June 11, 2011 in Business

High gas prices pumping up sales of efficient scooters

Steven Cole Smith Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. – Scooters, which originally became popular in the United States in the 1950s more as a fashion accessory than as serious transportation, are gaining a new popularity with people like Dr. Richard Bromberg, who is spending more time traveling the roads of Fort Lauderdale astride his Piaggio scooter, less behind the wheel of his Toyota Prius hybrid.

“I can fill up my scooter with gas once a week for $8,” said Bromberg, 74. “And every time I do, I feel I’m sending a personal message to foreign oil producers.”

With gasoline near $4 a gallon and used-car bargains scarce, sales of scooters – some of which are rated by the manufacturer at or above 100 miles per gallon – have gone from warm to red-hot, some retailers say.

“Our scooter sales are up about 60 percent over last year,” said Ron Marchisotto, sales manager for Varsity Cycle in Fort Lauderdale, where Bromberg bought his Piaggio. Scooter prices range from a suggested list price of $1,399 for a Kymco – a Taiwanese scooter – to just under $7,000 for a top-of-the-line Italian Vespa, Marchisotto said.

Kirby Mullins, owner of Seminole Powersports in Sanford, Fla., said his scooter business still takes a back seat to motorcycles, “but scooter sales have effectively doubled in the last year. We’re having trouble keeping them in stock.”

According to the Motorcycle Industry Council’s first-quarter 2011 sales report, motorcycle sales rose 7.2 percent, but scooter sales rose almost 50 percent. The MIC report includes U.S. sales from only four major scooter manufacturers, so the total increase in scooter sales is likely even greater, especially since the MIC doesn’t track the fast-growing Chinese import market.

Three years ago – particularly during summer 2008, when gas prices soared –scooter sales also increased, compared to 2007. Overall motorcycle sales dropped 7.2 percent in 2008 in the U.S., but scooter sales rose 41.5 percent to an estimated record total of 222,000.

Particularly popular are smaller Honda and Yamaha scooters, especially those with engines that are 50 cubic centimeters or less. Those smaller scooters “are great for commuters who don’t have to travel on highways, or just for people who want to run up to the convenience store,” Mullins said.

The king of scooters remains Vespa, though. The Italian manufacturer essentially created the modern scooter market just after World War II with the introduction of the original Vespa, Italian for “wasp.” Vespa has sold more than 16 million scooters worldwide since it was introduced in 1946.

The user-friendly design of the original Vespa is a main reason scooters are gaining in popularity – they are simpler to operate than motorcycles, as almost all have automatic transmissions.

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