I've been grouching for a while now about how the bicycle industry has been trying to seek growth by convincing existing bike owners to buy more bikes. That explains the constant push toward planned obsolescence. It explains why every year, incremental product changes are hyped as major breakthroughs, and why new, increasingly narrow market segments are constantly being created. On the whole, it's a pretty unhealthy way to work.
I read recently in Bike Retailer some confirmation that the industry is recognizing the problem -- not that they know what to do about it. At the Bicycle Leadership Conference in Monterey, CA last week, a panel discussion on industry statistics found that sales of bicycles overall are shrinking, particularly when compared with population. "The stats don't lie and shrinking shipments of bikes suggests more needs to be done to boost cycling participation, provide more accessibility with entry level product and sell the experience of cycling rather than complex technology," said Bike Retailer.
I like the part about selling the "experience of cycling rather than complex technology." I've been saying for a while now that making bikes more complicated is not making more people want to ride bikes. Disc brakes and expensive electronic shifting systems are not converting people to cycling -- and why would they? Increasingly expensive technology is just adding to the perception of bicycles as toys for rich people.
An operations manager for Felt Bicycles, Michael Forte, was quoted in the Bike Retailer article saying, "The U.S. population is growing at a substantial rate, but we're selling less bicycles per person."
The article also pointed out that there has been some growth in certain segments of the market -- as in some of the latest "must have" trends, like 27.5 mountain bikes -- but those are offset by larger declines in other segments. "27.5 is not doing enough to increase mountain bike volume -- both 26 and 29er sales are down at retail," said Liz Stahura, a senior retail analyst at Leisure Trends. Forte added, "There's growth in 27.5, but we're not growing the overall pie."
What this says to me is that people who are buying 27.5 mountain bikes are probably the same people who already own bikes in 26-in. and 29er versions. Or, they're choosing the "latest" 27.5 instead of the other options. Either way, that growth is very likely nothing more than a temporary blip.
So what can be done?
I'm oddly reminded of the gun industry. Strangely enough, the gun industry works on a similar market model to the bicycle industry -- getting existing owners to buy more. Since the 1970s, the number of homes that have guns has been steadily declining. According to the NY Times, March 9, 2013, the number has gone from about 49% in the 1970s, to roughly 35% in the current decade. Yet, in that time, overall sales of guns have been increasing -- in other words, fewer people are buying more guns. But the gun industry has one big tool to get those people to keep buying -- Fear. Every time there's a big shooting in the news, gun sales increase. People who have guns find that the guns they have don't make them feel safer -- and they get to thinking they need another gun. It seems to work.
Unfortunately, the bicycle industry doesn't have that tool available. Fear of obesity, heart disease, etc. isn't enough to get people riding bikes. In fact, fear in general is a major hindrance to cycling.
An opinion piece by industry analyst Jay Townley (also in Bike Retailer) says that the industry really needs to get behind bicycle advocacy to encourage more people to start riding. That might be a start. Fear of traffic keeps a lot of people from riding. It's one of the first things people say to me when they find out how often I bike to work -- "Aren't you afraid of the cars?" Doing more to make people feel safe, or at least comfortable, while riding is probably a big step.
Better bicycling education might be a good step, too -- starting with drivers' education. Most states require drivers' education before one can get a license (at least for new drivers in their teens, but it varies). Those education programs should do more to inform drivers of cyclists rights, and teach them how to share the road with cyclists. Teach them to not only be better drivers, but also about being better riders. I think that would go a long way to making riders safer.
Another thing is that the racing influence on bicycle design needs to stop. I have no doubt that Lance Armstrong in his heyday sold a lot of bicycles, but we all know how that fairy tale ended. People say that "racing improves the breed" but I don't think that's true -- at least not for most bikes or riders. New developments are introduced at the "top," and the marketing is there to build demand for it so it will "filter down" to the rest of us. It's no secret that most people who ride bicycles don't race, yet the racing influence on design can be seen even in bikes that will never be raced -- and that influence actually detracts from the bikes.
There was a time when touring bikes were thought to be the pinnacle of bike design. While long-distance touring bikes are probably not the answer either, at least they were comfortable and practical. I think that today there needs to be more emphasis on road-worthy but simple and practical designs. Constantly chasing after more technology, adding complexity to what should really be a simple machine, adds to the perception that bikes are toys for the rich or for Lance Armstrong wannabes (sorry to mention him again, but he's still the only bike racer most Americans can name), and I believe it scares people off.
People need to see that bicycles are fun, and practical, and one doesn't need to dress all in lycra to enjoy riding one. Even just making the point that a bicycle is a good alternative to a car when one only needs to make a short trip might help -- and putting more emphasis on those bikes instead of trying to get existing cyclists to buy increasingly complicated and expensive steeds might be the approach needed.
Thoughts are welcome.