A bike dealer in Uttar Pradesh chronicles the wheels of change
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New Delhi: When Kushagra Agrawal’s father U.S. Agrawal opened a retail store in Varanasi in 1976 for Vijay scooters, the Lambretta variant made by state-owned Scooters India Ltd, the queues—and that’s just for booking—would stretch half a kilometre. Demand was high, production limited and delivery erratic at best.
“Sometimes, there would be a strike at the factory and production would be delayed even further. The average waiting time for a scooter in those days was three to four years,” says Agrawal, 34, who has inherited his father’s business.
If one were to scout around for a handful of words to describe life in India through the 1970s and ’80s, control and scarcity would feature high. You had to wait for everything.
Even after Bajaj Auto Ltd established itself in India as the preferred brand of scooters, there was no let-up either in the time it took to book a scooter or in the delays—these were par for the course.
It was in such a scenario that Hero Cycles Ltd announced a joint venture with Japanese multinational Honda Motor Co. Ltd , giving birth to one of India’s most iconic brands, Hero Honda.
The Agrawals opened a dealership stocking Hero Honda motorcycles.
“We were trying to break into a market where bikes meant Rajdoot (a two-stroke motorcycle, discontinued in 1989) and scooters meant Bajaj. It was never going to be easy, but Hero Honda ended up changing the face of the two-wheeler sector. Our dealership started the same year as the company. In fact, we were the first Hero Honda dealer in all of eastern Uttar Pradesh,” says Agrawal, who joined the business in 2005. Five years later, Hero and Honda parted ways.
In eastern Uttar Pradesh, motorcycles, as Agrawal explains, have to measure up to a very particular standard in order to qualify as best-sellers—they have to be the ultimate accessory at a wedding. “There won’t be a wedding without it is the prevalent sentiment. It is what was said about the Rajdoot and now it is what they say about the Hero Splendor (a 100cc motorcycle which is considered the company’s best-seller),” says Agrawal.
Back then, in dusty and largely-rural eastern Uttar Pradesh, Agrawal’s father was often told that the company’s initial offerings were similar to mopeds—“This is a baby bike!”
Fuel efficiency was a key factor: it is Hero Honda and Maruti Suzuki that are largely credited with bringing in the concept of fuel efficiency to India. One of Hero Honda’s earliest ad campaigns had the tagline, “Fill it, shut it, forget it.”
In 1991, India’s motorcycle sales stood at 432,482. In 2012, the number had grown to nearly 12 million.
Motorcycles now dominate the two-wheeler industry. For Agrawal, the reason for this is simple: availability, more choice and congested roads.
“Of late, we are seeing a shift towards gearless scooters because even bikes are becoming difficult to navigate in cities,” he says. But their main market, which is the rural area, remains intact. “Bikes are sturdier for villages where there are no paved roads. Scooters cannot handle them,” says Agrawal, before adding: “That ‘man-kind of feeling’ is not there in scooters.”
According to Agrawal, reforms have not impacted sales at his outlet because their business is not so dependent on city sales as much as sales from the surrounding rural areas. But yes, reforms have meant having to live with more and more dealers springing up across the city.
“In my father’s time, business dealings were only about supply and demand. Today, we have to ensure that our salesmen are well-versed in a vehicle’s attributes. We have to ensure that the customer has access to easy finance in order to fund their dreams. Where earlier walking was acceptable, now businesses have to fly,” says Agrawal.
“A few years ago, seeing the increasing number of women in the workforce, the company introduced scooters for women. It is a fast-moving commodity and most young working women prefer it as it is easy to drive and easy on the pocket,” he adds.
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