Everything “clicked” for me as I watched a woman stop her bike in front of a convenience store. In a single motion she got off her bike, put down the kickstand, locked the bike and walked away. She was middle-aged, dressed in normal street clothing and simply doing some shopping. What clicked for me was this—the bike was her car.

I was in Holland. The Dutch use bikes. I emphasize the word “use” because they use them as utility vehicles. For the Dutch, bicycles are not recreational vehicles—an umbrella term I use to include mountain bikes, racing bikes, cruiser bikes, tri bikes, flatbar road bikes, and all the other recreational bicycle variants that fill real estate in American shops, homes and garages.

In Holland people use bikes the way we use cars. Just as you expect your car to lock with a click of the remote or a twist of the key, the Dutch expect instant locking on their bikes. They expect to have their lights switch on automatically in low light, and bikes to be equipped with kickstands, fenders, chainguards, racks and every accessory that’s useful and convenient for daily use.

I met with the manager of a large shop in Veenendaal and spoke with him about his business. His average selling price is 1,200 euros (US$ 1,560). He had more than 400 bicycles in his shop, of which fewer than 40 were road racing or mountain bikes. Every other bike was a fully-equipped utility bike. That’s a 10-to-1 utility-to-recreational ratio.

Imagine if we had that ratio here. Imagine a 10-fold increase in unit turnover as a simple consequence of offering purpose-built utility transportation bikes instead of focusing exclusively on recreational bikes.

Some say we can’t do that and that it would never work here. Rick Wagoner might agree, but I don’t. Why are we so sure the Dutch model won’t work here? How can we know unless we try? How many retailers even offer their customers the option of a full-dress car-replacement vehicle?

The objection I sometimes hear is that offering such a fully equipped transportation bike denies retailers high-margin accessory sales. Just the reverse is true. It shows consumers functional accessories they wouldn’t otherwise know of and it creates accessory sales opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

Moreover, in a market congested with narrow-margin recreational bikes, a ready but lightly-served utility market exists. Can we get an immediate 10-fold increase in unit turnover simply by offering purpose-built utility bikes? Probably not, and certainly not immediately. But forward-looking retailers will recognize this growing market opportunity.

Dare to offer a purpose-built car-replacement vehicle. The number of people who need transportation is considerably larger than those who need toys.

Note: This item first appeared as a guest editorial by Tom Petrie in the 15 June 2009 edition of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News magazine.

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