Kevin Burton, who has spent 22 years in the bike trade, explores how the industry has changed throughout his time

When it was first announced that I would be working with Simplon in 2017, I was described as an “industry veteran”. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it, but then someone pointed out that it was simply a way of saying that you have a great deal of experience, which is true – I have spent 22 years in this wonderful trade. That got me thinking about how the industry has changed throughout my time, and the evolution is quite remarkable...

We now have so much information at our fingertips, which has resulted in consumer habits changing almost unrecognisably. In 2018, everybody is an “expert”!

Back in the mid-1990s, armed with a fresh face and significantly less grey hair, I was racing and working with the Gary Fisher brand on the UK MTB and race scenes, helping retailers promote the brand in-store. I was – and still am – excited to be a part of my hobby. Back in that era, we didn’t have that much competition, we didn’t have so many different bike and component brands, and consumer sales were just downright easier to make. This was in no small part due to the MTB boom – fewer brands equalled more sales for each. Easy!

Fast-forward to the current era, and consumers and retailers now have almost innumerable options within each category. The MTB market is a prime example: do I need a carbon, alloy, steel or a titanium frame? Hardtail, or full suspension? Big travel, mid-travel or short travel? The list goes on. Naturally, this is far better for the consumer, but it is an absolute minefield for retailers.

The modern era
So, onto the main issue of today’s market – the internet. Consumers now buy everything online, be it bikes, groceries or electronics. I’m slowly beginning to follow that trend, but I like to see, feel and touch the item I’m paying for. It amazes me – and, I think, the industry as a whole – how someone can buy a bike online without kicking the tyres or pulling the brakes, but people do, and the growth of online brands and direct-to-consumer is ever-increasing. There are obvious benefits – it’s quick, it’s simple, and it offers a return policy that instils confidence in changing or rejecting the product.

We need to embrace the ways of the younger generation. This is the way people shop now. We still have a need for bike shops – workshops, fitting, and most importantly, the expert advice we can provide. The internet has so many misleading opinions, so this is what we can capitalise on.

Job titles have become much fancier in recent years: the brand development consultant, the area brand builder, and the business development manager, but ultimately, we are still doing the same job with more aspects added to the role – not to mention the additions of social media, online forums and instant reviews. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that we can so easily talk to our consumers. Back in the 90s, the only opportunity was at a trade show or race, or the consumer had to send a letter or fax (remember them?). The modern “sales rep” is more of a consultant who can be open to different ways of working in-store, someone who goes riding with the shop on demo events, someone who understands design and in-store layout and aids with display set-up, a marketing expert, and most importantly, a friend to the store. The old days of walking in, showing off new products and running through the offers are not gone completely, but they are certainly heading for the exit. Stores are becoming more boutique, or a place to hang out with a trendy coffee. The internet has made some things better – we can now order directly from a distributor’s B2B website on our phone or tablet. Anything that doesn’t involve lugging around five massive folders full of offer sheets and images is a win in my book!

A changing of the guard
Trade shows have undergone a similar transformation. Once upon a time, we had just one or two main shows where everyone attended. This links back to a point I made earlier about how we have so many more brands and products – hosting all of them in one big room simply isn’t going to happen, but it used to. I understand why some of the bigger brands carry out their own in-house shows: a captive audience, totally focused on their brand, with nothing else to be distracted by. But what about the consumers? They never get to compare everything under one roof. There are two things to note in this area – it gives some of the smaller brands an opportunity to speak to the consumers, and perhaps they don’t need to, because the consumer has already done their homework online? The bigger brands have an issue with shows as they have huge professional display stands and trucks, making it expensive to attend, so maybe this an industry issue in itself?

Meanwhile, money has had a significant impact on racing. MTB racing went through a period (and still is, to a degree) of not being particularly exciting, but looking at the UCI World Cup 2018, it was amazing to watch online, although perhaps not so much in person! I attended a couple of UK national rounds last year with some of our riders. There was hardly anyone spectating at all, but why would you go to a field and watch it unless you knew the riders? That's one thing that hasn’t changed. Compare this to road, and people flock to the races. The Olympics gets all the praise for growing awareness in the UK, which is true to a point, but road cycling has always had a big following, and not just from hardcore fans and cyclists. It is more accessible, free to watch, and there are generally other things going on around the race. Money has and is making superstars out of road racing – just look at how much investment Sky has pumped into its team. Love it or hate it, it’s putting bums on seats, and quite frankly, that is vital to an industry that is going through a testing time.

The rise of commuters
It’s great that, in 2018, people actually want to ride their bikes to work. It used to be only a few that rode in, and they were mocked for doing so! I always thought, well done, and that I would do the same if my place of work was more consistent. Nowadays, it’s cool to ride into work, and the variety of people on all kinds of bikes in London is fabulous. We even have specific cycle paths being created – this was a dream back in the 90s, and even the 00s. Admittedly, it has created something of a war with a percentage of car and van drivers, but I’m not sure where their anger is coming from – perhaps it’s because the roads have been dug up, causing delays, or the fact that the commuter might slow them down by 15 seconds because the car can’t get past straight away? Cyclists are at fault with this as well, just like when we notice some really poor driving, the same can be said for some cyclists too.

Ultimately, I’m glad to see so many more people cycling to work. This “industry veteran” has witnessed many changes over the years, and I haven’t even touched upon printed magazine vs online, or the technology and development of product. Some changes have been positive, some negative, but the bottom line is that we, as an industry, need to understand the market better, and communicate with one another more. I say this from a brand point of view – we need to stick together, avoid fragmentation, and embrace the new ways and routes to the market. Let’s keep learning and progressing.

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