Want more customers in 2017? Market to the majority, says planner

Street engineer Bill Schultheiss has a suggested New Year’s Resolution for bicycle businesses and cycle advocates – market to the majority, not to a niche. In effect, he means sell to the masses rather than to cyclists alone.

Schultheiss, vice president of the Toole Design Group, works on "complete street" designs for American cities. He has retrofitted over 250 miles of streets throughout the US, including Commonwealth Avenue in Boston and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. ("America’s Main Street", from the Capitol to the White House).

His call echoes that of Strida designer Mark Sanders who has long argued that the cycle industry is marketing to just a small part of the potential market for its product. Sanders gave a presentation to industry figures at the 2009 Taipei bicycle trade show using the "Blue Ocean" marketing strategy. This is the title of a business book by W. Chan Kim. It’s subtitled ‘How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant’.

The blue ocean in Sanders’s presentation – then and still today – is the market potential, but he claims the bike trade operates in the smaller, "Red Ocean" of male, sporty enthusiasts.

Sanders said: "I put on the presentation because I believe the industry focuses too much on sporty males – which may put off the vast majority of potential cyclists. It’s also about how alternative and universal bike design may be a help in attracting more people to bikes as transport.

"I expected flak from industry leaders, but quite the contrary, they seemed to agree 100 percent. But it seems to be a chicken and egg scenario: manufacturers supply what distributors ask for. The demand comes from grass-roots bike shops, which tend to be run by sporty males."

He concluded: "Not focussing on the bigger market matters."

Copenhagenize’s Mikael Colville-Andersen made similar points earlier this year at the Eurobike show in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Speaking to industry leaders at a Shimano seminar Colville-Andersen told them that the bikes they are currently making are not what the mainstream market wants. Instead of focussing on sporty bikes they should be making sit-up-and-beg machines, he said. This was what millennials want, and Colville-Andersen pointed to the success of bike-share schemes around the world. 

“My company has been doing market surveys for the past seven years, and the kind of bike that most people say they want is a Dutch bike with a basket,” he said.

“The vintage bike market has exploded. Why? Because the bike industry hasn’t responded to the needs and wants of the majority. The industry is missing out on money by focusing on tech and geek.”

He chided industry CEOs that "you’re sitting on a gold mine, but you’re not digging."

A similar message was delivered by two architects Shimano flew in from the other side of the world. Tokyo-based Andrea Held-Hikone of A.H. Architects explained how the cities in the future will be designed around the use of bicycles, and the industry should wake up to this “trend towards intelligent urbanisation, and what I call “feeling life”.” She pointed to the high use of “mamachari” bicycles in Japan, Dutch-style bikes, famous for being ridden on Tokyo’s sidewalks. Tokyo has very few bike paths but it still manages to have a cycling modal share of 15 percent, she said.

Steven Fleming, an academic and author of the Behooving Moving cycle blog, splits his time between Amsterdam and his home in Newcastle, Australia. Dr. Fleming is one of the partners of CycleSpace, the new Dutch NGO behind Amsterdam’s Bicycle Mayor program.

He’s also a fan of Dutch bikes but he’s mostly fascinated about where to ride them, and it’s not just on bike paths. He designs bike-friendly buildings or, as he calls them, “start-of-trip facilities”. He told the bike execs that the “bicycle industry has an opportunity to steer narratives that we have as a society where we’re heading with city planning.”

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