Originally created 01/02/01

Popularity of scooters could last



Christmas after Christmas, fad consumer products are demoted to the ranks of holiday has-beens.

One that just might have staying power, not to mention horsepower, are the trendy new scooters.

Retail analysts say the in-demand product still has a large, untapped market and, in the tradition of bicycles, skateboards and in-line skates, offers the enduring benefit of cheap transportation.

Scooters, already a hit on the West Coast, seem to have caught the attention of local youths just before Christmas, thanks to a heavy push on the part of aggressive marketers and word of mouth.

Britt Beemer, founder of America's Research Group, said consumers still are getting the scoop on all that scoots, however.

"Parents haven't seen enough about them," he said. "The vast majority of parents are on the sidelines."

The scooters range from lower-tech, human-powered models, such as the wildly popular Razor scooter, to gas- and electric-powered models that sell for as much as $800. The new scooters are sleeker and faster than their predecessors.

Although the discrepancies in prices and the wide selection have added to buyers' hesitancy, safety has been the dominant concern, at least for adults.

"Parents in this country are not really excited about something they can buy for their children that they'll play with in the street," Mr. Beemer said.

But provided the products are not stigmatized by high-profile scooter accidents portrayed in the media, the analyst said, their wave of popularity should continue.

Their usefulness extends beyond gimmick, he said, and their popularity seems to be holding in parts of the country where they already have seen wide acceptance. He said the true test will be how sales play out through the summer.

A group of local entrepreneurs is gambling on the scooter trend's being more than just a one-holiday wonder. The week before Christmas, businessmen Thom Abbott, Mike Vickers and Steve Whitley opened Palmetto Action Sports Inc. on Silver Bluff Road in Aiken.

Mr. Whitley agreed with Mr. Beemer on the secret to long-term sales: Emphasize safety and promote benefits beyond the fact that the child next door has one.

The benefit Mr. Whitley likes to emphasize most about his Go-Ped brand scooters is the enjoyment factor. As he likes to put it, "They're fun on a stick."

Most of the scooters he sells are higher-end, motorized vehicles. They are meant for both children and adults, he said, provided the operator is properly trained. They are not meant for licensed vehicle traffic.

With names such as Go-Ped Sport, Bigfoot and Hoverboard, the vehicles are efficient and versatile. A typical gas scooter can get 100 miles per gallon. Electric models can go 12 miles on a three-hour charge.

Nearly all models fold up easily and can be carried in a backpack.

The addition of an engine and other amenities makes the scooters at Palmetto Action Sports more expensive than ones commonly found in retail stores. The starting price is around $500.

"It's the last stop you make before you go to a motorcycle or car," Mr. Whitley said, "but still less than $1,000."

The entrepreneur said he sold 12 vehicles before Christmas and expects increased demand once enthusiasts start comparing his models to simpler ones.

"It's sort of an evolution: bigger, better, faster, smarter," he said.

The only thing they may not be is safer than the slower, foot-powered models, although Mr. Whitley said that is mostly relative to the driver. He said he makes sure to emphasize the necessary precautions before allowing a consumer to leave the store. Safety gear is a must, he said.

Mr. Whitley said a scooter club and sanctioned racing similar to the kind popularized in California will be on tap in the future to maintain consumer involvement.

Reach Eric Williamson at (706) 828-3904.



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