Tri-county consumers are cutting back on extravagant toys as their investments diminish and jobs grow less secure. But while big motorcycles may be experiencing a slump in sales, those looking to lower their expenses are seeking out small scooters as a pragmatic way of around-town transportation.
“We’re seeing a lot of inconsistency,” said Carlin Dunne, general manager at Ducati of Santa Barbara. “Before we could read the trend and knew where we were going to be. Now we don’t know.”
Last year Dunne’s store was selling an average of about 10 units per month. This year it’s down to about six.
Worse for Dunne though, his customers are working harder to drive a bargain, rather than pay closer to the listed price.
“Before they didn’t hassle you too much,” he said. “Everybody wants a deal now.” In general, Dunne says the lower-priced bikes are the bigger sellers. “The under-$10,000-range is the most popular,” Dunne said.
Sales of accessories and options have also dropped off because of limited funds.
“We finance a lot of the accessories with the bikes, but banks aren’t lending for accessories as much as before,” Dunne said. “It used to be that people would spend money to customize their bikes as their own.”
It’s a similar story at Santa Barbara Harley-Davidson. The Carpinteria shop has seen its sales fall about 15 percent, according to owner and general manager Jed Renshaw. He says customers who were once spending more than $20,000 on a new motorcycle are now looking at models that sell for closer to $18,000. Harley-Davidsons range from less than $8,000 to upwards of $30,000.
“About 40 percent are new buyers,” Renshaw said. “The other 60 are looking to trade up.” He says the touring bikes have continued to be the most popular.
But for dealers selling small scooters like Vespas, business is looking up for the most part.
Vespa Santa Barbara sales representative Amanda Sanchez says people ranging from 20-year-olds to senior citizens in their eighties are looking to the Italian scooters as a simpler and cheaper mode of transportation, even compared to other two-wheelers.
“They’re an easier option for people over motorcycles,” Sanchez said. “They’re automatic and they’re much easier to carry.” She says even the model with the smallest engine can achieve speeds of up to 65 miles per hour and get 70 miles per gallon on regular unleaded fuel.
“I’ve had quite a few customers say they’ve sold their car and are using their scooter as their main transportation,” Sanchez said. “They figure they’re just running errands.”
Vespa Santa Barbara sells not only Vespas but Piaggio and Aprilia motorcycles. The store sells about 25 units a month. Most of them are new, but Sanchez the dealer does stock some used scooters.
Sanchez says she does catch some customers off-guard by telling them that they need a motorcycle license to operate a scooter such as a Vespa.
“It is a turn-off for some buyers,” she said.
The Italian Scooter and Bike Boutique in San Luis Obispo had a soft opening late last month and has yet to get its marketing into top gear. But already interest has been high for the Vespa and Piaggio scooters for sale.
The new store succeeds a former Vespa outlet in San Luis Obispo that closed up earlier this year. Italian Scooter sales manager Jules DuRocher says her store is in no way affiliated with the former dealer.
“We have a much more visible location than the old store,” DuRocher said. That store, Wilmore AutoWorks, closed when owner Jim Wilmore filed for bankruptcy.
DuRocher estimates the current store is about 2,200 square feet of space at the Higuera Street showroom, which was formerly McCarthy’s Wholesale used car showroom. She says the store has about 20 Vespas, which range from $3,200 to $6,300, and 10 Piaggio scooters, priced between $1,800 and $8,000.
Italian Scooter and Bike Boutique also serves as a satellite store for Ducati of Santa Barbara, and the SLO location also stocks about 10 Ducati motorcycles.
Unlike auto dealers, many of which have managed to stay afloat because of their service business as more consumers keep their cars longer before selling, motorcycle shops have not been able to rely on their customers keeping up with maintenance.
“People are putting off service on their scooters,” Sanchez said. “We’re definitely not as filled with appointments as last year.”
Ducati of Santa Barbara’s service business has been roughly halved over last year.
“People are tending to neglect their bikes or ride them less, maybe putting extra miles on their cars,” Dunne said.
This means Dunne has his work cut out in trying to attract new business.
“We have to restructure and develop new tactics to bring customers in and garner excitement,” he said. In the past Dunne had used print and radio ads, but he says Ducati of Santa Barbara has resorted to e-mails and online ads. The store is the only Ducati sales and service outlet in the Tri-Counties.
“It’s not hitting all of our target markets but it offers the most bang for the buck,” he said.
DuRocher’s store has seen good service business on the other hand. The service department there can work on about six scooters a day, and she says the appointment book has been “getting really full.”
DuRocher says she and her customers are excited about the new store. She says print ads have already started running, with a radio campaign to begin after Labor Day. DuRocher also said the store sponsored a scooter ride on Aug. 23 and already has 150 subscribers on the e-mail list.
“People say it has a completely different vibe from the old shop,” DuRocher said. “They’re glad the Vespa name is still in San Luis Obispo and done a bit differently.”