Is this a good time to be in the bike business? Economic doom and gloom seems pervasive. Household budgets are shrinking. For many consumers, spending on fun has been replaced by: saving for a rainy day at best… and at worst, struggling to stay solvent. How can the cycling industry weather this financial storm?

As a communications professional and long-time cyclist, I believe a big part of the answer lies in three effective, low-cost tactics anyone in the bike industry can employ:

– taking advantage of new shopping habits
– welcoming a new kind of customer
– leveraging increased media attention to cycling.

Below, I explain the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind these three tactics. They are relatively simple and you can do them yourself. Or, if you lack the time and expertise, I invite you to contact me via phone or email – to discuss how I can implement them with your company. But, whether you choose to do it yourself or hire someone to take on the job, it’s important to know this is one race that will be won by those who make the early move and break away from the pack. Let’s get started!

The Search Engine Shopper
For many consumers, a preliminary Google search has become the norm when they are considering a purchase. Fortunately, most bike shops nowadays can boast a website and an Internet presence. But being found on the Internet is only the first step. As the local search capabilities of the Internet expand and mobile phone technology incorporates built-in GPS and web-browsing capabilities, consumers are increasingly relying on the World Wide Web to find what they want and where they have to go to buy it. Unfortunately, if you’re not near the top of the list, your store may as well be invisible.

Why is it important your business shows up near the top of the search results? Because a good ranking makes a difference in your bottom line! Numerous studies regarding the search habits of Internet users show they concentrate on the highest-ranking sites and rarely make it to the second or third page of results. Simply put, being among the top few results will increase the pool of potential customers for your store.

It’s also crucial for companies (especially retail outlets) to make sure their physical location can be found through geotagging or a Google Maps listing. Beyond just providing location details that tell the search engine where to display your listing, you can use this service to provide reasons to visit your store, even if customers don’t visit your website. Take advantage of the ability to add pictures, comments, and other content to your listing. Encourage your current customers to post a review of your store. All these tactics give your potential customers more information about your products and the ongoing stream of new content helps keep your listing near the top of the search engine rankings.

Of course, finding time to generate new content and optimize the company’s web presence to keep it near the top of the search rankings is a predicament that’s hard to overcome. Consider outsourcing your content creation. If you can’t find the time and it’s not getting done, it’s better to pay an experienced web writer or SEO specialist for a few hours of work each month rather than fail to keep your online presence high in the rankings.

Welcoming the New Rider
Tough economic times are putting more people on bikes – as a cost-saving alternative to the car. Environmental considerations are another good reason people are using to dust off their old bikes, or buy a new one. Whatever the individual motivation – as an idea, bikes for transportation are back.

It’s not a great revelation to be sure, but coming with them is a new type of customer, one often intimidated by the atmosphere of the local bike shop and different from cycling enthusiasts. They don’t want to get sweaty, or dirty, or look like a rolling Lycra billboard. Gear-inches mean nothing to them and spending thousands on a top-of-the line machine isn’t what they are after. They want to get to work safely. They want simple machines that are easily maintained. They want trailers, whether they’re hauling kids or groceries. Some are going to be very interested in electric assist options. They are definitely going to need more education than the experienced cyclist who knows what he wants before he (or she) ever sets foot in a bike shop.

How can you embrace this demographic and make them feel welcome in your store? Consider non-traditional ways to market your store and services. Maybe it’s a ladies-only evening after regular store hours? An equipment checklist (you can see my version here) for the commuter cyclist? Workshops or tip-sheets for riding in traffic? Can your staff provide good reasons to avoid the big box stores and dispel the illusion of cost-savings department store bikes seem to offer? Above all, does your staff embody the cliché of the elitist, unhelpful bike store employee, or will every potential customer be treated to helpful, respectful, superior service?

Making the Most of the Media
According to a search I performed using Google Trends, news results for ‘bicycle’ in the year 2008 spiked in March and again in May, while overall searches peak in July. Nothing beats free coverage in the media for reaching lots of consumers at a low cost. But, it’s important to be ready with newsworthy angles for writers and editors to consider. Can you provide a reporter with the name and phone number of a Mom who takes her kids to school on a bike? Know a senior who’s reaping the health benefits of cycling? A businessman who rides to work but still looks sharp when he gets there? These are the kinds of angles the media will be looking for this year, as cycling for transportation becomes more and more visible. Expect electric assist to also be a hot topic.

Above all, be proactive. Develop relationships with the press and approach reporters and producers with story ideas (pdf) before they occur. The media is always in search of new and interesting angles. Budget cuts in most newsrooms mean there’s little time for research and development of new contacts however. Come to the table with good ideas and compelling visuals. Media coverage is sure to follow.

I feel optimistic about the bike industry. I believe the bicycle is a marvelous invention about to undergo a rebirth and a return to its traditional place in society – as a tool for transportation, in addition to being a recreational machine. I think change brings opportunities. If you are in the business of selling bicycles or bike-related goods and services and need a writer with an understanding of your industry and its challenges, please give me a call or send me an email.

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