Note: This article first appeared in the Electric Bike Association's special publication for Interbike 2016. It was preview of Melissa's presentation at Interbike in the Electric Bike Theatre with Robin Bylenga of Pedal Chic. The Electric Bike Association hosts the Electric Bike Expos.
For years now the idea of "women" has been a buzz word for growth opportunity for U.S. bicycling. The challenge is that there's been very little follow through from the majority of the bike industry, or bicycle retailers, to understand and successfully market to the real growth opportunity in the female market. I'm talking about the casual female bicyclist. I'm going to be even bolder, the biggest growth opportunity is actually in the woman not yet riding, either for the first time or not-for-many-years. There are millions these women in the U.S. I know. I was one of them.
My observations and experience in Long Beach California, were so in tune with what Robin Bylenga was observing and experiencing herself on the other side of the country in Greenville South Carolina, that the two of us teamed up to share our insights with others. Robin created Pedal Chic, the very first female-centric bike shop in the country. On 9/22 at noon we presented "The Art & Science of Selling Bicycling to Women" in the Electric Bike Theater at Interbike.
While of late there have been great strides made in the bike industry (led initially by bike lifestyle focused outliers like Public, Electra, and Linus) to embrace those who simply want to ride comfortably around their city, or suburb for transportation, rather than a workout, sport bicycling for the very fit is still where most of the energy is focused. And yet, Electra with their jazzy, fun, easy to ride bikes with the marketing to match it, sells the number one bike in the country - the Townie, a woman's casual city bike.
I personally ride a Linus Dutchie 3 speed for my daily meetings and errands . And this past spring and summer I've had the great pleasure of seeing for myself how the Electric Bike Expo, traveling throughout the Western U.S. with leading manufacturers with Bosch as the presenting sponsor, Trek as the track sponsor, and Tempo Electric Bikes as the charity sponsor, has been bringing in women of all ages and abilities, including many newbies, to test ride the best in ebikes for the American market. Here's some fascinating data the expo has been able to collect: Participation in the ebike expo events in the U.S. are 70% men and 30% women, in Germany, the same type of ebike events draw 90% men and 10% women.
And here's the sweet spot of market potential that almost all of the bike manufacturers ignore in their marketing - the largest participation group in the U.S. ebike expos, 40%, have been in the 55-64 age group. Yep, the Baby Boomers with their higher levels of disposable income. Among the ebike manufacturers, Pedego stands out for its marketing approach that welcomes older riders.
This past November The Wall Street Journal reported in an article "Retirees Get Back on Their Bikes" that according to the National Household Travel Survey (conducted by the Federal Highway Administration) recreational biking among Americans over 50 jumped 62% between 2001 and 2009, to an average of about 20 miles annually per person, compared with only a 22% increase in the general population. I should note that this report has been shared by People for Bikes and others earlier, but as a proponent of getting more positive stories about women and casual biking into the popular media, I think it's important to call out when the nation's largest newspapers writes about it.
Like many industries, bicycling's leaders like to focus on the young and fit. But whether you're 19 or 99, to successfully engage this huge growth market of "not yet riding" or "hasn't ridden in a really long time" it's time to flip the script. It's time to reframe the conversation. Both the bike industry and many bicycle retailers are actually a victim of their own success. They've done a great job of selling excellent bikes to the athletic minded among us, or those who avidly want to be athletic among us, but they've failed to recognize that the athletic market isn't a growth market right now. Only by throwing the net much wider and embracing the casual bicyclist where they are right now, and inviting them into bicycling at their own speed, will they find their new athletes. Soon enough a certain percentage of these people will want to go farther, faster too.
Two exciting situations have arisen to really make casual bicycling more possible:
1. The first is that across the country progressive cities, guided by local, regional, statewide and national advocacy, are making serious strides in making bicycling safer for everyone from 3 to 93. From New York to San Francisco, cities of all sizes have seen an exponential jump in bicycling when they create the safe infrastructure, education and outreach programs to grow bicycling.
2. Ebikes are now becoming readily available in the U.S. market . In a pre-Interbike press release, Pat Hus, the VP of Interbike shared that the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association reports sell-in numbers for ebikes through June 2016 are up 63.75%.
Here's what's need if you really want to engage this vast market opportunity:
Your sales team needs to be able to meet both women and men where they actually are, and listen to where they actually want to go on a bike, rather than deciding ahead of time what this new possible customer should be doing.
The concept of leading with compassion is from Robin Bylenga of Pedal Chic. Women drive 5+ hours to one of Robin's famous saddle fittings because she listens to what women really want to do, what hurts when she rides now, what isn't working, and then Robin uses the technology, and a vast array of product options, to fit women accurately for where they are right here and now.
Further, Robin points out that the real power in creating strong retail is through relationship. It's the experience of shopping with you, not the discounts, that will set you apart from your competition. Through listening and education, she's transforming women's lives through bicycling. She's built not only a strong loyal customer base but avid fans and followers who want to learn exactly how she does it.
To tap into this vast market opportunity both the bicycle manufacturers and the bicycle retailers need to grasp the art and science of selling bicycling to women who don't view themselves as an avid cyclist. Using the term cyclist = sport for most Americans. They don't even consider themselves bicyclists, rather people who like to ride bikes. Which is one of the big reasons People for Bikes changed their name several years ago from Bikes Belong.
Food for thought, the National Bicycle Dealers Association reported that total bicycle sales in the U.S. for 2014 were $6 billion dollars. In comparison in 2014 the U.S. spent about $3 billion on the Athleisure market. Athleisure is the fastest growing segment of the apparel market, and Morgan Stanley is reported as predicting it will rise to a total of $83 billion in sales by 2020.
To move the bike industry from our current sales of $6 billion, to a very big hairy goal of say $66 billion by 2020 (crazy big I know, but let's just imagine shall we?), we need to think very differently and adopt some of the design appeal and marketing strategy of the best fashion brands. They know how to connect with women and get them to buy by making shopping for apparel a very enjoyable sensory experience, whether in a brick and mortar store or online. Their customer service is great and they know how to make it...
The sport bike shop that focuses on the athletic minded male has been done pretty well, and the Mann Group is leading retailers passionate about that market to do it even better, as well as to give those stores a cleaner, better organized, and more female friendly appeal. But the casual female bicyclist needs a different approach. To connect with her successfully a store needs to have a section - or the entire store - that is about how a bike can easily, comfortably and attractively fit into her everyday life.
Whereas the average bike shop crams their store full of bikes, the section, or store focused for the casual female bicyclist, needs to give space to sell the story visually. She needs to enjoy the sensory experience rather than being overwhelmed by product. Apparel and accessories displayed in visually alluring ways together with the bikes are as important as the bikes themselves. Color stories are key, putting the baskets and the panniers right on the sample bikes is key, showing her how great she'll look while riding is key with great photography. And showing women in a variety of ages, not just super young and fit, is key.
For the casual female bicyclist - or future bicyclists - the look and feel, and marketing outreach needs to be all about storytelling of overall lifestyle rather than a workout. This is beach cruiser and city bike lifestyle selling. This is where an ebike becomes the second car so the family can have more fun together, improve their overall health and well-being, and save money on gas.
Melissa Balmer is the Media Director for the California Bicycle Coalition and the Founder/Director of PedalLove.org creating tools to elevate the voice + impact for active, mindful mobility.