Within the walled city of the bike industry, the term "industry veteran" precedes the name of every person with a hand on a lever. It is a term of endearment, and after a scant three years here at the shop, I haven't earned it. I'm still an industry outsider, and I'm on my way back out. So, no better time to tell the industry how I think it could improve, right?
Anyway, here's the backdrop. In the past few years, the industry veteranati have come around to the hard truth that our little corner of the world (bicycle retail manufacturers selling through independent bicycle dealers) is eating it's own tail. Besides our steady/falling sales, and sharp declines in the number of bike storefronts, a big call-to-action was the market research project undertaken by Shimano for their Coasting project. That research told the sad tale that very few Americans were cycling even occasionally, and laid out many of the reasons that people just are not interested.
A further study, commissioned by the BPSA, described how the industry has focused too hard on the enthusiast cycling culture, which makes up a ridiculously small proportion of the total US population. We spend most of our resources clubbing each other trying to bag a bigger share of the static population of longtime hardcore enthusiast cyclists, who are also the most apt to go online to do their bike shopping.
The flipside of this is the opportunity, especially amid our obesity epidemic and the rising cost of energy, to take a fresh approach to the business of bicycle retail, and put a whole lot of new people on bicycles. A lot of folks are taking the message to heart, even within the industry Cosa Nostra, and are committed to knocking down some of the barriers that turn away the casual or potential cyclists.
IMPORTANT qualifier -- One of the most compelling barriers cited in these studies was the shoddy in-store experience. Bicycle shops are considered intimidating places, full of unfamiliar merchandise and sullen unwelcoming employees. I'm not going to delve into this aspect, because it's both obvious, and well-covered. Every bikeshop who is serious about this new mission knows what they need to do. City Bikes decided a few years ago that creating a more welcoming instore experience was a necessity, and while there's still a lot of ground to cover, hopefully progress has been made, and real action is definitely underway.
But what if a whole bunch of bikeshops embrace this challenge, like the folks at Bike Gallery in Portland, Oregon have? They invest in signage, they train on customer service, they hire employees who smile, they stress a welcoming inclusive atmosphere. What if they do all that, the customers come beating down the doors, and what they get from the bike brands to sell are the same bikes we sell now, at the same price, same conditions, same everything?
I see a lot of product coming down the pike that strives for this broad appeal. And I see a lot of marketing and PR muscle being applied to the chore at hand. But I wonder how much of this represents real structural change in the industry, and how much is bringing to bear the same old approaches to pursuing new market niches?
So, in the next seven (7!) subsequent installments of excruciating insider bore-fodder, I will suggest some ways that the industry -- or at least those in the industry serious about broadening their appeal -- can approach this new mission. I am truly sorry to any/all regular readers, as this blog was conceived to get people excited about cycling. This business-case dissection of the industry will probably read like a cue-sheet to Sleepyland. But I'll try to sprinkle in some lighter fare from time to time.
Credit where credit is due -- many of my opinions on this were formed (consciously or unconsciously) by talking to Jay Townley and Elliot Gluskin of the appropriately-named Gluskin-Townley Group. Ironic that a true industry veteran like Jay has very much been the canary in the mineshaft on this whole situation. More clarity came through a rather intense email brainstorming session with our ex-merchandise guy Mike. He was approached by one of our vendors, who (motivated by our falling orders, of course) wanted to know what they could do better. Rather than providing the usual feedback ("deliver faster," "better availability data," "bigger margins"), we started reeling off all the big things that any and every bike brand could undertake to better align with our desire to broaden the appeal of cycling.
So, with all due apologies and qualifiers out of the way, I'll start later today by looking at the products themselves....