JRA with the Angry Asian: Why the bike industry makes you want, and then wait

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Canyon launched its US operations just a few weeks ago, and many eager American buyers leapt at the opportunity to finally take a bite of what has long been forbidden fruit. However, it didn’t take long for people to see that Canyon’s range of available offerings on the road side was curiously sparse, and notably absent were most of the mid-range models listed on Canyon’s global site.

To its credit, Canyon USA made the decision to only show on its online portal what it currently has on hand to ship, as opposed to the standard practice of displaying what might be available… someday.

The problem wasn’t that Canyon didn’t have framesets in stock; it didn’t have parts to install on them. If you dig a bit deeper, all of those missing models have one thing in common — Shimano’s new Ultegra R8000 groupset — and Canyon is far from alone in this situation.

Shimano announced its new Ultegra R8000 groupset in early June, and at the time, the company stated that parts would begin shipping that month to retailers, with complete deliveries industry-wide by August. Well, here we are in mid-September. Although a handful of online retailers show parts in stock (and already discounted, I might add), many top-tier brands are still struggling to get any meaningful quantities to install on new framesets. Trek began shipping Ultegra R8000-equipped bikes last month; Specialized not until this month. Giant has bikes now, but Canyon USA’s site still doesn’t show any Ultegra R8000-equipped bikes on hand.

I should point out here that I’m not specifically trying to criticize Shimano here, but rather the bicycle industry in general. It’s common practice in our curious little world to generate a lot of excitement over new products, only to follow up by forcing interested customers to wait months to part with their hard-earned money. Many long-time industry veterans will just shrug their shoulders and say that this is just how it’s always been done. However, that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do things, nor are such practices in keeping with what’s going on in the rest of the consumer goods world.

Take Apple, for example.

There is arguably no other brand that is better at building anticipation for its latest wares, yet the company is famously tight-lipped about what those products are until they’re officially announced. Media outlets will build entire storylines based on pure speculation. When something is finally revealed, Apple (wisely) takes advantage of that initial fervor by making those products available either that very day or shortly thereafter.

If nothing else, Apple’s model is smart business. Hype is only useful to a company if it’s able to translate that energy into sales — strike while the iron is hot, if you will.

“Apple turned people on their heads,” said Masi Bicycles product manager James Winchester. “It meant keeping a lot of secrets, but it has a much bigger impact. If you say, ‘here’s this new iPad we just introduced, and by the way, you can walk down to your local Apple store and buy it at lunchtime and pick one up,’ that’s a pretty powerful thing.

Now, think about what would happen if Apple were to announce the iPhone 8, but then not get it on store shelves until six months later. Would as many people be as eager to upgrade then as they once were? Probably not, and in the meantime, sales of the old version stagnate as potential buyers debate buying something they know is already obsolete vs. waiting longer than they want.

And yet this is exactly what commonly happens in the bicycle industry. “By the time something is available,” Winchester said, “the shininess has gone away.”

In fairness, the bicycle industry is not Apple, and the latter has the advantage of being a singular entity with enormous power not only to control its messaging, but also punish those who foil its marketing plans.

“At the end of the day, Shimano aims to have our announcements of products as close to delivery as possible, but there are so many different factors that affect this,” said Shimano American Corporation marketing manager Dustin Brady. “Shimano is always committed to developing new technologies, but to do that, we have to work so far in advance. Sometimes these new standards need to be communicated early to bicycle manufacturers so they can develop the bikes and frames, and that can mean years. It’s a really long communication chain, and the longer that chain is, the more that information can come out. Once all this product starts going out, and once those gears start moving, so many people have it that it’s very challenging.”

In short, Shimano says that it’s merely a supplier to the industry, and ultimately has to choose the timing of its product announcements on a bet based on how likely someone else might leak the information versus how soon the stuff will actually be ready.

Shimano Ultegra R8000 groupset
Shimano recently announced its highly anticipated Ultegra R8000 groupset, but many eager buyers are still waiting. Photo: Shimano.

“An Apple-style launch is definitely what we would prefer,” Brady added. “If you think about Apple, though, they’re Apple; they’re selling their own product and they have their own distributors. We supply Giant and Specialized and Trek, and it’s just a different model. Those companies have their own introductions, and they oftentimes carry our products. We’re not supplying one OE; we’re supplying many OEs. It’s not completely in our control.”

Thankfully, things do seem to be getting better, and despite some frustrations surrounding Ultegra R8000, the launch of that groupset has gone relatively smoothly, at least by Shimano standards. After all, Shimano announced the latest Dura-Ace Di2 groupset in June 2016, and parts are still barely trickling into the hands of OEMs and retailers more than a year later. In comparison, Ultegra R8000 may be late, but only by a month or two — not ideal, but a huge improvement.

Some bike brands have begun to make the shift as well.

In particular, Trek has gotten into the habit of closely coordinating public announcements of new bikes and products with actual release into the wild. More often than not, consumers can read about a new Trek in the morning, and head out to their local dealer to buy it that same day — and in the background, dealers were granted some lead time beforehand to try and get rid of current stock before it died on the vine.

So why can’t everyone in the bicycle industry get it together?

“It would take a lot of people keeping information private, and a lot of people agreeing on the same thing,” said Brady. “That’s what it would take, but everyone’s interests are not always aligned.”

That’s by no means an easy question to answer, what with complications in the background like long lead times, international shipping, quality control, and whatnot. But the reality is that from a consumer standpoint, no one cares; it just needs to happen.

A few days ago I returned home from the Eurobike trade show, and I was paying particularly close attention to when many of those hot new products would be available for purchase. Many were slated for consumer availability before the end of the calendar year, others weren’t going to be sold to the public for a year or more, and some had no release dates quoted at all.

Those latter two categories make no sense to me, and not just from a marketing perspective. Granted, one or two items were openly presented as “concepts” meant only to gauge consumer interest, but others were clearly items in development that were just far from ready to be released into the wild.

Why bother, I ask? Because while everyone likes to check out the latest and greatest bike gear, no one in the modern era likes to wait longer than necessary. And in the meantime, interest in the new item wanes, sales for the current version of said item stalls, and no one is happy.

A friend of mine summed up the situation succinctly: “Patience is a virtue, but not one of my virtues.”

JRA is an acronym well-known to bike shop employees, usually applied to customers submitting warranty claims that are clearly invalid (“I was just riding along when my top tube dented!“). It’s in part an homage to James Huang’s long tenure as a shop mechanic, but also the title we’ve given to the collection of random musings that will regularly be published here on CyclingTips. Most — but not all — of them will tech-related, but either way, they’ll reflect what’s been on his mind and what he’s been thinking about when he’s just riding along.

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