Building better bike shops to grow women’s cycling

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I love some of my local bike shops, from the slick neatly arranged ones with coffee bars and regular women’s rides to the one where you have to weave through chaotically arranged bikes to get in but are greeted with some interesting new tale every time. They are friendly and feel welcoming and I love going there. The only problem is the number of rotten bike shops I had to go to before finding them.

When starting out cycling I relied on my bike-savvy brother or husband to help me make big purchases. But by the time I was ready to buy my first expensive bike, it was a decision I was determined to make on my own. I had done my research, had a clear idea of what I wanted and what it should cost, so I was feeling well prepared and excited about going out and choosing my new steed. What I didn’t count on was how a woman with two young children in tow can be treated at a bike shop.

It started with being ignored, continued with it being assumed it was a bike for my husband and then ended with being told that the bike I was looking at was surely too good for what I would use it for, not of course that anyone had bothered to ask what I was going to use it for. I walked in to the bike shop prepared to hand over thousands of carefully saved dollars for a bike and walked out empty-handed and in a foul mood. Then I went to two more shops and the results weren’t much better. Had I been less entrenched as a cyclist, that is possibly the stage where I would have stopped searching and walked away because it just seemed too hard. So what is it that makes some bike shops so poor at dealing with female customers and what can be done to fix it?

Chatting and sunshine

Bike shops are often the first port of call for potential new riders. That means a good retailer can be the perfect gateway into the sport, but too often they are a key barriers to entry for women.

“Bad retailers are really our number one stumbling block, so helping them to improve is the number one opportunity,” said Giant USA general manager Elysa Walk in an interview with Ella CyclingTips earlier this year.

It’s not that most bike shops are doing so well that they can afford to turn customers away. For many margins are razor thin, growth is hard to come by and competition from the internet is weighing heavily, but in some quarters there seems either little ability or inclination to adapt and welcome new riders.

“The demographic of the typical bike shop owner is a baby boomer white male,” said Jay Townley, partner at research consultancy The Gluskin-Townley Group. “Some are well meaning, some would really like to know what to do with the problem that they have got with store traffic being down and why they are struggling to make a profit, but the reality is that they are not nice to women.”

This problem is easily seen in bike shops visits and sales.

A recent survey by The American Bicyclists League showed a 35 percent drop in the number of US independent bicycle dealers between 2010 to 2013, and a majority of cyclists said they did not even make a single visit to a bike shop in 2014, with female cyclists less likely to visit a bike shop than their male counterparts.

Townley says the unhelpful attitude that makes customers uncomfortable extends beyond women to beginners and others that don’t fit the stereotype of a fit, lycra-clad cyclist.

However, shops and brands are starting to recognise that there is a better way forward.

“Their whole business plan is to attract people into the store that normally would not have thought to go into a bike shop,” said Townley. “They sell beer, coffee, sandwiches and the whole idea is the experience. You have got to make people comfortable in any retail environment.”

Attitude and presentation the way forward

Nicola Rutzou is an example of the positive role a bike shop can play. She took up cycling seven years ago and enthusiastically launched herself into the sport. The suggestion that she join a riding group when she visited a bike shop helped her on her way. Rutzou now writes a blog about cycling, manages a women’s race team and development squad, and developed such a good relationship with her local bike store, that she took the journey from being a customer to becoming the manager of Ashfield Cycles in Sydney.

Rutzou said it can be easier for her as a woman working in a bike shop to relate to female customers, but her first-hand experience is that offering women good service is not necessarily about the gender of the staff.

“A lot of it is about attitude. When a women walks in the door don’t assume that she has come to buy something for her son or brother or father or husband, but that she genuinely might be interested in buying a bike for herself. You need to make sure you make the right approach to women and make them feel comfortable no matter what sort of bike riding they want to do,” said Rutzuo.

The right attitude may be vital, but presentation is also considered another crucial element.
The right attitude may be vital, but presentation is also considered another crucial element.

The right attitude may be vital, but presentation is also considered another crucial element.

“Make it easy to buy from your bike shop, make it easy to sell for your bike shop and you do that by simplifying the product portfolio, by cleaning up the interior and by getting rid of all the things that confuse people,” explained Townley.

Investing in a store’s aesthetic feel is one of the seven strategies recommended by The League of American Bicyclists to attract and retain women as customers in its report titled Bike Shops for Everyone. The other strategies are sponsor women’s racing teams and events, challenge assumptions about women and cycling, confront sexist behaviour and beliefs head on, hire more women, create stores that are welcoming and inclusive to all, host women-only instructional clinics and shopping events, and commit to high standards of data collection at the point of sale.

Bike shops just for women

“Women have different needs and expectations when they walk into any store and with Bella Velo we want to provide the experience they are looking for.”
“Women have different needs and expectations when they walk into any store and with Bella Velo we want to provide the experience they are looking for.”

There are retailers that have decided to move beyond making sure they don’t exclude female cyclists by making that market a cornerstone of their business, providing large dedicated women’s sections or opening a women’s specific store. London’s Bella Velo is an example of that.

“There are so many women that are organically joining the sport of cycling. The industry is quickly adapting to provide for, and embrace, all of the women that have taken up the sport that we all love but, despite those positive changes that are being made, the weakest element has been and continues to be at retail,” said Bella Velo co-owner Peter Robson. “Women have different needs and expectations when they walk into any store and with Bella Velo we want to provide the experience they are looking for.”

The store’s sole focus on women’s cycling means it can have a wide array of women’s specific products, but the plan goes beyond just the merchandise. The owners started out with a clear idea of the welcoming environment they wanted to create which extended beyond staff attitude and shop appearance to building a sense of cycling community that extended beyond its doors.

“A major focus going into the opening of Bella Velo was to provide a place for women to meet other like-minded women to learn from and ride with,” said Robson. What we didn’t expect was how quickly this group would become such a central part of Bella Velo.”

This store is just one of the examples of those that are deviating from the traditional approach to bicycle retailing. Some shops are opting for a different format with coffee bars and more boutique style presentation, others are focussing on a different style of bike, like those designed for carrying children and cargo or electric bikes, while some are opting for locally made. These stores that are deviating from the mainstream are listening to market needs so have the potential to hold a much more dominant position, said Townley, who started out in a bike shop in 1957 and has held high-level positions at major bike brands.

“Give it a few years and if the mainstream bike industry doesn’t wake up, the outliers will become the mainstream and it will be driven by women,” said Townley. “I am absolutely confident that the new wave or the new era of bike shop retailing in the United States will be driven by women.”

Where do you shop?

Talk to us, where do you shop? What women-friendly shops would you recommend to your fellow readers? Let us know in the comment section below.

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