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Rick Vosper: Tackling the Omnichannel Bike Sales Paradox

Published February 4, 2019

It’s been not quite three and a half years since Trek announced its Trek Connect program, where the company sells its bikes direct to consumers via the internet and ships them to buyers’ local Trek dealers for assembly and/or delivery. With the opening salvo “We play offense!” Trek president and longtime Packers fan John Burke told retailers and media in August of 2015 that the initiative was fully supported by the company’s network of nearly 2,000 local retailers, and that the whole shebang would be up and rolling by the end of September. It took a little longer than that, but Trek has been taking customer orders for bikes on its website and shipping those bikes to Trek retailers ever since.

Industry response at the time was, ah, polarized. Some foresaw the imminent death of brick-and-mortar retail. “Now is the time for all Trek dealers to drop them!!!!” one retailer opined in the BRAIN comments section  covering the announcement. “Walmart, here comes trek[sic],” insisted another. Others predicted a shining new era in which direct-via-retailer sales would inoculate top-tier bike brands against competition from discount online resellers. 

None of those things actually happened, of course. But since when has that ever stopped us from anything?  

The timing of the initiative was significant. Trek Connect was widely seen as a pre-emptive strike by the industry’s leading bike brand against repeated announcements from Germany’s Canyon Bicycles that it would bring its heavily discounted and hugely successful internet-direct business model to the United States, well, um, any time now. The fact that Canyon had been on record with the same announcement literally since 2011 didn’t seem important at the time, any more than the fact that it didn’t actually happen until some six years later does now.

Even more interesting was the response by the rest of the industry. When I wrote about the Trek announcement in a two-part series for a consumer website in 2015, I reached out to other leading bike brands for response. A senior spokesperson from Specialized declined comment. A senior spokesperson from Giant declined comment. A senior spokesperson from Accell Group (Raleigh, Diamondback et al.) declined comment. Executives from CSG (Cannondale, GT, Schwinn) did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails. 

But the industry landscape has changed markedly in three and a half years. I did a survey of 15 top-20 bike brands earlier this month, and five of them (Trek, of course, but also Felt, Giant, Haro and Raleigh) are currently using the Trek model, selling bikes consumer direct via retailers. (Raleigh also sells bikes consumer-direct without going through a dealer.)

In the interests of thoroughness, I should mention six brands (Bianchi, Cannondale, Cervélo, Fuji, Raleigh, Santa Cruz) currently have bikes listed for sale via at least one independent online retailer. I was able to personally order one of each to be shipped directly to my house, up to the point of actual payment.

Finally, five top-20 brands sell their branded equipment direct to consumers, ranging from repair parts and swag items to entire full-boat product offerings. These are Electra, Jamis, Raleigh, Trek and Specialized, which has done so since 2000. As you might expect, these last two have by far the broadest offerings. 

Specialized also sells a single kids straddle-bike model consumer direct.

But back to the direct-via-dealer strategy. Here’s the really interesting part: Few dealers I’ve talked to have seen more than a couple actual consumer-direct-via-retailer bikes come through their doors in the past year, regardless of brand. Assuming this informal sample is representative — a hefty assumption, I’m the first to admit — the most significant part of Trek Connect and similar programs may be their very lack of significance.

The oft-ballyhooed term “omnichannel sales” can mean a bunch of different things. But absent any hard information from the brands themselves, I tentatively conclude this particular omnichannel selling strategy has delivered way too much ominchanneling, and not nearly as much actual selling.

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