How market data has changed the UK cycling landscape

Sports Marketing Surveys’ Marc Anderman explores the advocacy value of the cycling market data service

If you’ve followed our recent articles for BikeBiz, you will have seen us use a number of statistics from the Bicycle Association Market Data Service (MDS), powered by SMS. We know that many retailers, brands and distributors are using the tool to turbocharge their operations, whether that’s in product design, routes to market or distribution.

However, there is another key aspect of the cycling market data service that perhaps hasn’t been discussed as much: the characteristics that make the MDS an effective tool in advocacy. So, as cycling in Great Britain comes to the end of one of the most disrupted but dynamic years in living memory, it’s worth reflecting on how the MDS has supported the industry in 2020. 

To give three practical examples, the data from the MDS has been used in lobbying for: repair vouchers; cycling retailers’ exemption from the lockdown closures, and e-bike subsidies. But exactly what is it about the MDS and other market data that enables the BA and other organisations to use it so proactively?

Firstly, and perhaps most crucially, the MDS provides consistent, comparative data that can highlight short, medium, and long-term trends. From the beginning of the service, all views on the interactive dashboard were designed to be benchmarked against historic performance, with users able to select custom time periods and view historic trends.

The fact that all new data providers are asked to supply at least 12 months back data ensures that as the service expands, comparability remains at the forefront of the monitor. Because of this, year-on-year or year-to-date results do not fluctuate on the basis of the number of data providers contributing to the service, but remain consistent. As more and more retailers are onboarded, the results only get more accurate, filling in gaps in the historic record and ensuring that the insights are representative of the widest possible cross-section of the market.

At present, the MDS aggregates the results of generalist retailers like Halfords and Argos, alongside more than 250 independent bike shops. Bricks and mortar and click and collect sales are counted, as are online direct sales from all contributing retailers who offer this service, including Wiggle and Amazon. The result is a service that covers an estimated 70% of the total sales of cycling products and services in the UK. In 2019, the MDS, which now tracks over 700,000 SKUs, captured the sale of 1.84 million bikes, more than two-thirds of the number of imported bikes.

The partnership between SMS and the BA helps both parties deliver the most effective audit possible. The BA harnesses SMS’ experience of delivering similar retail audits in multiple markets in sports such as golf and tennis, while the fact that SMS receives and aggregates all the data gives suppliers reassurance that their information will remain completely anonymous. Equally, when the results of the research are presented to the Government, they have extra weight for being produced by an independent organisation.

Another factor in the audit’s success is the regularity of collection. The MDS receives sales data on a monthly basis, enabling the BA to keep the conversation alive and respond rapidly to opportunities and challenges. With the coronavirus situation changing quickly, this has been especially important in 2020. For example, when cases of the virus began to ratchet upwards in the autumn, the BA was able to pre-empt a second lockdown, and make early contact with the Department for Transport to build a case for the economic importance of cycling. The ensuing conversations were pivotal to the eventual decision to exempt bike shops from the retailers forced to close their doors in November.

Now, as bike manufacturers, retailers and customers turn their minds to 2021, another result of the advocacy programme has emerged. A pilot programme of e-bike subsidies, a policy recommended by the Bicycle Association, is planned before the end of the financial year. This is expected to then lead to a finalised support package to appear in the Government’s spending review in spring 2021. The result could be a reduction in the price of e-bikes to consumers by up to a third. Such a move will boost leisure cycling and walking, as well as making cycling more accessible and appealing as a means of transport, for example for travelling to work.

SMS’ ongoing monitor of the commuting landscape shows a renewed spike in cycling to work in the week that the second lockdown was announced in England. In fact, week 22 of the study marked the first occasion that the proportion of workers using a bike as their means of commute surpassed 10%. Previously, results had hovered around the 4-7% mark. This comes despite the clocks going back and the weather turning distinctly wintery, although it is worth bearing in mind that the total number of people commuting to work has reduced with the imposition of the second lockdown.

Reflecting on the overall value of the data, Steve Garidis, chief executive of the Bicycle Association, writes: “Modern Government policy-making, as with modern business decision making, must be evidence-based. Our purpose as the body representing the UK cycling industry is to grow the cycling market. This will only happen if more people choose to ride bikes.

Both the right Government policies and cycling industry products and services must be in place to enable this; and we know so many more people want to cycle when they are. Independent, objective, high-quality evidence supporting why, what, how, when and where is now, more than ever, a necessity; a vital tool in the decision process for both Governments and businesses. That’s why the Bicycle Association has made providing such evidence, in particular this Market Data Service with our partner SMS, our absolute top priority.”

Retail data is far from the only useful tool in making cases to Governments. At a continental level, bodies like Cycling Industries Europe (CIE), of which SMS is a member and part of the Market Insights Expert Group, are compiling statistics and data which can make a difference within the corridors of power. As in the UK, at European level, cycling has traditionally not lobbied as successfully as industries like motoring or rail transport, in large part because those organisations have bigger budgets for research and data gathering.

COVID-19 has pushed the cycling industry to renewed action. The ECF, for example, is successfully tracking the levels of new infrastructure promised and delivered across the EU. A number of companies, such as Geovelo and Ecocompteur, are using journey counting technology to compile excellent data on the number of cyclists using different routes and different times. Such information can ultimately be mapped against infrastructure developments and retail trends, in order to recommend policy changes that will generate the greatest return.

Simultaneously, SMS, on behalf of CIE, has run three waves of a top-level industry tracker designed to shed light on the varied impacts of the pandemic, and quickly collate independent evidence of the support the industry requires.

With the MDS, however, the UK is at the front of the peloton. Much credit for this must go to the Bicycle Association, not only for its effective lobbying of Government but also for its foresight. The Market Data Service was first conceived in 2018, and it was only after 18 months of planning, consultation with stakeholders, and rigorous setup and testing that the service became operational in March 2020. Now that it is up and running, the future of the industry, both from a commercial and advocacy standpoint, looks stronger than ever.

The Bicycle Association is the national trade body for the UK cycling industry. Its market data service now covers between 60-70% of retail cycling sales across nearly 700,000 products back to January 2018. For more information about the service, please see www.bicycleassociation.org.uk/market-data.

To discuss how SMS can support you, please contact marc.anderman@sportsmarketingsurveys.com.

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