE: This is not true, Cobra is still under a 5-year contract with TGB, here’s that story. TGB and SYM might not be ready to handle the U.S. market on their own, and our market is small and probably in decline at the moment anyway, but it’s a shame that two quality manufacturers missed out on what could have been a much bigger opportunity over the past few years, if only their importers had been as scooter-savvy as Genuine or KymcoUSA, who are selling Taiwanese scooters of similar quality and design, but doing a better job of it.