Beyond pink it and shrink it: Women’s market is “the hottest thing in cycling” in the United States (Part 3)
We talk to Giant in the final part of this three-part series on what cycling companies have done to move beyond the superficial pink it and shrink it marketing style and truly cater to the specific needs of the female cyclist. Giant, one of the largest bicycle and component manufacturers in the world, has clearly recognised the huge potential of the market, branching out not only with a variety of women’s specific products but also housing them in a distinct brand, Liv. It is an approach that has served them well, with their women’s products comprising the largest part of the company’s growth last year.
In part one of the series, we focussed on the United Kingdom and spoke to Olivia Bleitz from Specialized United Kingdom, another of the biggest players in women’s cycling. She drew attention to the transition from opportunity to reality in the women’s cycling market and the importance of growth in this segment as an avenue to invite more people in to the sport. In part two, Sarah Clark from Rapha and Joanne Lee from Shimano delivered a perspective on the varied Asia-Pacific region, where mature markets sit alongside the underdeveloped with enormous populations and potential for growth. Now, Elysa Walk, general manager of Giant USA, gives us the run down on the development of its healthy women’s product sales and the hurdles that still need to be overcome to ensure the women’s cycling segment reaches its full potential.
Bicycling market growth overall in the United States has been relatively modest over the past five years but signs of expansion in the commuter market and the trend of spending more on specialty bicycles is expected to deliver an overall step up in sales. In the five years ahead, the annual growth of revenue is forecast to average around 3.9 percent, nearly double that of the previous five years, according to an industry report by IBISWorld.
Currently the bulk of those riding a bike in the US do it for recreation, with 34 percent of the population cycling in the past year, according to a survey conducted at the end of 2014 for PeopleForBikes. Breaking it down by gender, around 30 percent of females had ridden a bike in the past year and 39 percent of males. This gender gap is smaller than you see in many other countries, but it seems the pattern of women being well and truly in the minority when it comes to competitive cycling holds true. A summary of member demographics by USA Cycling said females make up just 14 percent of licence holders.
The current state of play
Elysa Walk has been with Giant for the past 11 years. The keen recreational cyclist has had an insider view on everything from the initial faltering steps of companies upon entry into women’s specific cycling products right through to its current blossoming. In the US, sporty and goal-oriented women are embracing activity across the board, and sales for Giant’s female specific cycling products are reflecting that. They currently make up 28 percent of Giant products sold in the nation.
“I would say that the broader context right now of women’s cycling is that it is the hottest thing in cycling. Women’s cycling is growing in general, more so than any other area,” said Walk. “We see a lot more women out on the rides. Participation is strong. I think a lot of retailers are paying a lot more attention to the women’s market right now. The brands of course are investing a lot in their women’s products, so there is just a tonne of momentum.”
Walk said the bicycle industry started to wake up to the women’s market about ten years ago, but initially there was a lot of pink it and shrink it happening, where companies simply took already existing men’s products and made them prettier and smaller. This has changed in last couple of years as brands have taken design a lot more seriously, and women are getting better and higher-level products as a result. Still, those early days where the focus revolved around low-level pink and shrink products have provided a continuing hurdle.
“I think there is a rampant perception out there, that has a lot of baggage to it, that women’s bikes are just not good enough and it is a huge hurdle that we need to work to overcome,” said Walk. “There are top level female athletes, like Marianne Vos, riding top-level Liv women’s bikes, and it is just not the case that there aren’t quality, high-level women’s bikes out there.”
The Liv range includes apparel, saddles and a wide-range of bikes. Walk said Liv’s product design for bicycles goes beyond considering the typically longer legs and shorter torsos of women.
“We incorporate that as well but our designers and engineers have really studied women’s points of power and how we are most efficient on the bike. Women tend to have their source of power in their lower bodies … so we perform better and can use the strength in our legs more when we are more centred over the bottom bracket.”
There are also variations within the carbon lay up.
“Sure there may be plenty of women that are very strong in the upper body, but overall women tend to be lighter on that front section of the bike and a lot harder on the bike in their leg region, so we will fortify the carbon in those areas and be lighter on the front. This makes it a more comfortable ride and enables them to ride stronger, and better, and longer, and with more confidence because they are more balanced over the bike,” said Walk.
“On the male side we invest a lot more in sports marketing, meaning our athletes and all the equipment for the athletes, and a lot more in advertising,” said Walk. “In women it is a lot more about the personal touch, so it is our ambassadors, it is retail programmes, it is demo trucks and it is social media. It is a lot more about that relationship side, whereas the men’s side is much more competitive and testosterone infused. The female side is very personalised and human and aspirational.”
The strong focus on the ambassador program is consistent with other brands such as Specialized and Rapha.
“I am a huge believer in ambassadors because I think there are a lot of women out there that are very curious about riding but the bike is a mystery to them,” said Walk. “I think some of our ambassadors do a great job of breaking down some of the basics of cycling and really inviting people in. For us it has made a big difference because our sales are up considerably. That I am happy about, but not only just the sales itself… It is really making the riding experience better for the women they get involved.”
There are two key markets that look ripe for growth right now, one the women’s market and the other the transportation sector, which is benefiting from increases in infrastructure.
“The male market is very saturated,” noted Walk. “Overall it is the same pool of people that are sort of recycling through the products but women, because fewer women are really invested in the sport, offer up huge opportunity. I think it has the biggest potential but having said that the transportation segment also has very big potential, but that is really gender neutral.”
Given that near half the transportation market is also expected to be women, the female market comes out ahead.
“It (Liv) is outpacing the growth of Giant. The bike industry was pretty flat last year and Giant was up about 12 percent and within that about 70 percent of that growth was Liv,” said Walk.
“We of course see that we are really going to be able to grow the Liv brand … I don’t think we will achieve complete equality, 50/50, in women’s bike sales. I don’t know that that is going to happen anytime soon, but we definitely know that Liv is such a big growth opportunity for us and the brand was received so well. We are putting a lot behind it.”
One of the factors Walk believes is helping drive women’s cycling forward is the increasing usage of social media, as it provides an avenue for people to share appealing stories and pictures of time on the bike, spreading the interest. However, working against women’s cycling is that the high retail expectations being set by other sporting product providers are often not being met by bike stores.
”About 20 percent of them are fantastic. They are really places that anyone would enjoy going into and shopping and they are professional. Then there is another, maybe 50 percent that are pretty mediocre and quite traditional. Then there is another 30 percent that are downright awful: they are filthy, they are greasy, they are smelly,” said Walk.
“Bad retailers are really our number one stumbling block, so helping them to improve is the number one opportunity.”