“Okay Diane [my wife], I give up. We’ve been trying to find a smaller house for two years in this stupid Seattle real estate market. It ain’t happening until next spring and I’m buying the cord of wood we need for our fire place to get through the winter (along with some red wine).”
Wood arrives. We get it stacked. Next day (you had to see this coming)- “Jeff, I’ve found our house!”
So she had. The house we’ve now bought went on the market September 28th, we were in escrow on October 12th, closed about ten days later, put our old house on the market (way more fun to be a seller than a buyer in Seattle right now) and moved into the new place November 6th. As the pile of boxes has diminished, I’ve once again turned to what’s going on in the industry.
Two months ago, I got an email from Dave Grant, the owner of Vermin Scooter Shop in Calgary.
“A what kind of shop?!” I thought. Scooter shop. Yep.
Like many of you, I remember all those years ago when scooters first made their appearance. Also like many of you, especially in the skate industry, I expected scooters to be a blip that went away. I recall how they followed the typical and expected trajectory- grew exponentially, got over supplied, crashed. That’s the end of that, many of us thought.
Scooters never went away. But to my dismay, I may have fallen victim to something I’ve warned about- talking with too many industry people who helped me (and I helped them) validate the opinion I already had. Big mistake. It’s not like I didn’t continue to see scooters. In hindsight, I’d have to acknowledge I’ve seen more and more of them.
Maybe it had something to do with the rise of long boards. They were a big growth opportunity that monopolized our attention- although much of the existing skate industry dismissed them too.
I have no data on how big the scooter market is. If it’s not too big, and only grows slowly, it’s way better off.
What Dave tells me, and what I think I agree with just from a little online and other research, is that there’s a vibrant, evolving, growing, scooter enthusiast community that has something of the feel of the snowboard market in the early 90s or the skateboard market before Chinese production turned the product into a commodity.
Big retailers aren’t in it and where they’ve tried to enter, Dave tells me they’ve done it really badly, which he’s fine with.
Scooters, interestingly appear to be a hard goods and technology driven business. Repairs, replacements, and upgrades are what Dave’s business is mostly about. Vermin sells some shop branded clothing but, to his surprise, has never depended on shoes and other apparel brands like many skate shops do.
Now, let’s just assume for a minute that Dave isn’t making all this up, and that there is a vibrant, growing scooter community out there. What lessons might we learn?
I suppose the first and primary lesson is that we can’t hope to be the arbiter of what’s cool to kids. They won’t listen to us and don’t care what we think. That’s become even more true in the online age. We can’t control the message any more.
Maybe, for some of you, this is a business opportunity. Or maybe it’s already too late. I mean, by the time I’ve heard about it, can it possibly still be cool and early in the growth cycle? On the other hand, if by some miracle it is early, wouldn’t it be good thing if you didn’t ignore it because you don’t like it- kind of like what happened with long boards as I recall. Then everybody madly tried to get into it, but it was hard to distinguish your brand when you were just another “me too” longboard brand jumping on the band wagon. I wonder, in fact, if you don’t damage your brand by jumping in too late.
Finally and inevitably, with everybody making longboards and the market past over supplied with a product (unlike popsicle stick boards) that didn’t wear out so quickly sales crumpled. No surprise there.
Scooters also appear to be an example of a market where community is important. Big discovery, right? Mostly small retailers, offering the newest products, advice, a place for scooterers (need a better word…) to hang out.
What happens when you lose that? When brands lose connection to the smaller, intimate customer group that made them successful? When they try and grow too far past that customer group?
Mostly, we all know what happens because we’ve seen it before. But in case you’ve forgotten, go back and look at this article I wrote and the associated study about the surf industry.
There’s also an abiding curiosity in the scooter community about the technology and the evolution of the product with the goal of finding ways to improve its functionality. This creates an almost accidental interface between the brands and the consumers to the benefit of both.
Think about that for a minute. They are working for a common purpose because it’s what they both want to do. The lines of communication are wide open. Once you’re selling to a broader audience, this kind of intimate, cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship between brand, retailer and customer becomes difficult to impossible.
From what I can tell, the scooter market is in its warm, fuzzy place right now. Can it stay there? The history of other industries suggests not. Companies, either from within the industry or outside of it, and probably both, in the normal course of competing, will look for growth requiring expanded distribution. What I’ve seen over the years is that companies, doing what they perceive to be in their own best interest, end up disturbing the existing delicate balance between consumers, retailers and brands.
Why won’t it happen to scooters? Well, it hasn’t so far. At least not since the initial launch and blow up of scooters. I guess it has happened. Once.
I’d expect it to happen again. If it doesn’t, I’d hypothesize that it will because of favorable demographics (the millennials having kids) leading to the growth of the core market. One could argue that will just attract bigger players. But I don’t expect scooting (still need another word) to attract older participants, so there won’t be the issue snowboarding had when kids didn’t want to do what their parents were doing. I also believe the scooter age kids will value the community of the local shop and product tinkering/improving as long as they are involved. Maybe there’s even less chance of the product becoming a commodity. The selection at Walmart, however, makes that seem unlikely.
Are those Walmart scooters any of the “cool” brands? Probably not. Yet. What’s their quality like? At some level, even if the quality is lousy and no leading brands are there can the core scooter community overcome the message that inevitable results from Walmart and other big box distribution carrying the product; that scooters just aren’t as cool/exclusive/underground as they were.
Perhaps it’s possible to make an argument that demographics and aging out will define growth and participation and keep the industry from being traumatized by big, ignorant players.
Did I say there were no adults on scooters? Seems I was wrong.
But I don’t see them as a threat to this market. Any of you who are in touch with the scooter market, please let me hear from you. I’m curious to get your takes.
Oh- and we moved the cord of wood to the new house.