The Bicycle Shop business in the U.S. is tough. Margins are thin, future sales tough to predict, good employees hard to find, and manufacturers refuse to protect bricks & mortar dealers from lower price online competitors. To owners, shops often seem more a labor of love than a source of income.
The National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA) recently published a report that really brings this to light. It focused on the continuing decline of bicycling and bicycle sales in the U.S. for the past 12 to 14 years. In 2000, 43.1 million people rode bicycles six or more days which is 148 riders per thousand population; by 2014 this had declined to 35.6 million or 111 riders per thousand.
In 2005, 67 bicycles were sold per thousand people and in 2014 this had fallen to 57 per thousand. Perhaps worse, sales of bicycles with a 20” or larger wheel size have fallen from a high of 67 per thousand population around 1974 to just 39 per thousand in 2014. The number of bicycle shops has fallen by 18% over the past decade while combined sales floor square footage has remained stagnant.
None of this is new. It’s been the number one topic of conversation for over a decade among bicycle shop owners.
I often wonder if the major impediment to sales growth is that U.S. shops are largely and often exclusively focused on recreation rather than transportation. U.S. shops are selling something that isn’t very critical nor even very useful for many people, instead of selling a valuable necessity.
An average person will only do something recreational for a short bit before they move on to something else. Many are also hesitant to spend money on recreational pursuits. This does not a broad, diverse market make.
There are certainly people who are devoted cyclists who will ride frequently throughout their lives and buy a lot of cycling stuff. These are very few, though, and unfortunately for local bicycle shops are also more likely than the average consumer to purchase online, especially highly profitable accessories.
Even the majority of papers and articles about getting more women riding bicycles (and buying bicycles and accessories) focuses on fitness and recreation rather than daily transportation. One woman told me that she’s visited two woman-owned shops in other cities and both were great at telling her about women-specific bicycles and lycra and classes for adjusting a derailleur, but neither had a clue about her need to take her children to school, bring groceries home and not wanting to worry about anything mechanical beyond air in her tires. This, by the way, goes for most guys as well.
The Death Cycle
Our current recreational focus has resulted in people having a garage full of bikes that aren’t very durable, go out of adjustment quickly, are uncomfortable to ride, and can’t easily be ridden in ordinary clothes.
So, we have millions of bikes hanging in garages, collecting dust and rarely ridden. Who wants to change in to shorts, search for wherever they put their helmet last year and struggle to get their bicycle down from the ceiling before trying to find the pump for the now flat tires and all only to then ride a bicycle that’s uncomfortable and has out of adjustment clackity-clacking gears? And this is the simple process for those who don’t load them on their car to drive to some place that they feel is safe enough to ride (I’ve always found it fascinating how many more bikes on cars I see in the U.S. than The Netherlands).
Worse, because people don’t want to ride their uncomfortable pants-leg eating bicycles, they are missing out on what may be the best source of routine activity available and they become overweight or obese. If you’re overweight, you’re even less likely to want to ride your out-of-adjustment bicycle. BTW, I’m not blaming our poor health and obesity on the bicycle industry; Wendy’s Baconator, among many others, contributes it’s share.
Plus, we’re also ending up with bikes that either can’t carry anything or get squirrelly when more than a loaf of bread is squished on the rack. So much for useful transportation.
Time for a new bicycle? Hardly. If you already have a rarely-used bicycle collecting dust in the garage, you’re unlikely to want to spend more money on another for fear that it, too, will do nothing but hang in the garage, collect dust and it remind you of this every day it hangs there. That’s not good for sales.
Many people don’t want to be ‘cyclists’. They don’t want to wear lycra or clackety shoes. They don’t want to wear helmets or get helmet hair or drip sweat all over the floor in their favorite cafe. They don’t want to abide by The Rules or build a bicycle repair station in their garage.
Perhaps most of all they don’t want to be associated with ‘those cyclists‘ — the ones who run red lights when others have right-of-way or block traffic because they-have-a-right-to-the-road (Note: they do have a right to the road, but that’s another topic). They don’t want to be associated with people who have irritatingly bright blinkie strobe lights that blind them when they’re driving. They don’t want to be confused with people whose common pose is an anti-social fist up in the air gesticulating to the car that just passed them too close.
They’ve heard enough anti-cyclist rhetoric on radio and at dinner parties to know that this is a group that perhaps they don’t want to be associated with.
This isn’t a criticism of people who wear lycra and helmets, I have a closetful myself, but simply a note that ‘cyclists’ are not always viewed very positively and this might not be the lifestyle to be selling.
What’s a bike shop to do?
Today we have the wrong bikes for the wrong reason and no place to ride. No wonder sales have been flat, and declining per capita, for 15 years.
What if we turn this around? Give people a good reason and purpose to ride often — transportation. Build safe and comfortable places to ride — protected bikeways. Provide people with proper bicycles that are simple and durable.
1) Sell the idea of riding for transportation. Give people a reason and a purpose to ride every week or every day. Plant the seed that a bicycle is much more than a recreational toy. Someone who rides frequently, like to dinner once per week, is more likely to want to invest in an upgraded bicycle in a few years and more likely become interested in other bicycling, like racing or off-road.
2) Do everything you can to make bicycling in your neighborhood and sales area comfortable and safe for normal average people. There’s a reason that The Netherlands has a busy bicycle shop on just about every corner. Get copies of the CROW Design Manual For Bicycle Traffic, learn it, and promote it. Get involved with the NBDA’s Green Lane Project. Read A View From The Cycle Path and Bicycle Dutch.
3) Sell bicycles that work for average people. KISS is important — don’t make bicycling complicated. Start each sale with a good city bike. Sell them something that will always be easy and ready to ride and they are more likely to ride often rather than just a couple of times per year. A bicycle that can be ridden in any clothes, that won’t eat their jeans, and that doesn’t require a lot of maintenance.
4A) Hide your inner cyclist (and the associated accessories). Don’t appear to be part of the fraternity. Don’t use buzz words. Don’t try to impress customers with how much they don’t know about The Fraternity.
Don’t tell them to HTFU and learn to drive their bike with 4000 lb weapons disguised as cars. Acknowledge that riding on most of our U.S. roads is dangerous, uncomfortable, and sometimes terrifying. Let them know what you are doing to change this (and maybe enlist their help).
Help average people feel comfortable when they walk in. Don’t make them feel like they’re out of their element and in a place they don’t belong. Rather than posters of racers and off-road folk, maybe have posters of average people riding a bicycle wearing nothing but the normal clothes they wear to work or dinner.
4B) Put bicycle fraternity accessories in a corner or separate room, if you carry them at all. This includes clothing, shoes, helmets, nutrition, and parts.
Imagine if car dealers only sold recreational cars. Cars for racing and off-roading. Cars not really suited to daily use. If part of every sale included a lecture on the need to buy and wear a helmet and safety vest and take a class on repair and maintenance? If your car came without lights or locks or fenders or anywhere to carry anything home from the store. And if it were suggested that you HTFU and learn to operate your car among 200 mph trains.
A bike that’s easy and comfortable to ride is more likely to be ridden, less likely to collect dust, more likely to result in a healthy fit customer, more likely to be replaced with an upgraded model, and more likely to result in people seeing others riding and want one themselves.
* Photos (unless noted): Franz-Michael S. Melbin, Copenhagen Cycle Chic.
 And of course, the best way to make a million bucks is to start with two million and open a bike shop.
 This and other data is from Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, July 1, 2015, The 2015 NBDA Specialty Bicycle Retail Study (http://nbda.com/articles/specialty-bicycle-retail-study-pg157.htm) and the NBDA U.S. Bicycle Market 2014 (http://nbda.com/articles/u.s.-bicycle-market-2014-pg196.htm).
 Total bicycle and accessories sales was $7.4 billion in 2014 of which $4.7 billion or 63% was from local bicycle shops.