Cycle Sellers See More Vroom On Horizon

Vespa Friday's New York motorcycle show featured more than bikes. The Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) used it as a stage to tease the latest rider stats for 2008. The full report, which encompasses the fourth quarter, will not be out until the spring, according to Ty Van Hooydonk of MIC's Discover Today's Motorcycling. "This is three-quarters true," he quipped, at a press event.

Van Hooydonk said sales of new motorcycles and scooters were down 2.2% in the third quarter last year from 1,124,000 new units sold in 2007. But scooter sales were up 50% through the first three quarters. Dual-purpose bikes (off- and on-road) experienced a 30% increase in sales through the first nine months last year, per MIC stats. Still, in the first three quarters, 78% of new bikes purchased were on-road machines.

Paolo Timoni, president/CEO of Piaggio Group Americas, says sales of Vespa and Piaggio scooters grew 60% last year, lifting market share 3.4% in 2008 to 27.7% of the U.S. scooter market. Timoni also said the company, which returned to the U.S. market in 2000, has lifted U.S. scooter market share 9% since 2005.

Sales are led by the Vespa LX 150cc scooter. Per Timoni, there are now 340 Piaggio and Vespa scooter stores in the U.S. with high-volume markets in major cities like L.A., New York, Miami, Boston, Orlando, Fla., and Philadelphia. He adds that college campuses have become foci of scooter sales increases.

Piaggio Group is also highest in per-scooter revenue among those selling scooters in the U.S., per Timoni, because the company leads the market in larger, more powerful and thus more expensive scooters--including the unusual MP3 tri-wheeled scooter with two wheels up front. "We dominate in the 125cc to 250cc, and maxi-scooter segments," he says.

At the show, Piaggio Group unveiled the latest of these, the 2009 Vespa GTS 300 Super, which the company says is the fastest Vespa to date. The scooter, which goes on sale in the U.S. this March at a suggested retail price of $6,199, has under-seat storage, and accessories like a rear top case and soft luggage.

Timoni says that the company, which last year focused its marketing message on fuel economy and freedom from traffic congestion, will change its pitch this year, partly because the price of gasoline has declined. This year, he said, Piaggio will for the first time discuss scooters as a good alternative to at least one of the family cars.

"We are in the most severe recession in this country's history, and consumers don't want to spend. We will see consumers looking across categories for opportunities to save, including on transport," he says. If we can communicate that a car costs $650 to $850 per month, then we can say that replacing one with a scooter will save a lot of money. In the past we had not tried to get into the car versus scooter argument, but this year is the year to do that."

Indeed, per MIC's preliminary numbers, commuting is now the second-most frequent reason that owners ride, up from third. Also way up is the importance of test riding--now the biggest purchase driver--from fourth to first place.

The rider census, in its fifth year, also found that 39% of new-motorcycle and -scooter buyers are women, up from only 8% in 2003. But only 12.4% of riders are women. The average income of motorcycle riders is $61,190, per MIC, versus $50,233 for all Americans. The median rider age has risen 10 years since 1990, when the average age was 32.

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