By Dirk Sorenson
I often think about how cycling is positioned to the public. Images of sweaty, anguished riders with no body fat abound in cycling magazines, on television, and in broad-reach periodicals. It has become rare to see a story showcasing the simplicity of the activity–that is, until now.
As the impact of COVID-19 began to show in the U.S., these more hardcore images are increasingly being replaced by a new reality of families riding together, and everyday health and fitness enthusiasts riding their bikes indoors. This new reality has brought impressive growth to the cycling market, which increased its sales by 31% to $1.3 billion in the first quarter of the year. More than half of those sales dollars came in March as consumers sought stay-at-home fitness options and families reinventing recess due to school closures turned to cycling as a viable choice to satisfy entertainment and fitness needs.*
Several categories had unprecedented sales increases in March. Within bicycles, electric and gravel bikes continued on their growth trajectory—+85% and +20%, respectively, in March—while others that have traditionally seen flat or declining sales are seeing new opportunity. The latter includes children’s (+59% in March), adult lifestyle (+121%), transit/fitness (+66%), and front suspension mountain bikes (+55%). In addition, trailers and trail-a-bikes showed strong growth, up 77% in March.*
Two other trends worth mentioning are the growth of trainers/rollers and stationary bikes which, I suspect, are both largely due to the need for people to find new stay-at-home fitness options. Trainers/rollers grew sales by over 250% in March and stationary bikes were up 171%.*
All of this growth generates an opportunity for cycling retailers and manufacturers: how to embrace a new group of customers expressing interest in cycling. I suggest the industry pay attention to two critical lessons we’ve learned recently: 1) the power of family cycling being an approachable, healthy, and safe activity, and 2) consumer willingness to invest in indoor bikes and cycling options for fitness.
To attract and retain families, it’s time the industry look at short-term improvements in the way it works with non-athlete cyclists to maintain enthusiasm. While I support conversations on how to make streets safer for cyclists, I suggest the industry also examine more basic and immediately controllable aspects of the ways it positions cycling to families, looking at retail merchandising to start. For independent bike shops, in-store messaging should focus on family. Family and trail-a-bikes should be placed in the front of the store and offerings shouldn’t be marginalized. Sales staff should be encouraged and trained to help with the basic questions a new family might ask about cycling, and encourage sales for this important segment.
For broader retailers in the rest of the market, I would look long and hard at how bikes are initially built to assure that the first ride experience on a bike from a major retailer is a positive one. I would also determine how to merchandise bikes in a way that encourages interest. While I understand the need to assure profitability for every square inch of floor space, stacking bikes three rows high creates a new set of problems that retailers need to answer.
For both the independent dealers and large merchants, now may be the time to examine pricing to encourage both margin and approachability, so that more consumers feel comfortable buying and retailers can thrive.
The industry must also retain momentum in the popularity of indoor cycling as a fitness activity. Transactional estimates collected by NPD’s Innovation Lab show that gyms and fitness centers have been one of the most hard hit service categories in the economy; revenues have declined every week since the beginning of the crisis in the U.S., and are now down by more than 90%.** The COVID-19 crisis has altered the way we can work out today, and may be able—or want—to exercise in the future.
Cycling retailers and manufacturers stand to benefit from the at-home fitness trend, but they also face a more competitive landscape with companies such as Peloton, whose sales have grown more than 2X each week since stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March.** Simple merchandising changes will help, which includes making cycling shops destinations to try and buy stationary bikes, trainers, and applications such as Zwift. Cycling retailers also have an advantage of service that should benefit consumers seeking a cycling style fitness workout.
The new reality that we’re all faced with has brought many challenges along with it, but has also opened doors for opportunity in certain markets including cycling. More people are likely riding bikes today than in years past, and there’s no reason why this new culture shouldn’t persevere.
Dirk Sorenson is executive director, industry snalyst, sports, at The NPD Group.