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Fuel prices driving moped and scooter sales in Hagerstown

September 06, 2008|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Mike Wollard understands economic recession. He started his business amid one.

"I needed a job, so I created one," said Wollard, who launched Hagerstown Moped & Hobby Inc. in 1982 after being laid off from an industrial apprenticeship program.

Now, 26 years later amid what many say is at or close to a recession, Wollard's business again is riding the sales increases that come as gasoline prices accelerate and his high-mileage mo-peds and scooters are in demand. He said his business is up 20 percent this year.

Not many companies here or across the nation can say that now in a time when unemployment is rising, the housing industry and its associated markets are reeling, and bankruptcies are common.

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Wollard shrugs off any notion that his 443 S. Burhans Blvd. shop is doing anything special to draw business in what for many is a bad time.

"Every economy has its niche," he said. "That's all it amounts to. ... It's all fuel-driven."

Across town, Twigg Cycles Inc. owner Mike Twigg is of the same mind.

"We just happen to have the right product at the right place in time," Twigg said.

Coming into this year, all local businesses were bracing for a setback, Twigg said.

"We, along with just about every other business that I know of, anticipated a downturn in the economy," he said. "We battened down the hatches. We reduced employment. We reduced inventory orders."

Then in March, as gasoline prices began rocketing above $3 per gallon nationwide, "we began to experience a strange phenomenon," Twigg said. "We had people showing up in our showroom that would have never looked at motorcycles.

"... They were first-time buyers. They were a lot of people who rode as a kid. What they were looking for was a form of transportation. Before, they were looking purely as a type of recreation."

Diversity pays off

Twigg's business, founded in 1932 and which he purchased in 1989 from his grandfather, sells a variety of mobile vehicles, including scooters, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and boats, at its 200 S. Edgewood Drive location alongside Hagerstown Commons.

In this economy, that variety has worked as kind of an antidote to the old bromide of not putting all your eggs in one basket.

Twigg declines to take credit for that broad approach, citing instead those who manufacture his "very diversified" lines of products.

But Twigg does agree that in this economy, that wider base has helped offset what has shaped up to be an off year for sales of watercraft and ATVs. Not only are they gas-hungry, they must be hauled on a trailer pulled by a truck, which uses more fuel, he said.

Likewise, sales of his bigger motorcycles have slowed, while sales of his small- to mid-sized engine motorcycles have risen sharply.

"Unfortunately, we have to order these products six or eight months in advance," Twigg said. "... We have been sold out of scooters for months and months. Our manufacturers cannot keep up with the current demand.

"Then, the other facet of our business that we just have absolutely recognized an explosion in was our service and parts sales.

"People have scooters and cycles that have been parked in their garages and have not been run in a long time. So they bring them in for service. And they say, 'Let's park our gas-guzzler SUV and enjoy riding something that doesn't use near the gas.'"

Saving money

Adam Robertson and Jonathan Heid are among the wave of consumers turning away from the four-wheeled gallon guzzlers and becoming adoring fans of the two-wheeled gas almost-by-the-teaspoon vehicles.

Heid, 32, who lives near Huyetts Crossroads west of Hagerstown, drove a Buick until about three months ago, when it broke down. Rather than fixing the 25 miles-per-gallon Buick, he spent between $1,200 and $1,300 to buy a new 49 cc moped that gets 125 mpg, he said.

Robertson, 23, of Hagerstown, owns a Jeep Wrangler.

A few months ago, he said, he was at work one day when he suddenly was motivated by thoughts of how much money he had been spending on gasoline and how much the price is increasing.

"I was just tired of spending so much," Robertson said. "Went that day over lunch" to look at mopeds. "Bought it the next day."

And, he said, he loves the free-spirited rides and the gas savings.

"It only holds 1.3 gallons of fuel. I actually filled it up before I came down here," Robertson said during a conversation in July at Williamsport's River Bottom Park. "I was dead on 'E.' And my cost was $4.47.

"I went from a Jeep Wrangler $60 a week to this, not even $5 a week."

What's also interesting about Robertson's switch to moped travel is that he works for a car dealership, where he now arrives each day -- on the moped.

What are his co-workers saying?

Before answering, Robertson pointed out that the dealership now sells cars getting as much as 37 mpg that are selling well. As to his shiny black moped, he said, his co-workers "think it's cool."

But, he added, a moped is not for everyone.

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