Sales in town are rolling
Earl Lang, co-owner of Acme Bicycle Shop in Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte.
EVAN WILLIAMS / FLORIDA WEEKLY A SEGMENT OF BICYCLE SHOP CUSTOMERS DISAPPEARED IN the last five years along with many jobs. As employment figures begin to look brighter, active retirees in particular, and others looking for recreation and exercise, are turning the trend around.
Mike Holm said sales at Fort Myers Schwinn Cyclery were off 30 percent at the worst of the recession. He saw a 15 percent jump in sales during the 2011-12 busy season, from October through May, over last year.
“We have to double that again to get back to where we were,” Mr. Holm said amiably as he tuned up a bike at his shop on U.S. 41. “It’ll come back to it. I’m sure it will.”
Cycling is big business in Florida’s Congressional District 14, which includes 800,000-some people in Lee, and parts of Collier and Charlotte counties. There are 76 retail bicycle stores representing 319 jobs and $29.8 million in gross revenue in the district, according to a 2012 report by League of American Bicyclists.
Bicycles for sale at The Bike Route in Naples. “The recession hurt us bad,” admits Earl Lang, co-owner of Acme Bicycle Shop in Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte. But the 2011-12 season was his best of the last three in sales. He attributes that to “cabin fever” (pent-up demand) and general optimism.
“I think this year people looked tired of not spending money,” said Matthew Walthour, owner of Island Bike Shop in Naples and on Marco Island.
Many of those tired of not spending money appear to be senior citizens who are more active than ever.
“Since the housing boom evaporated that type of person working in the housing industry that might spend $300 to $700 to $800 on a bike — they’re gone,” said Keith Newman, co-owner of Bike Route in Naples. “Most of them have left the area. But retirees have come on strong to take that over — our last two years have been some of the best ever. So I can’t complain now.”
Acme Bicycle Shop employee Jean Halsey with floor models ready for sale.
EVAN WILLIAMS / FLORIDA WEEKLY One of the best sellers at shops in Naples, Fort Myers and Punta Gorda are bicycles that are easier on retirees’ wellworn knees or hips. These are sometimes called “flat foot” bicycles because you can board from a nearly natural standing position and put both feet flat on the ground at a stop.
Kim Campanella, owner of Bicycle Center in Port Charlotte, is one of the top dealers in the country for Trek’s Pure line.
“Most bicycles have you sitting on a stool,” said Ms. Campanella. “This has you sitting on a chair.”
Mr. Lang of Acme said a “flat foot” model, the Electra Townie, has been one of his trendiest models.
“It really builds people’s confidence,” he said. “They feel comfortable and safe.” Some of the most popular models — such as “hybrid” bikes good for a trip to the store, a ride to the beach, or wherever — cost between $400 and $500, but dedicated cyclists can spend upwards of $10,000 on an ultra highend road bike that weighs less than 3 pounds, has electronic gear shifting and carbon fiber wheels.
Sticking with their cars
Meanwhile, people looking to lower their gas budgets by riding more are the minority, shop owners said. Even $5 or $6 per gallon gas prices wouldn’t change that much, some say, even along with other benefits such as personal and environmental health.
“Every year when the gas goes higher people love to do stories on it, but I’m not seeing it,” said Ms. Campanella of Bicycle Center.
Mr. Holm of Schwinn is skeptical that there will be a surge in people who use a bicycle as a primary mode of transportation any time soon, even if gas hit $10 per gallon.
“People aren’t giving up their airconditioned cars yet,” he said.
Mr. Newman of Bike Route figures it would take gas prices of $7 or more per gallon to see a significant spike in bicycle commuters.
“Our customer base is pretty much recreational and fitness-type riders,” he said. “Not so much in the transportation end of it. I still don’t find there are many people using the bicycle strictly as a gas substitute.
“It’s tough to pry them out of their cars. There are plenty of ways around town to use the existing roads, but most people choose to use their vehicle.”
That includes himself most of the time, he admits.
Bike commuters stymied
Bicycle commuters as defined by the federal government — those who use a bicycle only, no car and no public transportation to get to work — are an even more rarified group.
That’s not to say there aren’t thousands of them. For instance, there were 429 people in Cape Coral who said they commuted only by bicycle in 2010 (about .7 percent of total commuters). By contrast, 6 percent of commuters in Portland, Ore., considered one of the most “bicycle friendly” cities in the nation, get to work by bicycle.
Those who commute only by bike grew by 39 percent nationwide from 2000 to 2010. But many challenges, including large swaths of urban sprawl or showers at the workplace, are holding that group of consumers back.
“People who are commuting to work are those who have no choice, by and large,” said Darla Letourneau of Bike- WalkLee, a Fort Myers-based group that advocates alternative transportation. “We don’t do a good job of providing accommodations at the other end.”
Getting to work on your bicycle may depend on the street layout between you and a job.
“I love the idea (of commuting by bike) and I encourage it,” Ms. Campanella said. “But just the way Port Charlotte is laid out, you won’t see a lot of people like in Boston (her hometown), or New York or even Fort Myers, doing that.”
Employees often have no other facilities besides a bathroom to clean up or change in after a ride to work.
“When they get to work they feel sweaty and a lot of people don’t provide lockers and showers and things like that,” said Mr. Walthour of Island Bike Shop. While shop owners expect to continue to see strong sales continue with the retiree market, commuter sales aren’t likely to surge as long as the culture and practical considerations for that sector remain the same. ¦