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Transportation Bikes Take Flight at Retail

Published July 7, 2009

BY MATT WIEBE

MORGAN HILL, CA—What does the industry see as the next big thing?

Hint: Industry heavyweight Specialized is launching a stand-alone transportation brand (see story on page 27); Fuji acquired transportation brand Breezer; and Raleigh pared down its enthusiast road and mountain models to greatly expand its transportation and city bike offerings for 2009.

Transportation bikes are beginning to gain the acceptance and sales success that mountain bikes enjoyed in recent years.

“The time is right now. So much has changed in the past few years—the price of gas, global warming and the environmental movement. Everyone is interested in bikes,” said Robin Sansom, Globe brand manager.

“New bike buyers are interested in bikes as transportation, in getting around, running errands or going to their friend’s house,” Sansom added.

Globe is Specialized’s transportation bike category that it is spinning off as an independent brand.

When gas prices hit historic highs last summer, suppliers saw golden fields of opportunity and called Asian suppliers with optimistic forecasts. Bikes poured over the docks.

Lulled by strong sales of high-end road and mountain bikes in the past, suppliers ordered more of the same. But those weren’t the bikes customers wanted. Now a new wave of bikes is coming as suppliers double down on transportation bikes.

“We have all felt road and mountain go soft and all the companies that were heavily invested in that are now looking around for something else. We have always offered these bikes,” said Joe Vadeboncoeur, Trek’s director of product development.

“Our retailers may not be cognizant of the number of ‘get your life done’ bikes we offer, but we are excited about the potential of that market.”

Bicycle Habitat in New York City, which has championed transportation bikes for more than 30 years, is pleased that suppliers are finally taking the category seriously.

“It’s about time,” said Jonathan Pastir, one of the store’s managers. “There is a huge market for inexpensive, simple bikes to get around on but there weren’t enough options.”

Three years ago Bicycle Habitat expanded into two adjacent storefronts. One shop was dedicated to high-end road and mountain bikes and the other focused on commuter bikes. Sales in the high-end road and mountain shop exploded last year.

“This year sales of $7,000 bikes have completely stopped, with most of our road business in the $3,000 to $4,000 range. Foot traffic into that store is very small, but the commuter side of the business is swamped. Our profit is significantly less on each bike sale, but our volume has pushed our business close to last year,” Pastir said.

However, most retailers are still committed to the enthusiast market and lack interest in the casual bike category.

“Transportation bikes have different step-through designs, different colors and graphics, and they appeal to a very different customer than shops are used to dealing with,” said Luke Elrath, product manager at Breezer.

“Now that our sales force is offering Fuji and Breezer bikes, they find retailers react in two ways. They either don’t see a place for the bikes on their sales floor or they can’t get enough of them.”

According to the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association, hybrid bikes are the fastest-growing category. Shipments of hybrids were up 6 percent in 2007, up 10 percent in 2008, and up an eye-catching 25 percent during the first quarter this year.

When you pair this data with declining high-end road and mountain bike sales, the message is clear—if suppliers are going to make it in the new bike market, business as usual won’t work.

Sky Yaeger arguably launched the city bike category in 1996 with the Bianchi Milano, a nicely styled internal gear hub bike that made no pretention to racing or Lycra. At Swobo she has expanded her aesthetic into an entire line of bikes.

“I obviously thought there was a sizable market for this type of bike back then and the Milano sold well enough to prove it was sizable,” said Yaeger, managing director at Swobo.

“The problem is the industry always gets nerdy and specs bikes for a tiny niche—fitness, bike path, commuter, utility bike or whatever. What most people want is just a simple bike.”

Retailers familiar with the transportation bike business are worried suppliers still don’t know or understand the customer who’s buying the bikes.

“Women are predominantly the customers for these bikes, and many of them are taking their kids on errands. So these bikes need to fit smaller people and come with kid-carrying capacity. Such bikes are still needed,” said Dean Mullin, partner in Portland, Oregon’s Clever Cycles.

Bicycle Habitat’s Pastir also said that women are his largest market, and they are put off by the colors and graphics on bikes.

“A three-speed with swept back bars and a cushy seat and minimal graphics is what most customers are looking for. And $400 to $500 is about the maximum many of my customers are willing to pay,” Pastir said.

Whether it’s a hip aesthetic or an environmental message, transportation bikes are making a lifestyle and cultural statement that will change the face of the industry.

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