Schwinn shifts marketing gears as bike riding surges during the coronavirus crisis

  • Retail sales of bicycles have surged since the pandemic as Americans turned to cycling for exercise since gym closed and  youth sports went on hiatus.
  • In June,  bike sales rose 63% compared to the same time last year, reaching $697 million, reports NPD Group.
  • The resurgence in cycling fits perfectly into Schwinn's strategy of leveraging its storied 125-year legacy.
  • Schwinn has tried to meet demand fortified by ecommerce sales through mass retailers such as Walmart and Target; and it has expanded its line of electric bike and scooters.

Schwinn, the most recognized bicycle brand in the U.S. and once the top seller, was all set to celebrate its 125th anniversary this year with a marketing campaign featuring modern versions of such venerable models as the Sting-Ray, Varsity, Collegiate and Paramount. Then the coronavirus pandemic slammed on the brakes.

 The offices of the Madison, Wisconsin-based company closed on March 13, around the same time the entire country began shutting down. Then, almost as suddenly, millions of stuck-at-home Americans started riding bikes, many for the first time in years, or the first time ever. Sales of adult and kids' bicycles surged, to the point where by mid-May two-wheelers under $1,000 were as scarce as toilet paper and hand sanitizers.

 According to market research firm NPD Group, retail bike sales skyrocketed 75% in March and April as those family-friendly models got snapped up. In June, sales rose 63% compared to the same time last year, reaching $697 million, though that bump was due to increased sales of higher-end models — an indication, said NPD analyst Dirk Sorensen, that cyclists "are now more willing to invest in the activity for the long haul."

 Americans turned to turning the pedals for fun, certainly, but also for exercise when their gyms and yoga studios closed and youth sports went on hiatus. Cycling also became a safe alternative to public transportation, observed Jay Townley, a former Schwinn executive and a founding partner at Human Powered Solutions, a cycling consulting firm. "The pandemic has made people aware, and afraid, of mass transit," he said. "A bicycle is the perfect vehicle for social-distancing transportation."

  What otherwise might have been a demand dream for Schwinn became a supply nightmare. Its mass-retailer partners that were allowed to remain open, including Walmart and Target, saw their inventories shrink, as did its ecommerce channels, such as Amazon and Dick's Sporting Goods, a key partner whose stores were shuttered.

 

Yet, because virtually every factory in China — where Schwinn's products and the lion's share of all bikes and parts are made these days — had been idled for nearly six weeks beginning in February due to the pandemic, the pipeline dried up. So like graduations, weddings and vacations, Schwinn's big birthday bash had to be put on hold.

Today, Chinese manufacturers are again humming and bikes are aboard freighters bound for the States. But as the U.S. gradually reopens and people go back to work and school — which means driving cars and taking public transportation — will the spike in bike riding become a fad faded alongside binge-watching Tiger King and baking sourdough bread? Schwinn certainly hopes not, and the company is revising its marketing strategy in order to keep America pedaling.

 "We've gotten butts back on bikes and want to keep doing that," said Nando Zucchi, president of Pacific Cycle, a division of Montreal-based Dorel Industries, which owns Schwinn and several other bicycle brands. Dorel's second-quarter revenues were up 8.1% from the same period a year ago, to $724 million from $670 million. Revenues for the first half of this year were flat at $1.3 billion. The company does not break out numbers for Schwinn and its other units.

"Schwinn has been No. 1 in all the brand surveys I've seen going back 40 years," said Ray Keener, an industry veteran and editor at Bicycle Retailer. "While their bikes are lower in quality and price than when they were selling through bike shops [in their heyday], Schwinn's mass-retail models have slowly gotten better over the years. So if consumers want bikes for under $300 or so, the demand is there."

Schwinn has moved back releases of anniversary models such as the Sting-Ray and Varsity, fortified ecommerce sales with a new direct-to-consumer program, put greater promotional emphasis on families, new riders and commuters and expanded its line of electric bikes and scooters.

 Though they're pricier, Schwinn has developed "one of the broadest and best offerings of of e-bikes from any company," Keener said. Its extensive line of road and mountain e-bikes attract riders who want to pedal the old-fashioned way, but get a boost when the going gets tough, like up hills, and the small, built-in motor kicks in.

 E-bikes also enable longtime but aging cyclists, whose legs aren't quite as spry, to stay in the saddle and keep up with youngsters on traditional two-wheelers. E-scooters are all the rage on city streets and college campuses, and Schwinn is banking on name recognition to help its Tone models stand out in a crowded marketplace.

  Schwinn's rise and fall

 Well before the pandemic upended its original plans, Schwinn was facing a steep climb in regaining the brand's popularity, which peaked during the mid-20th century, and competing in the current fragmented marketplace. "We're looking at what we can do to use our tremendous heritage in cycling," Zucchi said when CNBC first spoke with him in mid-February, pre-coronavirus. "Not just that we're old, but still new and relevant."

 The company was founded in Chicago in 1895 by a pair of German immigrants, Ignaz Schwinn and Adolph Arnold, amidst the nation's halcyon days of bike riding and manufacturing. Even after the automobile became king of the roads and thinned out the bike industry, Schwinn thrived by acquiring struggling competitors, designing innovative models and building a strong dealer sales network among franchised and independent bike shops and mass retailers such as Sears and Montgomery Ward.

 Ignaz Schwinn's heirs maintained the company's market dominance into the 1960s and '70s, introducing a series of best-selling models, but then failed to keep up with fabrication technology and cycling trends, in particular road racing bikes and mountain bikes. Domestic, European and Asian bike makers capitalized and surpassed Schwinn, until the once-preeminent company filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and was acquired by an investment group, led by notorious corporate raider Sam Zell,  the following year for $60 million.

"At one point, Schwinn almost meant bicycling," said Bill Strickland, a former editor-in-chief at Bicycling and presently the magazine's rider-in-chief. "But questionable leadership didn't understand what was happening and was slow to innovate. Companies like Specialized, Trek and Cannondale took market share, and by the time Schwinn responded in the '90s, it was too late."

The Schwinn name lived on for about another decade, most notably with forays into mountain biking, but couldn't keep up with increasing competition. The company was purchased in another bankruptcy auction for $86 million in 2001 by Pacific Cycle, which in turn was acquired for $310 million by Dorel in 2004. Besides Schwinn, now considered a low- to mid-level brand, Pacific operates Mongoose and its well-regarded line of mountain and BMX bikes, while Dorel manages the higher-end Cannondale, GT, Charge and Caloi marques.

 Cycling gains in popularity

 The U.S. bicycle industry — which reported total retail sales of $3.3 billion in 2019, up 1% from the previous year, according to NPD — is a mixed bag. There also are dozens of small-scale builders of customized, handmade bikes, including Mosaic, Dean, Co-Motion and Waterford/Gunnar, (owned by Richard Schwinn, Ignaz's great grandson,) that sell models for upwards of $20,000.

 The market is broadly divided into road, mountain and hybrid bike categories, with subcategories in each. Gravel bikes, designed for on- and off-road riding, are popular right now. The fastest-growing segment is e-bikes though they represent a small part of the market. The coronavirus-related craze has boosted demand for city/commuter bikes. Many brands also offer a plethora of cycling apparel and accessories.

 Generally, marketers target casual, recreational riders and hardcore enthusiasts. Price points vary widely, from under $100 for a Schwinn kids' bike at a big-box retailer to $12,500 for a Trek road bike with a carbon frame, electronic shifting and disc brakes at a specialty bike shop. Ecommerce sales are increasing among Amazon, numerous online-only bike stores and mass retailers, as well as direct-to-consumer (D2C) online sales by a growing number of brands.

 Schwinn has bikes in every category — for men, women and kids — and sells them through mass retailers' bricks-and-mortar stores and online channels, plus its D2C one. They're low- to moderately priced, most under $1,000, though the top-of-the-line model in its e-bike roster goes for $4,000.  Dick's declined to comment on its Schwinn sales, and Walmart would only say that generally it's selling more bikes during the pandemic than it did for Christmas last December.

 "We serve people from trikes to trikes," Zucchi states, "from their first tricycle as a kid to their last bike, an adult tricycle. We're not targeting the high-end road cyclist, but someone who is interested in cycling, who wants to be outside, get some fitness and enjoy the sensation of biking, that feeling of freedom. Schwinn is not about cheap, but about value and quality," adds Zucchi, a devoted cyclist who keeps six bikes in his garage.

 Like most businesses during the pandemic, Schwinn's nearly 100 employees have been operating remotely. "We've reviewed next year's products with customers via Zoom," Zucchi said from his home when CNBC spoke with him again, in early June. The exception was Walmart, which insisted on an in-person review. "We had to charter a plane to Bentonville," he said.

 An American icon

Although the company's 125th anniversary plans were rescheduled, Schwinn has been using social media to welcome consumers who've come back to cycling during the crisis. "We want to keep them engaged and interested," Zucchi said.

 While release dates of the updated classics were delayed, the new Sting-Ray is now available on Schwinn's website ($370) and at Walmart and its other mass retail partners, Zucchi said. Schwinn also had to push back the release of the reimagined Collegiate from its planned June debut. A huge hit when first introduced in 1954, this revamped all-steel roadster — based on the 1965 model — is being produced in an exclusive deal with Detroit Bikes. Just 500 will be made and they'll only be available online through Walmart.com, for $998, in the coming weeks.

 Schwinn has shifted some summer marketing dollars to later in the year. "There's no sense in doing a lot of marketing when people can't buy products," Zucchi said. "That will serve us better and not frustrate consumers."

 The resurgence in cycling fits perfectly into Schwinn's strategy of leveraging its storied legacy. "We want to use our heritage to bring us to the forefront of the industry," he explained. "Instead of just doing a repop of a Sting-Ray because retro is cool, let's reimagine what the Sting-Ray would look like in 2030."

 Not that Schwinn is reluctant to play the nostalgia card. Last year it made a big splash with one its many licensing deals, a limited-edition Sting-Ray like the one the kids rode in the Netflix series Stranger Things. "Schwinn found their way back into the lives of people who love bicycles," said Strickland, who got his hands on one. "I rode it and felt like I was 12 years-old," the 55-year-old said. "That told me the Schwinn thing still exists, that love and passion."

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