05 June 2019

The Kids Aren't Riding: Why That Matters

Depending on where you live, you might think that this is a great time to be in the bicycle business.   More and more adults are pedaling to work and for fun.  And wherever you look, new bike shops are opening, the online business be damned.

At least, that is the picture you'd see in certain urban areas and, perhaps, some inner-ring suburbs.  And most of those adults you see riding are relatively young and well-educated.

It is among that demographic in areas like Boston, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle that one sees bicycle culture flourishing.  On the other hand, in areas where people are poorer, older and less educated, one sees few adult cyclists, and nearly all of them are male.  As often as not, they are riding machines "rescued" from basements and junk piles, and seem to be held together by duct tape.

Those older, poorer and less educated people aren't the ones who are driving the bike business.  They don't buy new bikes or even spend spend money to refurbish old ones, and they certainly aren't the ones buying hand-tooled leather-and-oak craft-beer bottle holders. If they go to bike shops, it's because their bikes have problems they can't fix themselves.

I am not conjecturing:  I see such riders on my way to work or any other time I venture out of Hipster Hook and into the outlying areas of my city.

Those folks are not fueling all of those bike cafes serving Marin Macciatos or Linus Lattes.  Nor is another group of people.  The reason is that the cohort I'm about to mention doesn't ride at all.  At least, fewer and fewer of them are.

I am talking about children and adolescents.  While sales of adult bicycles and accessories are on the rise, that of bikes and related items for kids is plummeting.  At least, that's what industry analysts are saying.  They are genuinely worried about the future of the children's bicycle industry.

Time was when bikes for kids were the "bread and butter" of most bike shops.  I can recall such a time:  Shops were busiest in the Spring, around the time the school year began and during the weeks leading up to Christmas.  In fact, shops often had "layaway" plans for kids' bikes, in which the buyer paid for the bike over a period of time.  It was sort of like a "Christmas Club" for bikes.  

(I remember having a Christmas Club when I was a child and adolescent.  Nearly all banks offered them.  If I recall correctly, I opened my first one for a dollar a week when I was about ten years old.  When I started delivering newspapers and other work, I increased the amount I saved.  Do banks still offer such accounts?)

Even though most shops have at least a couple of kids' bikes for sale, not many seem to be sold.  Instead, I reckon, most such bikes are sold in department stores.  In a way, I can understand the reasoning:  Most parents can only, or want to, pay as little as possible for a bike that the kid will outgrow in a couple of years, if not sooner.  And, since there are more single-kid households than there were when I was growing up (I have three siblings; we weren't seen as a large family), there's less of a chance the bike will be "passed down".  

Aside from changes in the family structure, there is another compelling reason why kid's bike sales are falling:  Fewer and fewer kids want new bikes for Christmas or other occasions.  Instead, they want electronic toys.   I would also imagine that other outdoor activities are becoming less popular with young people for this reason. 

Finally, I will offer an observation that might help to further explain the decline of the children's bicycle industry:  Today, many kids are discouraged or even forbidden from venturing outside by themselves, or even in the company of other kids.  These days, when I see kids under 14 or so on bikes, they are accompanied by adults.  The days of kids going out and exploring on two wheels seem to be over.

So why should readers of this blog care about the children's bicycle industry?  Well, we might be keeping the adult bicycle industry thriving.  But how often do we buy new bikes?  After a certain point, we don't buy a whole lot of accessories:  When we have what we need (and want), we tend to stop buying.  

Also, in a point I don't enjoy bringing up, none of us is going to be around forever.  So when we go to that great bike lane in the sky, who will take our place?  Will today's adolescents ditch their X-boxes (or whatever they play with now) and climb over two wheels?  We should hope so; so should the bike industry.

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