Cisco may be sacking I-in-5 workers worldwide – the clearest indication yet that the bubble has burst big-time – but in niche markets, online sales seem to be holding their own. This is certainly true in the bike market, claims Cullen Ward of who here reveals the results of a cycle-specific e-commerce survey. 18 percent of respondents have bought bikes and bits from websites. And most enthusiasts want a rapport with a retailer, digitally or in the flesh…

Digital bike sales do well when all around the E-magic fades

By Cullen Ward

Although BIKEmagic is not involved directly in e-commerce, it has links to sites that are, and as a business its fortunes are inextricably linked with the fortunes of both mountain-biking and the internet. Because of that BIKEmagic takes a keen interest in the way that cyclists, and consumers generally, are taking to e-commerce. Recently we put a survey on our website for 24 hours asking members whether they were buying on line, how much they were spending and their expectations for the future. In total we had 202 responses.

It is probably reasonable to assume that people taking part in an on-line survey already have more than average commitment to the internet. But even so, this small sample, if it is in anyway representative of the 17,500 plus BIKEmagic members, let alone the wider cycling community, is indicative of an extremely large amount of potential on-line business.

The headline statistics are that 18% of respondents buy over half of their cycling equipment on the internet. A further 62% buy something, and only 20% do not spend money on cycling equipment on-line. Perhaps the most significant point though is the average spend. Cycling internet shoppers spend on average over £600 per year on their bikes and accessories. Another important statistic was to do with future intentions. 93% think that they will be buying on-line in the future and only 1% have bought on line and been put off doing it again.

But what, if anything, do these statistics tell us? Not how the average retailer can get his or her share of the cake. But respondents were also invited to tell us, without prompting, why they bought online and how they would like the future of e-commerce to be in the bike business. And they were not just after the best price.

Not surprisingly there are some who do use the internet merely to compare prices, even to the extent of going to their local bike shop to look at items they are interested in, and then going on-line to find the best price. But there are others who really value their local bike shop, are far more interested in service than price, and while they might go on-line to buy components, would never dream of buying bikes or clothing on line.

At BIKEmagic we believe that e-commerce will be a significant part of the UK bike scene in the future and that there are a number of ways that retailers of all sizes can be involved. On the one hand there will be a place for the huge mail-order/internet retailer who can buy in bulk and sell at the cheapest prices, although in the global economy they will find that they increasingly have competition from sites overseas.

On the other hand, one of the most frequent comments made, in terms of what BIKEmagic could do to help its members, was that we should offer a comparison of service levels across different e-commerce ventures. Size, as they say, isn’t everything and this would seem to suggest that there is room out there for the smaller operator who can offer great service. One member’s comment, which might not be typical, but with which I agree, is:

‘My favourite on-line sites are the ones that are run like a local shop: ie orders are processed by hand, maybe, not by the software. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Luddite: CDs, books, and other ‘dead’ goods are all perfect for on-line shopping. With bikes, however, I would rather have a rapport with the retailer.”

Finally,we come to the independent bike shop that does not currently have a mail order or e-commerce offering. What does the future hold for them? At BIKEmagic we firmly believe that these businesses too will benefit from the internet and e-commerce, although at the moment they might feel that they are being squeezed by the big boys. The solution however is not necessarily to invest time and money in large scale e-commerce operations.

It is not hard to imagine a situation in which a cyclist logs on to a web-site like BIKEmagic and looks to find the nearest shop stocking a 1997 XT mech, or the range of 16” titanium hardtails available within 50 miles, or the nearest shop open on Sunday. Currently this sort of information is not available. But it will be, and it will lead to a better level of service for the consumer and more opportunities for businesses that can anticipate consumer needs, as generalists or in a specialist niche area of the market, with or without mail order and e-commerce.

Perhaps the best advice that I can offer to any independent retailer though is to make sure they have a web presence now, and to link to a site like BIKEmagic which already has a huge amount of traffic and can offer additional services. This need not cost a lot of time or money. We already offer retailers the chance to build their own micro-site within the BIKEmagic site and to issue e-mails to members who express an interest, for free. Building traffic on a site is extremely difficult and perhaps the only way forward for the majority will be to link in to a site like BIKEmagic which acts like a specialist cycling search engine directing a range of enquiries towards the most appropriate solutions with complete independence.

In summary then, the results of the survey lead us to believe that there is a huge opportunity for retailers of all sizes in the area of e-commerce and the internet, but that this will not lead to competition purely on price. Retailers of all sizes will be able to take advantage of opportunities that the internet can offer, but this might be best achieved in partnership with community sites or specialist portals such as BIKEmagic.

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