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Ray Keener: Flat is phat?

Published October 16, 2014

Editor's note: Ray Keener is a longtime friend ofBicycle Retailer and writes occasional columns, blogs and articles for the website and magazine. Ray's background includes stints as a bike retailer, executive director of the Bicycle Industry Organization, editor of a trade magazine, founder of Growth Cycle and now executive director of the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association. Keener created the Selling Cycling staff training program from 1997-2012, used by more than 2,000 bike shops worldwide.

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The views expressed here are Keener's own and do not reflect those of the BPSA or Bicycle Retailer.

Are flat sales and participation really, "The single biggest issue facing the bike industry?"

Many say that selling 18 million bikes and having 40 million Americans (the NSGA number) pedaling year after year, decade after decade means we're losing ground when you consider US population growth.

True enough. And I'm here to posit that our flat curves are both a blessing and a curse.

First, I'll tell you why I think flat is phat. Why we should be celebrating our thirty-plus years of 18 million and 40 million, not bemoaning it.

Of course we'd all like to see our numbers go up. See them keep up with population growth and shifting demographics. And given cultural trends beyond our control, I don't see how that can happen in the short-term.

The trend I'm referring to is the fragmentation of people's leisure time and attention spans. Screens have changed everything. As has the content that comes through them.

Remember the Big Three TV networks? Over 95 percent market share for three decades, now less than 30% and declining. Americans have so many more choices about so many things, including their sporting activities.

Look at the golf, snow-sports and tennis industries, for example. They've all lost participants and seen declining sales while the bike industry holds steady.

Specialty retail markets like cameras and sound have all but disappeared, while we still have 4,000 or so retail locations. We're holding our own pretty well, eh?

Does this sound like complacency, rather than optimism? I plead guilty. It's human nature for our industry to both take advantage of and be lulled into inaction by America's century-plus-long love for bicycles.

And so on to the downside of flat: Complacency. We humans don't seem to be able to act in concert without some kind of an imminent threat.

The golf, snow and tennis industries have put aggressive programs in place to reverse their declines. Tennis suppliers started a "buck a shoe, buck a racket" self-tax program to finance growth initiatives.

Golf is addressing their slump with several programs to address their barriers to entry: How long golf takes, how hard it is to learn, its limited minority appeal.

Realize that these self-help programs only got started when it looked like the bottom was falling out. Our 18 million/40 million bottom is too solid to motivate us.

Flat sales encourage battling for market share rather than growing the market.

Examples, ripped from the headlines: Last week's BRAIN stories featured a major supplier calling his competitors to task for their distribution strategies.

When that same supplier rolled out a grow-the-pie program last Spring they met with a mixed reception from dealers.

And last week the head of our dealer association called out Amazon on BRAIN, questioning its business practices and its ethics. This may play well with the base, but it doesn't solve IBD malaise.

Not to criticize individuals, we all suffer from "good enough" syndrome. Sure, we can keep doing the same things over and over, you know the result. And without a healthy dose of sales-decline panic, we probably will.

Retailers are the canaries in the coal mine for our industry. And many are responding strongly, fighting back against the Internet tide with creative approaches to products and services.

Suppliers are caught in the middle, wanting to support their IBD customers and at the same time wanting to make their products available to the maximum number of consumers.

This is not to say we haven't done anything to help ourselves. Industry heroes like Leslie Bohm, John Burke, Mike Greehan and Chris Kegel weren't complacent. They got Bikes Belong started in the late '90s.

Now PeopleForBikes, they're addressing the #1 issue that keeps sales and participation from growing: The perception by most Americans that riding a bike isn't safe.

PFB has invested $20 million in industry dollars to leverage $8 billion in Federal spending for bike facilities. Protected lanes and off-street paths are sprouting up across the land.

Bike sharing programs are succeeding beyond all expectations. While we don't have strong national data to support it, urban cycling seems to be up strongly over the past decade.

We clearly need better information. The 40 million NSGA number is commonly used and widely questioned. PFB has launched a nationwide consumer research initiative to get a better handle on participation levels and trends. Results are eagerly anticipated next month.

Better research may give us a clearer picture of where we stand and how to stay strong. We can live with Flat quite nicely... for now. Let's find a way out of our comfort zones before market forces give us no option.

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