WASHINGTON, D.C. (BRAIN) — Expanding from a single panel discussion to a full day of programming in its second year, the National Women’s Cycling Forum on Monday brought out some 375 attendees to hear more than 30 speakers share ideas about how to increase female participation in cycling—not only as riders and consumers, but as advocates and industry business leaders.
A production of the League of American Bicyclists’ new “Women Bike” initiative, the Forum immediately preceded the League’s National Bike Summit, which kicked off at the same D.C. hotel Monday night. The two events carry parallel themes: “Women Mean Business” for the Forum, the broader “Bicycling Means Business” for the Summit’s 14th edition.
“We are a powerful consumer group, and are growing more powerful,” said Carolyn Szczepanski, director of Women Bike communications for the League.
Demographics appear to support that. According to industry studies, women’s overall merchandise purchases still account for a significantly disproportionate total relative to population. However, Gen Y bike owners — those ages 17 to 28 and on the cusp of greater consumer power — are 61 percent female.
But obstacles stand in the way of that market momentum — perhaps none more significant than retail intimidation, panelists noted.
Robin Bylenga’s unapologetically feminine, chandelier-illuminated women’s boutique, Pedal Chic in Greenville, South Carolina, was born in part out of her consumer experience in the male-dominated, sometimes dismissive culture of bike shops.
Getting into retail proved equally difficult. Bylenga couldn’t even get the time of day from bike suppliers at her first Interbike. “Good luck with that,” she heard more than once after explaining her vision.
Zack Stender, a speaker on the same panel — titled “The Bike Shop Barrier: Making Bike Retail More Welcoming to Women” — and his two business partners in San Francisco’s Huckleberry Bicycles made their shop woman-friendly just by striving to make it more consumer-friendly.
“A lot of people, not just women, are intimidated by bike shops,” he said.
Stender believes many retailers misstep by focusing too much on the competitive aspect of cycling, festooning their shopping environments with race banners and overwhelming shoppers with footage of ProTour hammerheads and downhill MTB bombers.
“It’s not appealing; it’s intimidating” he said. “It looks like there’s a race inside your store.”
Instead, Huckleberry sought an architecture firm’s design expertise and local craftsmen’s woodworking skills to create an inviting environment filled with warm tones and natural-looking light to replace the space’s previous neon glare — courtesy of lighting consultants brought in by the architectural contractor.
Huckleberry eschews the widely adopted “women’s section” approach to retail, instead peppering women’s product throughout the sales floor, simply displayed on sturdy handmade tables rather than slat wall. “Women don’t want to be stuck in a corner of the store,” Stender said.
Women account for more than 40 percent of the male-owned shop’s sales.
Another panel, “Insight From the Industry: Three Keys to Closing the Gender Gap,” zeroed in how the industry can bring women into the sport and also boost their representation on both the supplier and retailer sides of the business.
The industry needs to see the bigger picture beyond the performance market, said Anne-Marij Berendsen, the U.S. transplant from Holland who imports Dutch-style city bikes into the U.S. for the European supplier Gazelle.
“The majority of women will not go race on a bike. I’ve never done it, and I’ve been on a bike all my life,” she said.
Giant USA general manager Elysa Walk sees the women’s market differently, especially from a marketing perspective. Women don’t respond to magazine pages of dramatically lit bikes on dark backgrounds accented by technical jargon, she notes.
Still, many women want high performance out of their bikes and equipment, but that performance, Walk believes, is tied more to their personal aspirations than racing.
The larger problem, she maintains, is segmenting women as a niche market.
“The majority of suppliers still see women as a ‘segment,’ ” she said. “It’s half the population; it’s not a niche.”
Keynote speaker Georgena Terry, founder of Terry Precision Bicycles, views dealers’ difficulty serving women as an equally significant impediment. After all, she started direct sales of her custom frames to women after getting stonewalled by IBDs.
Although she sold her brand and recently ended her employment contract, Terry continues to produce frames for women in partnership with Waterford. And she hopes more women will feel welcome at IBDs.
“We just have to get [retailers] to come around to a bit different perspective,” she said.