and the Beginning of the End
August 20, 2010
On July 27, Scooter Superstore of America, a Ft. Lauderdale-based chain with several dealerships in Florida and Georgia, filed for bankruptcy. While many shops have closed their doors lately, and individual importers have faced some unique problems, SSTAM’s trouble could be–pardon the tired idiom–the straw that breaks the industry’s back.
Court documents reveal SSTAM owes about $5.3 million to GE Commercial Distribution Finance Corporation, a division of General Electric Capital. They’re the company that provides dealer financing for PiaggioUSA/VespaUSA and most other scooter distributors. When a new scooter goes to a dealer, the importer generally marks it “sold.” At that point, unless the dealer pays for the bike outright (which is very rare in the scooter industry) the dealer enters a contract with GE Credit, paying interest to “floor” the bike. GE holds the “MCO” (Manufacturer’s Certificate of Origin) until the bike is paid for (usually when it’s sold) then sends the dealer the MCO so a title can be ordered. A bike sitting on the dealer floor for months can start to accumulate so much interest that it simply can’t be sold at a profit. Dealer margins on scooters are low to begin with, usually $200-500 per bike depending on the manufacturer and model, so interest can erase that profit quickly.
When a scooter shop closes, the bikes that are being financed are returned to the finance company, who has an agreement with the importer that the importer will buy them back. In good times, it’s no big deal, but when an importer is short on cash and sales are flat, the importer can’t afford to buy them back. That leaves the finance company to work with the importer to warehouse and/or auction the bikes. Remember, these scooters had already been considered “sold” by the importer, so the redistribution of these bikes — at auction prices — cuts into the manufacturer’s sales and the financier’s profit.
Last week, PiaggioUSA claimed a 75% drop in 1H2010 sales. At the same time, they substantially discounted many models, (further cutting into their industry-low dealer margin). Piaggio’s dealer expansion practices of the last couple years have, as predicted by many observers, come back to haunt them. Too many dealers had too many bikes, and when they started closing, already-“sold” bikes came back on the market and decimated PiaggioUSA’s current sales.
If PiaggioUSA had problems before SSTAM’s bankruptcy, this news can’t help. Scooter Superstore is holding a lot of Piaggio product. An industry source tells us that SSTAM is PiaggioUSA’s biggest customer, and may possess more than 1000 Piaggio scooters and motorcycles. (The same source tells us PiaggioUSA sold only 3000 two-wheelers — Vespas, Piaggios, Aprilias, and Moto Guzzis — in the first half of this year.) PiaggioUSA surely doesn’t want these scooters back, even if they can afford them, and GE will not be excited about the prospect of selling them off, especially in this deflated market. Piaggio has abandoned the U.S. market before (a few times) when the going got tough, this could spell the end again.
Sound dire? That’s just Piaggio. It gets worse. Aside from (all Piaggio products) Scooter Superstore also sells Genuines, Kymcos, SYMs, TGBs, and Adlys. Most of these brands are facing hard times, but for a few, there are additional issues.
Carter Brothers/SYM-USA is recovering from a devastating arson that destroyed their headquarters/warehouse. Aside from the obvious problems of losing 3000 bikes, parts, and accessories, the fire has compromised their ability to communicate with dealers and supply spares (SYM Canada is filling in temporarily, and by most reports admirably). SYM-USA has also been waiting for months for California Air Resources Board approval of a few popular models, which finally came through this week. Now that it’s the end of the selling season, scooter sales are down, and thousands of bikes were lost in the fire, that may not be much consolation. 110 presumably-returned SYM scooters are up sale in an upcoming auction. If SSTAM is holding a large cache of SYMs and they end up being sold at a discount to dealers and consumers, that could fracture Carter Brothers’ arguably-fragile partnership with SYM, and even frighten away a new would-be importer. Who wants to import new SYMs if dealers are overstocked on bikes bought below dealer cost?
SYM-USA is not the only big distributor facing import problems. After years allowing thousands of non-compliant scooters to flood the market, U.S. Customs now seems to be overcompensating by clamping down on respectable importers. Genuine Scooter Company is waiting for government re-approval on a boatload of highly-anticipated 4-stroke Stellas that were pre-approved a year ago and should have been on the showroom floors months ago. This delay, combined with bike returns from closing dealers and flat sales seems to be straining Genuine; they, too, have just announced they’ll be dropping retail prices.
These developments also affect staffing (Piaggio has cut several sales staff positions over the last year) and delay development of new products and accessories. And it’s the same issue for parts and accessories manufactures and distributors. SSTAM sells lots of riding gear and accessories. Some of this “P&A” comes from giant distributors like Tucker Rocky and Parts Unlimited, but their site lists products from smaller scooter-industry-specific manufacturers and distributors like Corazzo and (likely) Scooterworks Direct. Losing a big customer like SSTAM would be bad news for a company tied to such a specific market, especially if SSTAM’s invoices aren’t paid up.
While cheap bikes may sound great to consumers, the most direct impact of a scooter shop closing is on the local scootering scene. Scooter Superstore organizes events, sponsors rallies, and gives scooterists a place to meet. And obviously their service departments keep scooters on the road. Any dealer will tell you that customers out riding scooters are the best advertising for a scooter shop. Having scooters parked all over town brings in more customers. As those customers lose interest and the bikes fall into disrepair, the local scooter scene slows down to a crawl.
Scooter Superstore entered the market with a bang just as the scooter market in the U.S. peaked. At Amerivespa 2008, they handed out hundreds of t-shirts, keychains, and other gear. SSTAM had plans to expand nationwide and compete with independent dealers in key markets. Chapter 11 bankruptcy is designed to allow a company to continue operating while repaying creditors. Trustees will meet on September 15th to decide if such a path is possible, or if assets will be liquidated to pay off creditors. If the company ultimately shuts down, it could set off a chain reaction that may bring down other dealers and importers.
2strokebuzz has predicted the end of the current boom to anyone who would listen, since the 2008 gold rush. Most of our favorite dealers and importers are familiar with the cyclical nature of the industry, so we took comfort in knowing that they’d respect the market and act responsibly, be prepared for anything, and survive through the dark ages ahead. But the situation might be worse than anyone expected. The scooter industry in 2012 may very likely look like the scooter industry of the early 90s, just a handful of shops and parts distributors supplying a small cult of scooter enthusiasts, with only Honda and Yamaha selling new (and outdated) scooters. We’ve said it before, but now more than ever, it’s important for scooterists to promote scootering to friends and family, support local shops, and support the companies that support scootering in America.