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Brands Labor Over Replacing Models

Published April 16, 2008


LAKE FOREST, CA—Models come. Models go. Manufacturers have always had to make some tough calls over dropping and adding models—and the last few years have been no exception.

Take for example GT, and its decision to drop the i-Drive full-suspension line for 2008. While it may not seem a big deal to the casual observer, considering GT retained its i-Drive suspension technology—now called Independent Drivetrain (ID)—dropping a successful model name is hardly easy.

“That was a big decision,” said Mark Peterman, director of product development for GT.

But in the end Peterman felt it was the right course to take, largely because “in certain markets i-Drive suspension held negative connotations” of being heavy and labor intensive.

One reason Peterman feels more at ease with the decision is the strong sales of i-Drive’s replacements including the Sanction 1.0, Marathon Carbon Pro and Force 1.0.

“They’re all doing very well,” Peterman said.

Cannondale also will let go of a popular seller, its four-year-old all-mountain Prophet. It will replace it with the Rize and Moto, which aim to satisfy the weight requirements of savvy riders in the competitive all-mountain category.

“The mountain bike market is and always has been changing,” said Steve Metz, vice president of product management for Cannondale. “Mountain biking is zeroing in on the 5-inch travel trail bikes, while at the same time riders who appreciate long travel are realizing that they are a lot more versatile on a lighter bike.”

Even when a brand offers a replacement with tangible improvements, adoption of a new model can be slow.

Giant had to kill its popular NRS full-suspension line because of the introduction of its current Maestro system, which took a “solid two years” for retail acceptance, said Dennis Lane, Giant’s global director of product development.

“It’s hard to kill a model,” said Joe Vadeboncoeur, director of product for Trek. “There’s always a constituency somewhere that likes it.”

Case in point was when Trek retired the Gary Fisher comfort bike line a few years back. With 300 models globally, Trek offered plenty of alternatives. But certain dealers contacted Trek wondering why they killed the line, Vadeboncoeur said.

“We’ll get 20 dealers that say we have too many models,” Vadeboncoeur said. “But then when we ask which models should be cut no one raises their hand. No one knows.”

Does this mean there’s more model turnover than ever? Not necessarily.

“I think there’s less change than 10 years ago,” said Vadeboncoeur, speaking mostly from Trek’s perspective. He thinks there are more models to choose from in general, thus creating a “perception” of higher model turnover.

“We’re making changes when it makes sense to make changes,” Vadeboncoeur said.

One reason to strive for model consistency: it creates fewer complications for dealers when they’re placing orders. “Dealers can’t handle all that change,” Vadeboncoeur added.

But whether to retain models usually comes down to a pure and simple numbers game. Brands will meet sometimes more than once a year to comb over their product line, deciding which models might meet their maker.

Haro brand manager Jill Hamilton said during these meetings Haro will closely examine sales numbers, comparing them to forecasts.

“If there’s a model that’s performing weakly, we look for ways to improve it and add more value,” Hamilton said. “Maybe it just needs an upgraded rear derailleur to be more competitive, maybe it just needs a new color or graphics facelift.”

Or maybe—like Haro’s downhill .357 offering from a few years ago—it makes more sense to remove it from the line.

“The decision to drop the .357 bikes was made strictly from a numbers standpoint,” Hamilton said. “While the bike got great feedback from consumers and our pro riders, there just wasn’t enough demand from the [downhill] market for the bike to meet the minimum frame quantities imposed by our factory.”

But Hamilton is seeing more “model addition” than “attrition” these days as manufacturers try to satisfy more niches.

“More manufacturers seem to be going deeper in their model offerings in addition to offering a wide variety of categories,” Hamilton said. ”This industry is highly competitive, so it’s really become critical to have more of the product your customers want.

“We’ve discovered that dealers are trending towards wanting to do more business with fewer suppliers, so in response to that, we have really broadened our product lines in an effort to be more of a full line supplier for our dealers,” she added.

Giant’s Lane agreed with Hamilton. And he said the increase in selection is putting pressure on dealers.

“Our industry is burdened with too many models for every consumer to choose from,” Lane said. “That number is five-fold from what it was five to 10 years ago. And to try to place all those models in a standard 2,000-square-foot store is impossible. But we’re an industry that is challenged every year with what’s new. So we push for innovation every year in all segments. No one is satisfied with anything less.”

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