Lessons From Interbike: Focus In or Focus Out

I had occasion to be in Vegas on business while Interbike was going on. The company I was working with was exhibiting there, so I took the day to wander around the show. I’d never been to Interbike before. There was something different about this trade show from all the others I’d ever been to. It took me a little thinking time with my favorite adult beverage after I got back to begin to figure it out.
 
What I did notice at the show, of course, was that everybody there- exhibitors, buyers, hangers on- were about riding bikes and making riding better. That’s not a completely unique observation. I’ve made a similar comment about SIA’s snow show in Denver where everybody is somehow or other associated with sliding on snow.
 
But I wouldn’t want to push that comparison too hard. Technology, and improving the technology, in the cause of better riding, was king at Interbike. I guess that’s partly because the technology is so visible and touchable and, apparently, constantly changing. I don’t claim there’s no marketing component to this, or that all the “new technologies” really represent significant changes. But it seemed to my bike uneducated eye that product evolution and improvement was very real.
 
And when I looked at the prices of bikes, it appears the consumer agrees and is willing to pay for it. When a friend told me that the price of a top end bike could be $10,000.00 or even more, I almost peed my pants. It’s been a while since I bought a bike and yes, I do know there are also cheap bikes out there.
 
The other thing that my friend told me was that he had bought his bike some years ago, and still had it. But various parts had been replaced as they wore out or he found an upgrade he wanted. It was the same frame, but not necessarily the same bike.
                   
There’s market value in this kind of focus and community of interests. It tells you who your customers are (and who they are not). It invests the customers in their relationship with the retailer and provides reasons to visit that retailer. It gives the consumer an ownership of the product you can only get when the product is upgradeable, not a commodity, and long lived.
 
It’s not that there isn’t a fashion component to all this, but I didn’t seem much “after biking” clothing or “casual” bike shoes. That’s kind of where the comparison to the SIA show falls apart. Obviously, there’s a huge fashion component there.
  
Where else have I seen the kind of commitment to technology and community of interests I saw at Interbike? The only place that comes to mind is in longboarding. Longboarders, like bikers, seem to be an inclusive, group of people who are accepting of anybody who uses any kind of longboard for any purpose. They share an interest in longboard technology and product improvement. That’s probably why they’ve become as big a chunk of the skateboard market as they have.
 
I had a chance to talk to a bike retailer about skateboarding. He didn’t do skate, but was considering picking up longboards. Not short decks- just longboards. He said he wouldn’t know how to sell short decks and they just wouldn’t fit in his shop. He meant “fit,” I think, in a couple of ways. There was no way he could do a wall of short decks, and his customers wouldn’t be interested. But long boards, as a community with improving technology, and as a mode of transportation as well as competition he could relate to.
 
Biking also has the advantage of being something you can do from oh, I don’t know, ages 5 to 75? And, like skate, you can do it anywhere.
 
But where surf, skate, and snow break down, at least compared to biking and, I suppose, longboarding, is that they have diffused their customer focus. Much of the market (most?) is apparel, shoes, and other products, sold to non-participants. Biking has a broad community of common interest defined by participation. Action sports uses participation to attract nonparticipants to its “lifestyle.” Isn’t it interesting that biking, except for BMX, isn’t considered to be part of action sports?
 
Action sports works hard to keep its core distinctive and maybe even exclusive. You, the uncool person, can’t really belong to that core but you can sort of emulate it if you want by buying this shirt. That’s seen as a marketing strength and for some companies it certainly is.  Biking is about hard goods and everybody is invited in as in longboarding. Hmmm. Is longboarding action sports? Maybe how we label it doesn’t matter and I don’t care.
 
Because of its inclusiveness and focus on participation, you compete in the bike market by making a product that helps the rider participate better. When you do that by definition you join and support the community. If you can’t do that, nobody cares. Energy in the industry is concentrated and focused inward.
 
In actions sports, on the contrary, our growth efforts have inevitably become focused outward. Our energy is diffused and bigger, stronger competitors can break in as the distinction between action sports and fashion becomes blurred.
 
I’m not saying that action sports have done it “wrong” and biking and longboarding have done it “right.” At the end of the day, more people are going to bike at some point in their life than are going to surf.  It’s just the way it is. But there’s food for thought here. Is it better to build your market, like bike and longboarding seem to do, by welcoming anybody who wants to participate or can contribute to better participation? Ultimately, you create some limit to your market.
 
Or should you, as action sports has done, go for the much larger market of nonparticipants, recognizing that as you diffuse your energy over this larger market you invite serious competition and make the exclusivity that was initially your greatest competitive advantage less important?
 
I’ll be damned if I know, but the comparison is certainly intriguing.
14 replies
  1. Rob Valerio
    Rob Valerio says:

    A large number of ex-skaters are riding bikes now.

    I know it was supposed to only be a short lived trend, but everyone around Los Angeles still rides “fixie” bikes, especially high school boys and old guys (40 year-olds like me). I do my 3 mile commute to work most days on a single speed bike. Yeah it cost $800 and doesn’t even have proper brakes but its a lot of fun and you can go farther than on a skateboard.

    Turns out even mainstream brands like Levis are in the bike clothing game. http://www.urbanoutfitters.com/urban/catalog/productdetail.jsp?id=20888400&navAction=jump&navCount=

    I think your point that the reason participants are devoted is evolving tech and it appeals to a broad age range, not just a cool “look” but a hard sport. Now, Master Jeff, how do you apply it to Action Sports?

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Rob,
      Well, as usual, I’d have to say you don’t apply it to action sports as an industry. Each company takes whatever good ideas I may or may not have had and applies to their specific situation. As I noted in the article, the outward focus has worked just fine for some brands. Surf, Skate, and Snow all have what are basically disposable hardgoods products that mostly don’t lend themselves to tinkering with and highlighting the technology even when there’s something meaningful and new.

      Thanks for the comment,
      J.

  2. Michael
    Michael says:

    Another spot on post, Jeff.
    Truly, there are some excellent nuggets here and I’ve already shared this article with a number of folks.
    If you want to know where longboarding is going, look towards the bike industry.
    There are bicycle manufacturers who have some serious history behind them. They realize it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

    Hey, the street skate market had 20 great years and there are some brands that have emerged from the 90’s who are now part of powerhouse corporations. But there are also a ton of brands now who are faced with some difficult problems. You’re absolutely right about focus.

    It’s taken almost 20 years for longboarding to become an entity. Now, we are seeing a lot more of the larger players getting involved. A lot of innovation is coming from the smaller companies-which is why we need to encourage their participation in trade shows.

    This is just the beginning…and it feels great.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Careful Michael,
      The surfers, snowboarders and short deck skaters were all sure they were going to grow forever and rule the world at one point or another. The faster the growth, the more suddenly the maturation point arrives in an industry. And it always arrives. Keep the focus even at the expense of some growth. Easy to say, hard to do.

      Thanks,
      J.

  3. Cary
    Cary says:

    Jeff,
    I have never thought that action sports company executives decided to “go for the much larger market of nonparticipants” in the sense that they one day just decided to market outside the core participants. I think it fell into their laps. That is, the lifestyle of the sports were appealing to nonparticipants because of nothing the industry executives did. Rather, I believe the industry executives recognized the lifestyle appeal to nonparticipants and did things to capitalize on it.

    Indeed, I believe that nearly all successful executive decisions are based on recognizing consumer demand opportunities and then getting the most out of those opportunities rather than creating the opportunities. Action sports executives went “for the much larger market of nonparticipants” because many nonparticipants asked for their products and then they decided to put some effort into notifying other nonparticipants about their products. When they initially made this decision the industry was way too small to attract the attention of outsiders. Besides, who is ever afraid to get bigger and gain more customers because of concern that larger competitors in the mainstream world might notice them?

    I guess what I’m saying is that I think that cycling and longboarding executives will make the same decisions that action sports executives did if nonparticipants started showing interest in the lifestyle portion of their market. Who knows, maybe next year it will be all the rage to walk around the mall wearing tight spandex shorts and a bright, color-blocked spandex shirt with a zipper down the front. I hope not, because I would really look horrible in that.

  4. Jay Wilson
    Jay Wilson says:

    Hi Jeff, I finally gave up my last pair of Vans my feet where killing me! I also got out my bike I paid
    $400 dollars for and started riding again…no not a BMX bike. It’s time a guy my age started working out more. Yes I turn 65 in Oct.
    The bike industry has always been large especially when you go to Europe. BMX was always been in action sports and it looked like Mountain Biking was headed that way…but they didn’t make it.
    The rest of the biking world has taken over the streets. Have you any data about the bike market and how it breaks down by Bikes? That would be interesting!
    Thanks for the insights I was going to the show but last minute changes.
    Best Jay Wilson

  5. Glenn
    Glenn says:

    Jeff,
    Very observant. Red wine and/or single malt seem to stimulate your synaptic pathways.

    We have to consider a couple of facts though.
    Surf is limited when it comes to hardgoods. Although there has been constant innovation in design, materials, fins etc., there are a limited number of waves and hence a somewhat limited number of participants, at least in the US. As well, the cost of entry into board building is cheap compared to almost anything on a bike. Hence more competition for a small pie and lower margins.

    Street/Park (short) Skate hardgoods, on the other hand, have been limited by a number of factors. I’m not supporting or dissing, this is just observation. The factors I see are, customer demographics, athletes and retailers.
    Skate athletes, as in most sports, drive sales. Many (read most) have gotten used to very low tech and inexpensive 7 ply maple, urethane wheels and aluminum trucks. Most give cursory test drives on new technologies and go right back to their basic set up. Not because they aren’t in some ways better (and much better for the brands that pay their salaries), but because they would have to take time to get used to them. It’s easier to stick to the status quo.
    The bell curve puts most of our customers between 12-15. They not only look to the athletes for guidance, but also look to their parents for money. If there is a maple deck at $49 compared to tech at $89 and the kid doesn’t insist that its better and they’ll die if they don’t get it, then $49, or less, is what the parent will spend.
    Because of the market influences above, the retailers stock and push what is in demand rather than pushing the rock uphill. Not unlike surfboards, the cost of entry into pressing decks is very low and hence there are “no marketing, low overhead” garage businesses in the US and factories in China offering blank and design your own decks at extremely low prices.
    Urethane is for the most part, urethane and although there have been some material changes, we’re still waiting for some innovation in trucks that demands a change.
    A vicious circle that we haven’t yet found the off ramp for……yet.

    The longboard segment of the skate market is lucky in some ways, smart in others and I applaud them seeing it and taking advantage of it. In some ways, I’m envious.
    Technologies have made a noticeable difference in performance, the peak demographic are wage earners, ease of participation (as opposed to “if you can’t ollie or drop in, you shouldn’t be here”), broader appeal and the newness of the market are all supporting sales.

    Side note. Cary, I think you missed the point. It wasn’t that the surf and or skate brand execs made conscious decisions to move into “lifestyle”, rather lifestyle moved towards them organically over many years. The problem then is, Jeff made a very good point, that it means a larger market with larger non endemic competitors (AF, VF etc). “stronger competitors can break in as the distinction between action sports and fashion becomes blurred”

    All that said, it was a great observation and comparison Jeff. It has me and I’m sure many others thinking. Thanks again!
    Sincerely,
    Glenn

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Glenn,
      Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I am certainly guilty of oversimplifying to illustrate my point. You correctly point out some of the reasons why I might have over simplified too much. Skate is further handicapped because the leading hard goods companies in the short board part of the market are pretty small compared to the shoe and apparel companies that are in, or claim to be in, the skate space. I am not saying skate (or surf or snow) should or could do what bike has done. I just note how bike (and so far longboarding) has positioned itself, accidentally or on purpose, and the difference it makes in their markets.

      Cheers!
      J.

  6. John Telfer
    John Telfer says:

    Jeff –

    Hey it’s your “friend” still shopping for a new bike- great article and food for thought. It’s also worth noting that bicycling is able to take the quiver concept further than boardsports, not necessarily with the base ride, but with the fact that each different bike niche (cruise/urban/road/offroad/downhill) pretty much means a whole new set of apparel, shoes, accessories, even helmet and eyewear in many cases. I’ve got way more surfboards and skateboards than bikes, but can and typically use the same wetsuit or trunks, shoes/booties for all of them. Add in the dozens of regularly replaced/upgraded components on each bike and you’ve got a far more robust product ecosystem.

    Don’t let the tech stories fool you though…they far more prevalent and relevant for sure, but bike consumers are still putting the same weight into the buying the coolest looking new gear as in these other markets, the tech – lighter, faster, stronger – is additional justification as it is for board tech, organic free-range bandanas, 18-way stretch boardshorts etc. etc. Again though there is just so much more possible gear to justify for even the most casual enthusiast.

    At the end of the day though no sport remotely approaches bicycling’s universality as the only “sport” that is also ingrained as basic transportation and portability. You mentioned bikes can be ridden everywhere just like skateboards, but sorry bikes are ridden on ANY non-vertical surface on earth not posted with a NO BICYCLING sign. Point being its a losing proposition for all of snow and action sports together to even dream of the participation pool bicycling has permanently built in, so the “growth” proposition is starting from a very different origin.

    Bike brands constant challenge is to draw Walmart and old “garage” bike owners UP from just “a bike in the garage” to “sport” riders via new product stories – not just tech but upscale riding experiences that not cannot be replicated with an old cruiser or a Costco “mountain bike”. Whereas Snow and Action Sports brands struggle with exposing their enthusiasts DOWN to the Walmart’s by commodising their products and lifestyle. Perhaps they are more focused with being an authentic core brand with the best team and events and social media buffet than providing that experience to their customers through their product stories. I think that’s where the product differentiation story of Interbike you are telling really hits home.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi John,
      I didn’t quite know if you’d want to be mentioned by name or not, and I always err on the side of not doing that without permission. I wish I had more information about the breakdown of purchasing habits in the bike market. I mean, how many people just want a bike to get around and don’t need the latest and greatest and don’t upgrade until something breaks? How many think three or five speeds is enough (if you can even get that few) and how many don’t even care if the damn thing is a pound heavier? How many people actually have a “quiver” of bikes, or even more than one? There’s so much room for the technology to migrate from the high end to the low end. Always something new for everybody.

      I like your point about action sports commodisising down. Or however you spell it. With bikes, you start at Walmart and Costco and move up. Or maybe you never do. Damn, I’d like to know more about the bike market.

      Thanks for the comment and for making me think about this.

      J.

  7. Michael
    Michael says:

    Agreed 100%. This is why I have put so much attention on the steak, not so much the sizzle. The sizzle is there too, I suppose (hey, Concrete Wave is perfect bound with fancy UV coating!). But our focus is HARD goods and our readers love it.

    Many in the longboard industry have watched their counterparts in the street market very carefully. Some will benefit from this experience, others will make decisions that ultimately will wind up being deadly.

    No matter how much the needle moves, the bulk of street skaters are under 18. At 47, I don’t see many of my contemporaries hurling themselves off rails or ledges. So, if the skate market gets kids and teenagers (from 7 till about 19 or so), then the longboard industry will take things from 20 to 50+ (and yes, even past 55!) AND kids/teenagers from 7 to 19.

    That’s 12 years+30 years = 42 years of selling hardgoods to consumers.

    And I haven’t even begun to talk about women, returning skaters and those who would never consider streetskating but are drawn to longboarding.

    There is no doubt however, that the maturation point will arrive. I heartily agree – keep the focus at the expense of some growth and you win the marathon.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Michael,
      That’s kind of another reason why the longboarding market is like the bike market. Appeals to a larger cross section and you can do it for a long time.

      thanks,
      J.

  8. Cary
    Cary says:

    Glenn,
    Perhaps I did not articulate my thought well, because your comment seems to be restating what I was trying to say in my post. In the last paragraphs of Jeff’s article he was saying that bike and longboarding have done it one way and that action sports has done it another way (gone after the nonparticipants even though that puts them in competition with the gorillas). The point I was trying to make was that the bike and longboarding industries have not necessarily made different decisions than action sports industries but that they are simply responding to different consumer demands. In my opinion the lifestyle/fashion segment of action sports has become larger than the equipment side of the market due to consumer response rather than because the “industry” decided to go in a certain direction.

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