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Staff Opinion: Early product intros are a scourge ignored by industry brands

Published April 11, 2016

MONTEREY, Calif. (BRAIN) — This week some 200-plus company executives, advocates and hangers-on will again gather at the Bicycle Leadership Conference to hear a variety of speakers and panelists drone on about this, that and the other thing.

What you won't hear — and most likely never will — is a serious discussion, panel or otherwise, over the timing of product introductions.

Let's be clear: Our industry is in freefall with what's now a freewheeling schedule of product-porn and profit-challenged early spring sales while snow still blankets the ground in some regions of the country.

This intro free-for-all, alive and well at the Sea Otter Classic (which follows the BLC later this week and next weekend in Monterey), has skewed the market, diminished profits at all levels, confused and alienated consumers, and jeopardizes a still meaningful segment of distribution — that of our dealers.

It's as if the industry is intent on snubbing what is still a viable and valuable segment of its distribution network — brick and mortar. This industry has lost all sense of market discipline, especially around our linchpin product — the bicycle. Let me offer an example.

On April 5, just last week, or to be exact, 96 days into the new year, Trek announced its 2017 Domane SLR to great fanfare on its website and a timed consumer media rollout. The new Domane even got a tiny boost on our website's new product showcase.

Editors waxed eloquent over the Domane's technical features. And why not? With retail prices starting at $6,000 and trending skyward to $11,000 for the SLR 9 with SRAM eTap, this is superb eye candy.

But the first question that popped up was: "Has Specialized, Giant, Cannondale — anybody else dropped the hammer on 2017 as yet?" And as I write, no major brand apparently has. But given the state of things, someone will do so sooner rather than later.

I then went to a key Southern California retail website to check out Trek inventory. Jax is a seven-store chain heavily invested in Trek, so it's a great way to keep tabs on the brand. Wow . . . what great deals to be had on a few 2013 frames, 2014, 2015 and, of course, 2016 Trek and Electra bikes. And yes, there it was, a 2017 Trek SLR nicely priced at $5,999.

Five years worth of various models, and Jax isn't alone. It's like going to a Toyota dealer and finding four-year-old Camrys still parked on the lot. That's not a confidence-inspiring experience for would-be consumers.

We should ask ourselves: In what universe does any of that make sense? I don't mean to pick on Trek, but it seems they were first (this year) to score a beat on their Morgan Hill nemesis before Mike could unleash a vengeful attack.

Yet when it comes to introducing new products before the snow melts, Trek has plenty of company. SRAM's Eagle drivetrain was announced in late March. New wheelsets by the dozen have been rolling across consumer websites, along with revamped tires, helmets, apparel and all sorts of electronic doodads. The other day we even got an embargoed press release for new handgrips. All of this is on sale now.

Shimano, not to be outdone, will bus a score of editors to the Tech Museum in San Jose this Wednesday to feed them new-product tidbits to chew on and later spit out.

I would argue that the last few years of so-so sales, punctuated by a raft of confusing frame and tire sizes, an unrelenting mishmash of dubious "new" products, and a never-ending string of yearlong retail sales has left consumers confused, jaded, and asking, "What is the real price?"

More importantly, this trend blatantly devalues the roughly 4,500 dealers nationwide who still help build brands, handle warranties, answer questions and man the front lines of retail.

This isn't meant to lionize the nation's dealers — too many of them have failed to embrace the new dynamism of retail and more than a few should hang up their chain whips. But a new breed of dealers is on the rise willing to shake up the traditional IBD model. It's time to support them.

Instead, too many suppliers have devalued their brand, particularly on the internet, as they focus on price and volume. Chaos has ensued, growth is in jeopardy, and the industry's reputation has been tarnished among millions of consumers.

Is it time to revisit the past so that we may look to the future? Not so many years ago, Interbike — for better or worse — offered a unifying date certain when dealers could see most of the new products they would sell next season. Orders would be placed. And aging inventory flushed out in hopes of a profitable spring and summer sales season.

Despite fierce competition between brands, there seemed to be an unspoken agreement — market discipline if you will — to adhere to a common goal, bumpy as that may have been, to introduce products in a timely and orderly fashion.

Today, our industry wallows in a culture of autonomy or, to be blunt, a culture where it's every man, woman and SKU for themselves.

It's time to talk openly about issues that would enhance market discipline and bring some order to a badly fractured marketplace. And the helter-skelter of product introductions would be as good a place as any to start.

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