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Bringing scootering to the masses

April 27, 2012
Walmart Wasp

Orin O'Neill illustration

You’ve probably heard by now, the Indian Vespa LX has broken cover, returning the Vespa name to the Indian scooter market for a third time. While there are no plans for exports at present, this Indian LX, or something like it, could conceivably be the scooter that finally causes the 2-wheeled revolution in America that many believe is just around the corner. Or has been since at least 2008.

Allow me to posit a scenario.

First and foremost, the U.S. powersports industry will NOT be a factor in such a revolution. At all. Motorcycle/scooter dealers are dropping like flies, and while there are scooter dealers doing yeoman work in the areas of promotion and customer service, the vast majority either don’t understand what needs to be done, or simply aren’t interested (in any given week, most powersports dealers are closed more hours than they’re open).

In order to be a revolution, riding scooters must take place among those who do not presently own or ride scooters. At this moment, rolling on two wheels in America exists at the margins. In order for scootering to become mainstream, the revolution must be taken to where Americans live, which is not in excruciatingly hip urban enclaves, but the suburbs.

And what is a defining characteristic of suburbia? Give yourself a gold star if you said big-box retail.

Give yourself two if you said Walmart.

Gnash your teeth and rend your garments all you want, Walmart selling scooters would be a path back to the future. Sears sold Vespas, remember? At that time, Sears was the world’s largest retailer. Just like Walmart is today.

And like Sears, Walmart employs automotive technicians, in their Tire and Lube Express departments. As people who work on cars will tell you, changing oil and mounting/balancing tires are the two most boring things automotive techs do. Setting up scooters could be seen by these folks as a welcome change of pace.

Especially when you consider the design brief for the Indian LX: make it easy to work on, and make it cheap. All kinds of stuff got taken out to meet those goals. Mechanical drum brakes on both ends, way cheaper than hydraulic discs. India only requires compliance with Euro 3 emissions standards, so a carburetor will do fine (and be way cheaper than EFI); the 4-stroke Stella passed CARB certification with a carb (sorry). Scooter theft is not an issue in India, so buh-bye ignition immobilizer; just toss in a good chain lock for U.S. sales. Or sell one alongside as an accessory.

The biggest thing that makes a modern Vespa expensive to own is Piaggio’s requirement for frequent, pricey dealer maintenance. Therefore, the Walmart LX would come with a comprehensive tool kit and a seriously dumbed-down repair manual (made necessary by most Americans’ innocence in the realm of mechanical things). You know, like Honda motorcycles did in the 1960s and 70s. When I lived in Seattle, one of my neighbors always described the PX as a “weird-looking bicycle with an engine.” Bicycles are easy to work on.

There really wouldn’t be all that much for the Walmart customer to have to maintain. Oil/filter changes, a new spark plug once in a while, cable adjustments if s/he is feeling ambitious. (Most people would probably have brake and drive belt service done by a tech.) The Indian LX’s wheels and tires are both the same size, and can be removed by undoing three lugnuts each. The Walmart version could come with a spare (or a 16-oz bottle of Slime), and you’d get a new tire mounted at… wait for it.. Walmart Tire and Lube Express! Which could perform other service as well. Such as it is.

The Walmart LX would in all likelihood not be called a Vespa. In the U.S. and Canada, Piaggio has positioned the Vespa brand similarly to MINI and Fiat, as an upscale fashion accessory. A Walmart LX (naming it after some kind of pasta or some Italian hill town would seem obvious, but I think “Walmart Wasp” has a nice ring to it) would be a great fit for the retailer’s other brands—an ostensibly upmarket product at a Walmart price. Its Piaggio/Italian origins might be hinted at, but not overtly.

A Walmart LX would almost certainly not be sold at the $1,100 Indian MSRP. A distinct possibility would fall somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,195. Walmart sells flat-screen TVs and garden tractors for that kind of money. Easily put on a credit card, no small issue for a growing number of Americans.

A scooter would fit Walmart’s “Save Money, Live Better” advertising tag line to a T. Do your running around on a 100 mpg scooter, not your ’96 Tahoe, and you WILL save money. Remember, DIY maintenance will be a doddle. The Indian LX is probably the only scooter aside from the 4-stroke Stella that can actually make a valid claim of being cheaper to run than a car.

Yes, it would have to be certified by the EPA and CARB. But the Genuine Scooter Company (“America’s SMALLEST Scooter Company”) was able to do it with the Stella. The world’s largest retailer should have no trouble accomplishing this.

A few years ago, reports circulated about Walmart’s discussions with nearly all of the major Chinese car manufacturers. Well, Sears sold a car in the 1950s, so such a move is not without precedent. Scooters, however, would be much easier to distribute, sell and support.

And no, this would not put the remaining scooter dealers out of business. Quite the contrary, it would increase their business.

Walmart sells bicycles, but there are no less than half a dozen bicycle shops where I live. They all do great business, as far as I can tell. The specialty shops offer higher-quality bikes and accessories, and expert advice from employees who are passionate bicyclists—things Walmart doesn’t.

More importantly, the bike shops are located in places Walmart’s customers aren’t inclined to go. And vice versa. Just like scooter shops.

While lots of Walmart Wasps would surely become garage queens or get hauled around in the RVs that Walmart allows to occupy the edges of their parking lots, the majority would most likely get used. And many of their riders would develop a taste for riding that could result in new customers for the specialist scooter shops as people seek accessories and upgrades for their Wasps. Or better bikes.

Or consider Starbucks. The meme persists that Starbucks puts indie coffee shops out of business, in spite of numerous studies by university economics departments and business schools that show just the opposite happens: business at the indie coffee places increases when Starbucks comes to town.

Remember, it was Starbucks that created a market for four-dollar coffee in the first place, and over the years made mochas and lattes mainstream. Outside of San Francisco and New York, espresso was almost unheard of before Howard Schultz and his partners bought the company, which was originally named Starbuck’s Coffee, Tea and Spices. In the U.S., coffee pre-Starbucks was toxic sludge for which people reluctantly paid 25 or 50 cents a cup. Now? You can get a tall skinny half-caf in the most remote corners of America, and more likely not from SBUX, either.

I would love to have a 2012 Indian Vespa LX 125, not because it’s made in India, not because it’s a fashion accessory, but because I want what I’m not getting from the GTS—motorized transportation that is genuinely cheap, with easy DIY maintenance. Scootin’ Old Skool, if you will. I don’t care what it’s called, and if I can buy one at the mall, so much the better. There aren’t any scooter dealers in the town where I live.

Let’s see if anyone in Bentonville takes notice. Favicon

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3 Comments
  1. jprestonian permalink
    April 28, 2012 7:56 am

    Agreed, Orin. I hope they ARE listening in Bentonville. Hell, even Costco would be a better alternative than the dwindling number of scooter retailers.

  2. April 28, 2012 12:57 pm

    Jeff, funny you should mention Costco—when I was shopping for my first scooter, Costco had T’nG 50s for $695. In the crate, you had to get it home and set it up. They didn’t sell them for long, I’m guessing because they didn’t sell very many…

  3. April 28, 2012 9:15 pm

    Why not? If it gets people scootin’…

Comments are closed.