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SYMpathy for the scooter industry

March 7, 2009

supermanI 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.

Comments

18 Responses to “SYMpathy for the scooter industry”

  1. jprestonianNo Gravatar on March 7th, 2009 4:09pm

    Man, that sux for Steve. Sorry to hear that.

    -Jeff

  2. moswrightNo Gravatar on March 7th, 2009 8:51pm

    Yeah, that blows. I know I only just met Steve and Bb last month at the Dealer Expo, but I feel like I kind of know you both from reading your sites over the last couple of years. Wish I knew that whole story, I’m definitely wondering what went on… and what’s going on.

  3. ttime55No Gravatar on March 7th, 2009 9:32pm

    My first post, woo!

    As I’ve been following 2strokebuzz now for four years, I guess I should give my two bits.

    This is just another example of a company with a product and not knowing what the hell they’re doing with it. Steve knows his stuff, and I cant believe that Carter Brothers would do that. They really messed up by letting him go. But, as you already said the scooter companies here (Genuine/ScooterWorks USA aside) really dont get it. I myself still cant understand why they don’t “get it” considering that there is a real demand for scooters and enthusiasts that know and understand the US scooterist.

    It is my observation (and as you stated in your post) that unless the companies (Piaggio aside, which has no clue what in the hell they’re doing) start having a different approach that isn’t focused on go-karts and other pointless toys that these companies will leave the US market just like Piaggio did in the eighties. Unless gas hits $5.00 a gallon.

  4. Steve WilliamsNo Gravatar on March 8th, 2009 12:53pm

    Steve does a great job and I’m certain he’s been a powerful positive influence on the scooter buying world. I hope he finds another a better fit for his considerable talent and influence soon.

    There are a lot of great places on the Web that help the scooter manufacturers. I’ve always wondered why they are not more engaged. They have cozy relationships with the motorcycle publishing world. Why don’t they engage online sites and communities more closely? I know that Scooter in the Sticks has directed more than a few people towards ownership.

    Steve Williams

  5. henry_in_knoxvilleNo Gravatar on March 8th, 2009 1:50pm

    My sympathies to Steve. I don’t know Steve, nor did I attend the Expo, but I really want to share 1 recent experience w/ all readers: I drove 3 hours (Knoxville, TN to Greenville, SC) to attend Cycle World’s big show. I was disappointed w/ the poor showing of scooter manufacturers. There was a small (unmanned) “scooter pavilion” set up w/ 1 Aprilia (SR50), 1 SYM, 2 Vectrix, 1 Buddy, etc. Maybe 8 bikes in all. On the other hand, I was thrilled to see Kymco’s BIG booth & 4-5 friendly reps! (Surprisingly, BMW didn’t show, when usually their booths are big). Taiwan is on the right track to try to bring all manufacturers together as a collective power. The non-scootering public has to be informed about the advantages of scootering in this bad economy.

  6. ChicagoscooterclubNo Gravatar on March 8th, 2009 2:09pm

    Guided word missiles.WOW.

    Steve’s a great guy and is planning some fun for SXSW you can follow him on twitter.
    @thescooterscoop

  7. pocphilNo Gravatar on March 8th, 2009 6:12pm

    Yeah it looks a lot like the bum deal he got from Italjet / Diamo / LS Motorsports just played out with a different distributor. If he was let go because he wasn’t “making his numbers” I call foul. Which one of their “reps” created more buzz and more awareness for the SYM name than Guzman? If for no other reason than his dedication to the product and his commitment to their booth at Indy (he was there 100% of the time, bright eyed and bushy tailed) they should have kept him on. I don’t currently have a SYM rep. They fired him months ago, which is a shame, because he worked with me getting units I needed and supporting my business. I question the need for reps. Too often it seems like they’re more interested in opening another unqualified dealer in my city and less interested in helping me sell more of their product.

  8. thescooterscoopNo Gravatar on March 8th, 2009 9:30pm

    My goodness! I’m reading all of this with barely a dry eye. First, to Bryan… Your 2StrokeBuzz has always been the roots of scooter press for me (and others around the world). I’m sure I’ve said it on more than one occasion, the two biggest influences for TheScooterScoop all those years ago were http://www.Engadget.com (a geek gadget site) and http://www.2StrokeBuzz.com .

    Next I would like to offer a humble “thanks” to Bryan and all those who have commented here. Many I know, love and respect… others who I may not have had the pleasure of meeting yet, but would surely share a pint with. The support means a LOT coming from my friends, peers and colleagues.

    Bryan, I am sorta of seeing a trend here now that you’ve said it. It’s good to know I’ll have steady employment for a couple of months out of the year, but I draw the line at tight, silver short-shorts and matching push-up halter top. Seriously though… the connection doesn’t happen unless I have feelings for the product or at least for its potential. I remember thumbing through Tartarini sketches for upcoming designs with stars in my eyes; “Sure, the Dragster was nice but I want to bring THIS to America”. Sadly it will never happen. I climbed on board with Carter because I saw so much potential in the SYM line-up both current and possible forthcoming (like the WoWow and Wolf). I was in it for the long haul, but even their #1 cheerleader isn’t safe from “economics”.

    There are a couple more brands with products for which I see potential. Who knows, I might be in their booth next year. I’ve also got a pair of special and dare I say “revolutionary” projects I am working on with my good friend and fellow Hooligan, Casey Cook (http://velvetoven.blogspot.com/). You remember him from his previous DIY project, the Flying Jackhammer (http://tinyurl.com/flyjakhmr). These projects are being designed as a challenge to the WORLD… A challenge to promote ingenuity and foster mindfulness of today’s pressing issues around transportation… specifically movement with a lighter impact on the environment and the exclusive use of cleaner, non-oil based fuels. If this is something you’re interested in supporting in some way, please shoot me an email with “The Project” in the title at thescooterscoop@gmail.com.

    I’m gonna be transportation-less for a little while. I sold Leia, my beautiful Vespa T5, to make room for the 5 SYMs in my garage. Those are going back this week. I am currently searching for my next opportunity among bouts of blogging, and playing Mr. Mom (I don’t know how she does it, but helmets-off to YOU my dear Bella. http://highwirecreative.com/ ).

    The saga continues…

    Cheers!
    Steve Guzman @
    TheScooterScoop

  9. illnoiseNo Gravatar on March 9th, 2009 2:10pm

    BTW, I couldn’t remember why I had a photo of Guzmán stripping, but Steve reminded me he was helping me set my camera white balance. How many other scooter-industry people would go to such lengths to make sure you got a good photo of an Italjet Roller Craft?

    (I added the caption myself, it was a blank white t-shirt).

  10. thescooterscoopNo Gravatar on March 9th, 2009 2:39pm

    Yeah! :D That picture cracked me up.
    I had to think about it too… I wasn’t drinking, or else I’d have taken my badge off.

    After I “slept on it”, I remembered that I had bought a brand new pack of t-shirts for the show and was happy to have an excuse to show them off! :)

    I would have never guessed that photo op would have come back to haunt me.

  11. orinoNo Gravatar on March 9th, 2009 2:53pm

    The “you meet the nicest people on a (insert name of bike)” thing isn’t going to work if the company has to rely on third parties. Honda has always seen itself as being in the personal mobility business instead of the motorcycle/car/robot business. It probably helped that Honda, like Toyota and Nissan, was directly supported in its efforts by the Japanese government (the most successful command economy in the history of the world). Honda did what it did by establishing its own U.S. distributor, and Honda had a very long-range plan. Honda was patient, knowing it would take years, if not decades, to reach the goals it set for itself. And most of all, Honda knew it had to devote as much time and energy selling the idea of riding as it did selling bikes.

    Past tense, of course. Now all Honda cares about is flogging Gold Wings and crotch rockets, and the current quarter’s bottom line. Never mind those two segments have been in a downward trend for quite a while now.

    While TGB and SYM make quality products, the only ones with the resources to do what Honda did in the ’60s are the mainland Chinese. Geely makes bikes and cars; a sensible plan for them is to start off with a scooter, then be ready when the scooter buyer (who has been treated like family) is ready to move up. Yeah, it probably means these people eventually leave scooters for minivans, but that’s where the money is. And as far as I can tell, that’s already happening…

  12. illnoiseNo Gravatar on March 9th, 2009 3:45pm

    Orin, you’re right on target about what needs to be done, and the Taiwan symposium story will explain their goals better. They do have some government support, and it’s wise of them to work together toward a distant goal. The question is, can they follow through and keep working together, rather than going for the quick buck on their own? We already have China, we don’t need lots of cheap generic scooters, we need a modest number of moderately-priced quality scooters with some original design and branding targeted towards a the wide variety of American customers.

    Kymco and Genuine are proof that it can work with an American-based importer, and I’m not sure SYM and TGB could do any better on their own, but you’re exactly right, if I was working for a Taiwanese company looking to make an impact in America, my goal would be to learn from this (declining) current boom rather than trying to milk it, and build market share and brand-awareness via the small network of top-rate scooter-dedicated dealers that will survive this bust, so when the next boom comes, it’s Taiwan that’s positioned to take advantage of it. Sadly, you’re right again, the mainland Chinese will probably have their act together by the next boom.

  13. DannysNo Gravatar on March 10th, 2009 5:56am

    Steve,
    Sincerely all I have to say ts it is truly their loss. They’ll never know the impact you would have had or maybe their laurels appear in their eyes, to be bigger than they really are and their ass’ are numb. (think Kymco) I’m not sure.
    Maybe you should go to see Power Sports Factory ! Yes PSF
    Hear me out first and correct me if I’m wrong. This is just my perception.
    They represent one of the more stable upcoming Chinese companies in the QJ built Benelli/Andretti line. I know they too are about the numbers but that’s a result of an over ambitious attempt to bring us a different and quality alternative to what was available at the time of their creation. Their efforts and excellent product build can’t be disputed. Their attempts to differentiate them self from the cookie cutter offerings out there is to be appreciated and admired also..
    I think they could benefit from someone with your talents and enthusiasm. I know their aim is true but still seem to lack marketing talent and direction. I would personally and selfishly hate to see them disappear since they represent one more choice with a quality alternative which the industry seems to lack..

  14. Those Darn McCabesNo Gravatar on March 10th, 2009 1:21pm

    Beeb, Thanks for sticking your neck out and calling it like you see it! It’s frustrating to read bicycle, skate board, and motorcycle magazines and see what hip advertising can do to support a niche-interest/scene and see what is missing here.

    US scootering doesn’t have this critical mass yet and a large part of it is due to how many important businesses just don’t get it. Open a copy of the British Scootering magazine and its obvious what the US scooter scene is missing. In the UK businesses trip over themselves to advertise in this magazine and the ads don’t look pathetically out of step because they have grown organically out of the British scooter scene.

    Kymco is guilty of trying to dump ATVs on scooter shops. So they aren’t perfect either, but they are a huge improvement over many. It didn’t take them long to learn the benifits of supporting enthusiasts. A rising tide raises all boats and all that.

  15. illnoiseNo Gravatar on March 10th, 2009 1:39pm

    What works in England won’t work here, (thankfully!) But scootering could learn a lot from skateboarding. Skateboarding is also a very cyclical industry with hundreds of small companies selling nearly indistinguishable products. The difference (aside from scale, and unit cost) is that the skateboarding industry realizes that fresh ideas, smart advertising and marketing and participation in the ‘scene’ are the only tools they have to set them apart from competitors, and attract new customers.

  16. thescooterscoopNo Gravatar on March 10th, 2009 8:37pm

    So… if I understand what you’re saying, just because Scootering has “1-900″ ads for “Smack my granny fanny”, it doesn’t mean it will necessarily float here in the USA?

  17. Those Darn McCabesNo Gravatar on March 12th, 2009 10:36am

    When American rednecks finally learn to wear woman’s clothing and adopt silly walks maybe will have a proper scooter industry.

  18. femsatronicNo Gravatar on March 16th, 2009 1:38pm

    Steve is a great guy. Too bad. Carter might be a little back woods to handle SYM long term.

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