Note: This is the second in an ignorant eight-part suggestion of some measures the bike brands could take to better appeal to the majority of Americans, who have little or no interest in cycling.
Part 1 described the situation, the challenges, and some important caveats.
In this part, we will examine cosmetics and visual differentiation.
If you've ever browsed the listings at match.com (and yes, you have, quit lying), there were probably quite a few perfectly dateworthy men or women you passed over in 7 milliseconds. Entirely because of appearances, of course.
Is it any different with bicycles? Yes. But no.
Those of us who have been riding our bikes for a long time, whether for commuting, racing, touring, or whatever, probably take a good long look at a spec sheet, or take a good long test ride, when making our bicycle purchase. We think practically, because we know what works for us. Cosmetics still matter, but they face stiff competition from fit, features, and function.
When somebody comes into the store who is new to cycling, we tell them about the warrantees on our bikes. The quality and serviceability of the running gear. The relative merits of different frame materials and geometries. The luxury of having multiple sizes to choose from. But, for somebody who may still be in the "dabbling" phase of their cycling journey, is any of this compelling? Do they come through our door seeking these things, recognizing their merit?
I think style will hold greater sway over the novice cyclist's purchase decision. It hurts to say that. We want every new cyclist to immediately adopt our practical, utilitarian view of how to pick a bike. It validates our expertise, borne out of our many hours in the saddle. But a pretty face goes a long way, longer than we would prefer.
To test this crackpot notion, I sent the picture below to a bunch of friends and family who don't care a lick about bicycles, and have so demonstrated by making fun of my bike collection, and occasionally, my vocation. Two of these bicycles are sold in big-box discount retailers, retail in the $150-200 range, are only available in one size, are built by somebody wielding a plumber's wrench and a hammer, and feature the finest in craptacular breakomatic parts. One of these bicycles is sold in our shop, retails for over $350, features nice serviceable components, a frame warranty, is built up by a pro who builds safe bicycles for a living, and is available in a range of sizes.
I offered my guinea pigs a few options -- If they were throwing down for a bike like the three pictured this weekend, they could select one of these bikes based on what they see in the picture, or some other non-visual criteria they would find important ("the cheapest one", "best warranty", "most comfortable", "the one sold by my favorite local bike store," etc).
I got 24 responses. ALL (100%) made selections based on aesthetics. Commence attacking my research methodology, but I'm ready to conclude that style matters. A lot.
So, since I am concerned with getting people onto a correctly-fitted, reliable, quality bike-store bicycle that they will enjoy riding for years to come, did my sample end up on the "right" bike? Well, 17 out of 24 (71%, eek!!!) liked Bike #1, the one all the way on the left. And you guessed it, Bike #1 is sold in a big box retailer whose name rhymes with Malwart, and was the cheapest one of the three.
That's a huge problem for the bike store, and the bike brands who produce our offerings. If we want to appeal to non-cyclists, this little experiment convinced me that we have to do it with a greater helping of style. We shouldn't dispense with all those practical things that make a bike-store bike the best option. But we'd better start recognizing that while some will pay twice as much (and more) for all those necessary things on a cosmetically-similar (or cosmetically-deficient, if you believe my 24 jurors) bicycle, there are a bunch more that will look at some pictures online, see our visually-undifferentiated bike, and never come in our shop doors to listen to our compelling and rational argument.
People will even pay a premium for style. And pretty needn't cost a lot more than homely. So, I vote for pretty. But, what is pretty? We'll hash through that in the next installment.