Motorbikes hit the skids in India

India Dispatch: After soaring sales growth in recent years, the world's second-largest market for motorbikes has slowed.

CHENNAI, INDIA Ð Feb 23,2011: Traffic on the road in Chennai. (Pawan Singh / The National) For Stock
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India's roads are abuzz with the sound of motorbikes.

They are favoured by a range of Indians - from the office worker who zips and weaves his way through congested traffic, to the clumps of parents and children often seen impressively perched astride one bike.

Motorcycle manufacturers have moved to capitalise on soaring growth in sales in India in the past few years, with the country being the second-largest market for motorcycles in the world after China. But a slowing economy, high interest rates and rising fuel prices have taken their toll on motorbike sales, which have decelerated sharply in recent months.

"The motorcycle industry in the past three years has grown at an average of about 20 per cent but this time round the growth has slowed down considerably," says Yaresh Kothari, a research analyst at Angel Broking in Mumbai.

Sales of motorcycles, including scooters and motorbikes, grew by just over 3 per cent between April and September compared with the same period last year, according to data from the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (Siam).

"The two-wheeler market in the country has been adversely impacted due to the overall market slowdown and prevailing sentiments since the beginning of this quarter," Pawan Munjal, the managing director and chief executive of Hero MotoCorp, the world's largest two-wheeler manufacturer, said last month.

The company, based in New Delhi, reported a 27 per cent drop in net profit for the second quarter of the financial year compared with the same period last year, as the number of motorcycles it sold fell almost 14 per cent between July and September. "Sensing the slowdown in the market, we led the way in adjusting our production plans in August and September and this has been reflected in our quarterly sales figures."

In addition, there is also increased competition between manufacturers after Honda and Hero MotoCorp dissolved their 26-year joint venture in India last year.

"As far as the multinational players are concerned, almost all of them are there in the Indian market," says Mr Kothari. "Honda has been expanding capacity at a very aggressive rate and that is what caused the domestic players to lose market share to some extent."

The economic backdrop means demand for the more powerful, fuel-guzzling models in particular has been hit hard.

"Because of the weak consumer segment and high inflation, sales have slowed down in the higher segment," says Mr Kothari. "In the entry-level bikes, the growth has increased because the entry-level bikes are more fuel efficient compared to the higher cc bikes. There has been a shift."

Bikes in the lower power range at about 125cc experienced a sales growth of 31 per cent between April and September, while scooters, which are also popular, grew by 20 per cent in terms of sales over that period, according to figures from Siam.

Nevertheless, at the very top end of the market, sales of luxury brands are growing in India, albeit from a very small base.

"Ducati India sold over 150 bikes in 2011 and we are confident of doubling the number in 2012, which gives you an idea of the potential," says Ashish Chordia, the director of Ducati's India division, which has brought the high-end Italian motorbikes to the subcontinent.

"Despite the sector being under pressure, the premium segment has been faring pretty well," he adds. "As you can see from our sales figures, a growth of 50 per cent has been possible even during the temporary slowdown. The main reason for sales bucking the overall trend is that these products are aspirational purchases. The market for premium motorcycles has been growing at a healthy rate and has huge untapped potential."

Also bucking the trend, sales for Harley-Davidson in India have been growing at 40 per cent year over year for the year to date, says Anoop Prakash, the managing director of Harley-Davidson India.

"We're certainly bullish even for next year," he says.

This growth has partly been driven by its expansion. India is only the second country outside the United States, after Brazil, where Harley-Davidson has an assembly facility.

It has already opened two new dealerships in India this year, in Kochi and in Kolkata and plans to open one in Goa next month, which will take its total number of dealerships in the country up to 10.

Still relatively new to the market, it launched operations in India in 2009, as the company had to wait for the government to relax emission regulations to allow the import of bikes with engines of more than 800cc. Such machines carry high import duties and taxes in India. Harley-Davidson's cheapest bike, the SuperLow, starts at 560,000 rupees (Dh38,215) in India, compared to US$7,999 (Dh 29,380) in the United States. Its Street Bob, which is popular in India, goes for 1 million rupees, while in the US it costs from $12,999 (Dh47,745).

With India now in its festival season, which includes the Diwali celebrations this month, motorcycle manufacturers are reporting growth in demand for the period. But analysts say it is unlikely this momentum can be sustained.

"The outlook for the next six months appears slightly subdued," says Mr Kothari.