Monday, September 14, 2015

Bicycle Industry Stagnation

Tomorrow I’ll go to Las Vegas to attend the annual Interbike trade show for the bicycle industry where One Street will have a booth once again. I’m looking forward to talking with attendees about our Bike Shift Levers and books. I may even be lucky enough to connect with unusual attendees who are interested in our Social Bike Business program and ways of serving disadvantaged people with bicycles.

This will be my 25th Interbike in 26 years. More than half of those visits were as a bike shop owner having founded and operated Ironclad Bicycles here in Prescott for 13 years. Now my husband Jim owns the shop. He’ll go with me tomorrow and on Wednesday accept an award for Ironclad as one of America’s Best Bike Shops. That’s mighty cool.

But I’ll be at the show for One Street and I’m already feeling the dull thud of disappointment. I know I’ll walk onto the showroom floor only to see the same high tech, high priced bicycles that litter the glitzy floor each year. Of course the booth personnel will tout them as new and improved, but from One Street’s perspective, all I will likely see will be more ways to entice money from the same, aging, hardcore bicycle enthusiasts the industry has been selling to for all those 26 years. If I’m lucky, I’ll come upon a far off corner, perhaps in the basement where few attendees go, where visionary bike builders of affordable basic bikes will be sequestered.

This is why the American bike industry has stagnated, even regressed, since my first Interbike in 1990. This year in America, about the same number of bikes were sold as in 1990, but our population has grown. The bicycle organizations we work with through our Social Bike Business program all work with used bikes because the bike industry no longer makes basic, durable, affordable bikes. Read more about this problem in my previous post, Planned Obsolescence in the Bike Industry.

In my dreams I’d enter the Interbike show floor to find booth after booth filled with basic bikes that come equipped with racks, fenders, baskets, and lights, all for retail prices under $300. Their frames and forks would be simple steel tubing, no shocks or space-age materials. None of them would have a model year and all their parts would be interchangeable and repairable. The booth personnel would show photos of the American factories where their bikes were welded and assembled. If they were from another country, their bikes would be made in their country. They’d tout the appeal of their bikes for the majority of people. They’d talk about their programs for training and hiring disadvantaged people. They’d boast about their bike-design focus groups comprised of people who ride daily for their living.

If I bothered to take the time in such a dream, I might allow for a far off corner, perhaps in the basement, for specialty, bouncy bikes that cater to aging bicycle enthusiasts who might like to buy another bike.

Instead, I am bracing myself for the same old *&^% because our bike industry seems happy to wallow in its stagnation, sell to the same customers, and watch sales numbers drop along with those customers.

I did come upon a flicker of hope recently when I read a staff editorial in Bicycle Retailer & Industry News called “The real problem is stagnation – no matter how suppliers sell bikes.” Unfortunately, they don’t post staff editorials online or I’d link to it. The author responds to a recent buzz about bicycle manufacturers selling directly online, but points out the stagnated number of sales I just mentioned.

They grabbed my attention with this line: “There appears to be a fundamental disconnect between the bicycle industry and 99 percent of Americans.” Then they captured my heart with this one: “Our general message to consumers is one of aggressive athleticism – a message that for most is a turnoff.” This was printed in our main bike industry publication!

The editorial wraps up by repeating that online sales in not the problem. It leaves the stagnation issue unresolved. But to read such self-incriminating statements in the main publication for the American bicycle industry was a welcome breath of fresh air I’ll take with me onto the fusty showroom floor tomorrow. 

Are you just as frustrated with our bicycle industry as I am? Please leave a comment.

Sue

4 comments:

  1. I agree, and keep thinking and posting about this. We have an egalitarian sport, not inclusive of the general populace, and it does exclude many by the cost of the bikes.

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    1. Thanks Peter. As you imply, it's not just the cost. The images they use to market their products repel people who may have otherwise given bicycling a try.

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  2. Sue:

    I think the problem is there are two bike industries and only one show. Interbike isn't about bicycles, per se, it's about luxury items and toys. The bicycles featured there are either designed for the wealthy or people who don't ned to use their bicycles as transportation.

    People who can choose to drive or ride are very different from people who can only walk unless they have a bike. There is no sympathy, and actually, no comprehension from sport and casual riders what it means to have a bike be the only way to go faster than four miles per hour, or to carry loads heavier than a few pounds.

    It might be possible to do a show-in-a-show at Interbike; to promote the idea as bicycle as transportation for the developing world. It might even be possible to blend bicycles-as-transportation in the first world with it. But, Interbike, as it is, is about business. Business is about profit. With rare exceptions, companies in the mainstream won't participate in social good through cycling. They will talk about it a bit, perhaps, but they won't change their business to suit it.

    In fact, they probably *can't*. Corporate law prevents them from reducing the profits of shareholders by doing good. There is hope with the new Public Benefit Corporations which may help but you won't see Specialized or Giant or any of the other big manufacturers reorganizing into PBCs—it's not their goal.

    The only way to "fix" this situation is to make doing good a social mandate. To make the customers of the luxury manufacturers demand more than a show of social responsibility from them. To make it "fashionable" to really contribute, the way "green" is now de rigeur for all corporations. They aren't going to do it from the goodness of their hearts, they will do it because it helps business.

    The other pressure that could help is to promote bike-as-transportation *here*, in the US, in such a way that it replaces the aspiration to own a car with the satisfaction of cycling. It's easy for people who are well off to "choose" cycling, they can always drift back to their cars. Better infrastructure designed to serve the not so well off, not as fashion but as public service, is needed.

    Keep up the good work.

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  3. Excellent Ya'akov! So how did "green" become entrenched in corporate culture? Over the past 26 years, I've sat through countless presentations to the bike industry and even by bike industry leaders about the benefits of serving all Americans with bicycles - all for naught. Having been a bike shop owner for 13 years, I can empathize with bike shop owners, and even owners of struggling bike companies, because the way our industry operates is always with one foot in the past - pre-season orders require manufactures, distributors, and bike shop owners to design and order the next model year based on what sold the previous season. It's a deadly cycle that will take a lot more than a few presentations or letters from customers to break.

    Lately, I've been more impressed by what is budding outside of the bike industry - bike programs, mostly nonprofit, that are serving the needs of everyone else. Is our energy better spent trying to change our bike industry with its self-destructive pre-season orders and model years? Or would that energy have more impact by supporting the "other bike industry" as you refer to?

    BTW, I'm with you on the lack of potential for trying to wedge this into Interbike. Interbike is serving current bike companies and, save for a few exceptions, none of them dare change a thing for fear of losing everything.

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