Meet the Scooter Nerds of Greensboro

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What’s in a name?

 

Take Scooternerds. When owner John Hill was conjuring up names for his Greensboro, N.C., scooter dealership a few years back, he tripped across “Select Cycles” and “Cycle Trends” and a myriad other powersportish-sounding store names.

And then one day inspiration struck — inspiration in the form of a 30-something scooter rider clad in a suit and bow tie, wearing thick Coke-bottle glasses and tennis shoes with a briefcase slung across his back like a messenger bag. “He looked real nerdy,” Hill says. “I said, ‘That guy is a typical scooter nerd.’ And that’s the origin.” Scooternerds. From unflattering sobriquet to company name.

“I have a friend who’s in marketing,” Hill says. “I thought the name was kind of corny, childish — you know, juvenile sounding — and I asked her what she thought of it and she says, ‘You couldn’t do better. It sticks like Velcro. Leave it alone.’ So we did.”

And the more he thought about it, here he was running a store where the main product was scooters. A store with customers who bypass other dealerships so that they can buy from the scooter experts at his now Top 100 dealership. They sell scooter accessories and scooter apparel and scooter stuff. Hill thought, wait a minute; they were the know-it-alls of scooters in the market, perhaps they were the scooter nerds.

“It’s our bread and butter. We don’t have a Hayabusa out here we’re trying to sell or a new Road King. We’ve got scooters,” he says. “That’s all we do.” Of course, he could be doing other things (And he does, too. Hill owns a couple of automotive-related businesses.) in the powersports space and has considered and been approached by some other OEMs about carrying their motorcycles, but it’s scooters where his interests lie.

He’s been in the two-wheeled business since graduating from the American Motorcycle Institute back in 1976, and grew up in a neighborhood full of gearheads — race cars, boats, bikes, you name it. Hill’s been into flat-track racing, building custom motorcycles and selling used bikes, and has generally been getting his hands greasy in one way or another most of his life. But when he and his wife Dorrie, opted to get into the retail side of things, he wanted to do something different. That something different was scooters, which he keyed into back in the ‘80s.

“Nobody was doing scooters. I guess I’m a different duck. I just didn’t want to be in the mainstream like everybody and their brother,” Hill says. “I mean, there was just such a proliferation of that other stuff going on I just had to be different. And that’s where the interest came from. The uniqueness. The difference.”

In going with the scooter crowd, Hill set up shop in Greensboro’s uptown district adjacent to seven local universities, including one that has an enrollment of more than 20,000 students. That student population combines with those who are new to riding, those who are looking for something economical and fun, and those devoted to scooting to make up Scooternerd’s main market.

Hill opens up his store to any local scooter club that needs space for meetings or a destination for a ride. It’s also a destination in a old-timey motorcycle shop kind of way.

Scooternerds has a projector and a drop-down screen for Friday night movie screenings and recently installed a stage where Hill hopes to book some live music shows. As a member of the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, he’d like to set up some dealership gigs with acts that are traveling to big shows in D.C. or Atlanta.

“We’re [also] directly across from a baseball stadium which has 72 home games,” he says. “Any time they’re at home we try to stay open late and have a bunch of tents and umbrellas and hoopla going on to get them to come inside to see what it’s all about.

“We try to get everybody inside to sit on a scooter. We don’t want them to touch them and feel them, we want them sitting down. Butts on seats is our goal. I don’t care if it’s the UPS driver, the FedEx guy, the mail lady, I’m going to get them to sit on a scooter because most people are scared and never had the opportunity.”

UNIQUE CUSTOMERS
Catering to a scootering crowd means working with customers unlike those of regular powersports dealerships, Hill explains. Whereas motorcycles tend to attract gear junkies and tech-spec geeks, scooter riders often don’t care about speed and noise. They want transportation. They want a top case for groceries. They want an electric start.

“I worked in some dealerships when I graduated from AMI and it was always mile per hour, straight-cut or helical-cut gears, tire and wheel diameter,” he notes. “The questions we get are: How many miles per gallon? How light is it? What’s the seat height? Are there any gears I have to change?” In fact he’s even had some customers who’d rather wait for a fuel-injected scoot to come in stock rather than buy one of the carbureted models he has on the sales floor.

Because of these differences, Hill and his staff talk customers through their purchases and help them find the accessories that best suit their needs. It’s a consultative process that takes into mind the customer’s lack of knowledge. The same goes for the service department. Repairs are explained in full and customers are guided through the various services. In fact, several online reviews of the shop praise its workers for walking them through their transactions.

Hill says he demands a high level of professionalism from his employees and requires them to pick up 40 hours of outside education a year, whether it’s through the OEM or through the various training organizations in the powersports business.

The goal for his service department, Hill says, is to fix it right the first time. He is also big on offering same-day service for most maintenance issues. “We must far-surpass anything expected and deliver the unexpected,” he explains, “[such as] fixing a loose mirror or replacing a burned-out bulb when it was not requested by the customer.”

In addition to promising great service, he wants his customer out, riding and having fun. During a promotion in 2010 called “Make Every Mile a Vacation,” he handed out to customers routes to destinations along scooter-friendly roads, pointing out must-visit sites. The purpose? Rather than focusing on a final destination for a vacation, why not get on a scooter and let the journey be the vacation.

Hill also is heavily involved in his local community, serving on a town committee that’s responsible for building parking decks, establishing motorcycle/scooter parking and installing waypoint signs, among other things.

Scooternerds was awarded in May the Retailer of the Year title by the Greensboro Merchants Association, an award given to local retailers that have been in business for at least three years and shows annual growth. True to form, he’s going to try to get the association to hold its meeting inside the dealership. “We try to bring in people who have never come into this store, who have just ridden by and wondered what that unique yellow fence was all about. We got out a little different,” he says.

Hill is a member of the North Carolina Motorcycle Dealers Association, and the American Motor Scooter Association, a standards and practices group (see sidebar) organized specifically for scooter dealers.

BOOMING BUSINESS
With spring almost over, summer officially on the horizon and gas prices climbing into the stratosphere, Hill says business is positively booming. “It’s probably to the point where it was in 2008 where it’s so good that it’s bad because you can’t get what they want,” he says.

Hill and his employees spent the winter picking up scooters from across the Southeast and he has a pretty good inventory, but it’s moving out quickly. “I hope we can get us a sustainable, year-round model. This thing has had so many ups and downs,” Hill says. “I know you’re going to have your peaks, but when you’re trying to keep people employed year-round and pay them a decent wage, you don’t want them standing there cleaning the walls through December and January.”

His goal now is to keep promoting service in the slow months and to work hard to convert the gas-price buyers into long-term customers who are stopping by throughout the year, whatever the price of petrol. Luckily the climate in his part of N.C. is conducive to riding all year long — he sells heated gear for the colder times — so once he has them set up with a scoot, and sends them out on the road riding, he just needs to help them catch the scooter fever.

This is something he knows well.

“I’ve got Harleys. I collect vintage two-strokes. I’ve probably got one of everything, but the fact is I ride my scooters, and the other stuff just sits there and gets looked at,” Hill says. “If I’m not going two or three hundred miles, I’m on a scooter.”

QUALITY IS NO. 1 FOCUS
As a scooter dealer, John Hill knows the special issues unique to his business. Luckily, so do a handful of other scooter-only sellers throughout the U.S.

Knowing this, a core group of scooter dealers have resurrected the American Motor Scooter Association, a standards and practices organization originally formed in the late 1950s by scooter manufacturers to help keep in check the flood of low-quality imported machines brought into the U.S. during that era’s scooter boom.

The revamped AMSA — of which Hill is a member — is a collection of dealers whose goal is to offer customers a high level of service while selling only those scooters deemed by the group to be of high quality. Only scooters approved by the association will get an AMSA sticker indicating they were sold by a member dealer. The association also provides a forum for dealers to discuss those topics specific to scooter dealerships.

“The goal now is exactly the same thing as it was then: To be a meeting place and sounding board for dealers to discuss dealer issues and exchange ideas and information,” says Phil Waters, owner of Pride of Cleveland Scooters in Lakewood, Ohio.

Waters and a small group of U.S. dealers breathed new life into the AMSA during the recent scooter boom to help inject some security and stability into the market. At the time, anybody who wanted to could buy a container load of scooters and set up shop anywhere. Most of the scooters sold were of dubious quality and many legitimate shops faced the prospect of being asked to fix substandard machines that failed after only a few miles on the road.

“We’re trying to create a standard for our dealers that they can all live up to and make sure that they’re offering services to their customers like extended warranty programs and pickup and delivery services,” Waters says. “We want to make sure that it’s not just a guy who’s opening up a cardboard box, tightening a front wheel and throwing a guy the keys.”

Potential members are vetted before they’re allowed into the ranks. The AMSA’s current roster has 53 members, a group that Waters says features the country’s top five Vespa dealers, top 10 Genuine Scooter Co. dealers and the top seven KYMCO dealers.

“These are all companies that have earned the reputation for quality in the industry,” he explains. “And their highest selling dealers have all chosen to be members of our organization, mostly as a method of assuring to their customers that they’ll be treated fairly.”

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews June 2011 issue.