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updated: 6/9/2019 8:33 AM

Fewer kids are riding and buying bicycles, and the industry is worried

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  • The number of children ages 6 to 17 who rode bicycles regularly -- more than 25 times a year -- decreased by more than a million from 2014 to 2018, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. That includes both casual rides around the neighborhood and more serious cycling for fitness or competition.

    The number of children ages 6 to 17 who rode bicycles regularly -- more than 25 times a year -- decreased by more than a million from 2014 to 2018, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. That includes both casual rides around the neighborhood and more serious cycling for fitness or competition.
    Daily Herald File Photo

 
 

Children's bicycle manufacturers and retailers are bracing for rough times ahead as market research shows fewer kids are riding bikes, while prices for cycling equipment are almost certain to increase because of the Trump Administration's tariffs on Chinese-made goods.

The number of children ages 6 to 17 who rode bicycles regularly -- more than 25 times a year -- decreased by more than a million from 2014 to 2018, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. That includes both casual rides around the neighborhood and more serious cycling for fitness or competition.

And from 2018 to 2019, children's bicycle sales decreased 7% in dollars and 7.5% in bikes sold, a drop serious enough that retailers have already goosed prices to make up for lower demand, according to market research firm NPD Group.

The number of regular bicyclists has decreased.
The number of regular bicyclists has decreased. - Washington Post Graphic

It's all caused the American bicycling industry -- worth $5.6 billion, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association -- to hunker down in preparation for things to get worse.

The Trump Administration has imposed a 25% tariff on $250 billion of Chinese goods, and has threatened to more than double the duties. Those tariffs impact almost every component that goes into a bicycle, from metal frames to fabric seats, plus entire bikes shipped to the U.S. after being assembled in China. Retailers largely pass those costs off to consumers, said Brian Nagel, managing director and research analyst at investment bank Oppenheimer. That could substantially raise the prices of items on the shelves, including bicycle accessories such as helmets, lights and gloves.

"CEOs of bike companies have and will testify in front of the U.S. Trade Representative about these tariffs: that bike prices will go up, and that means fewer kids will ride bikes," said Tim Blumenthal, president of People for Bikes, a nonprofit advocacy group that works closely with manufacturers, retailers and fitness activists.

"The consequences of kids riding bikes will go well beyond the number of kids who ride," he added, referring to other health and social benefits of childhood fitness. "In the mass market, tariffs, if they continue for a long time, are likely to have a big effect on the kids market."

Arnold Kamler, chief executive of New Jersey bicycle company Kent International, wrote in a May opinion piece in The Washington Post that his company had weathered all kinds of economic fortunes but had never dealt with a setback like the Chinese tariffs.

"The new tariff," he wrote, "raised our overall costs by 7.5 percent, which we were forced to pass on ... ultimately, to American consumers ...

"When the holidays arrived, consumers were put off by the higher prices. Sales dropped, ending up 5 to 10 percent lower than our projections."

It's all increased the concerns for bicycle sellers as fewer children participate in cycling.

"For the overall growth of the market, we need some decently priced introductory bikes," said Brandee Lepak, president of the National Bicycle Dealers Association. "What we as an industry talk about is are we pricing new customers out of the sport?

Children still represent the single largest age demographic of all cyclist, but the participation is skewing older.
Children still represent the single largest age demographic of all cyclist, but the participation is skewing older. - Washington Post Graphic

"The kids market is something that the industry has been struggling with. We want to get more kids on bikes."

Youth fitness activists and sporting goods market analysts are in agreement about what's been keeping kids off bikes. The primary culprit, they say, is screen time, whether on phones, televisions or video games. A 2018 study from the American Heart Association found kids and teens ages 8 to 18 averaged more than seven hours a day looking at screens.

Industry boosters want kids to use that time to instead play -- or bicycle -- outside with friends and family.

"Taking time to get out and ride is a challenge," Lepak said. "As busy professionals, it's so challenging. Our parents left their computers at work. Now we're constantly tied up. It's hard to say, 'I'm going to go ride my bike with my family for an hour.'"

The children's market is also a crucial segment for manufacturers and retailers. Beyond the old business strategy of trying to hook consumers when they're young and turning them into loyal lifelong customers, the children's demographic has traditionally used bicycles both for play and transportation.

Children still ride bicycles regularly more than any other age demographic, according to SFIA data. And as they grow, they have to replace their helmets, gloves and other accessories, and eventually their bicycles themselves.

That paints a potentially scary picture for the industry: If children are bicycling less, fewer might want or need a new bicycle, or even a first bicycle, as they grow older, especially when coupled with tariff-related price increases.

That's still a long way off, but it has insiders worried about the state of the industry.

"We don't want to be too idealistic," Blumenthal said, "but when kids ride bikes, good things happen."