Vespa USA – building a market on social acceptability

Costantino Sambuy, president of Vespa USA, Rancho Dominguez, Calif., says he feels the North American scooter market is growing at a healthy clip, and says he believes that growth stems from product offerings “that are no longer a joke.”
The growth in the market “is not because of fuel efficiency,” Sambuy toldPowersports Business during a recent interview, “but because, now that the offerings are there that look nice and make sense, a light bulb has gone off with consumers and scooters are now seen as being socially acceptable.”
Sambuy says “Vespa buyers are completely first-time buyers who want a Vespa 100%,” and a look at Vespa USA’s past and present marketing initiatives reveals the manufacturer representative’s strong attempt at bringing about that social acceptability.
Tie-ups with Starbucks, Sharper Image, Target Corp. and Mattel, Inc.’s Barbie line have all brought the units to the public, positioned tactfully in markets most akin to the prospective scooter buyer. A push for mainstream press hasn’t hurt either.
“We’re having a major release Nov. 18 in New York that is going to be very, very important to us,” Sambuy said, “and the reason we’re doing it in New York is because we’re looking for the mainstream press.
“But brand awareness is not something that can be changed overnight. We had two major promotions during the past year that created traffic for us — first was the Starbucks promotion, and then the Target promotion. Again, aimed very much at mainstream consumers. In essence, what we’re hoping to do is create fresh new blood coming into the industry, which is always very important.”
The year 2003 marked the first time Vespa USA reported its sales to the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC), joining Aprilia, Yamaha, Honda and the other newcomer, Suzuki.
“The trend is that this is a healthy market that’s growing,” Sambuy said, quoting the 17.8% 2003 market growth rate published by the Council. “Our dealer base hasn’t changed considerably — we’re at about 65 boutiques — but we’ve been looking at our business, reinforcing units, and planning a second wave of expansion starting in the second quarter of next year.
“Company management in Italy knows the U.S. market is pure potential, and there is an amazing commitment from them to see the company succeed in the U.S.,” he said. “So, what we need to do is make sure that we catch that potential.”
Sambuy said the Vespa GranTourismo GT200 – the badge’s first new model since 1996 and heir-apparent to the long-serving PX200 — will soon be revealed as a 2004 model and is expected to “make a major splash.” The GT, which also comes in a 125cc model in Europe, features a four-stroke, four valve, liquid-cooled engine as well as 12-inch wheels and a two-disk braking system. Top speed? 120km/h.
Other Vespa product for 2004 includes the two-stroke 50cc ET2 and four-stroke 150cc ET4. “The market is screaming for the PX, as well, but it’s taking longer than expected for U.S. homolugation,” Sambuy said. The four-stroke ET4 50 won’t be imported “until we have to,” he said.
Not only the chief of U.S. operations for Vespa product in the U.S., Sambuy also leads the game plan for Piaggio-branded units here.
He says “not a lot has occurred with Piaggio brand in the U.S. since last year,” but says “we’re going to attack the major manufacturers head-on with our Piaggio product in 2004.”
“Vespa and Piaggio are coming from two different perspectives — Vespa buyers want a Vespa, but, with Piaggio, we’re going against the mainstream market and have some catching up to do.” He says the Piaggio line-up will expand as the year progresses, but says initial offerings only will include the previously revealed BV200, LT50 and LT150.
Vespa USA is owned and operated by Italy’s Piaggio & Co. SpA, a large conglomerate which recently made the news when Italian entrepreneur Roberto Colaninno’s investment vehicle, Immsi SpA, reached an agreement to purchase control of the manufacturer.
Piaggio SpA owns and operates Piaggio, Vespa, Gilera and Derbi brands, although it’s solely responsible for the U.S. import of Piaggio and Vespa product.
From January to July 2003, the company sold 322,000 two-wheelers, 1% less than it did for the same period 2002.

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