Competition in the 1997 Helmet Market
Summary: This 1997 article reported on the state of competition in the helmet market.
An Article From
Bicycle Retailer and Industry News
September 1, 1997
Helmet Suppliers Confidently Unleash New Models
BY STEVE FROTHINGHAM
Competition Is Still Stiff Among the Big Three
SAN JOSE, CA - - Business was good this year for the three biggest specialty retail
helmets suppliers--Bell, Giro and Specialized.
Sales were up, especially in Florida, where a mandatory helmet law took effect. Average
retail prices in specialty stores rose a bit. Suppliers and retailers were more comfortable
with their places in the market, and less fearful that the mass market is destroying their
As the helmet industry consolidated further, there are only a few suppliers like GT, Trek,
Cannondale and Zacko left to fill the holes the Big Three are missing.
"Fewer and fewer small helmet brands are gaining a foothold," said Blair Clark, a Giro vice
So it is little wonder the major suppliers are continuing with proven strategies. Their plan
is to introduce new features and styles at the high end and trickle down features and shapes
to lower-price models.
Suppliers are more confident this year. Instead of lowering the price of their top helmets by
$20 or more, as they did in the past, they are dropping them by just a few dollars, or keeping
them at the same price and adding new features.
Bell, for example, kept prices the same on the $99 Evo2--its most expensive helmet last year. The
company added new features, however, like chrome logos, more comfortable webbing and better cam
locks. It also added three more expensive models--the $115 Nemesis, $125 Nemesis-2 and the $150
"The idea is to raise prices and get the consumer to buy up. If you have a helmet at $50 with 500
vents, how are you ever going to sell a $100 helmet?" asked Candi Whitsel, Bell's senior product
Specialized, however, is continuing to move its models down line, said Andy Plizka, a company
product developer. Specialized's Air Cut, which was $45 in 1997, will be $10 or $15 less next year.
Specialized is introducing the new Air Speed at $50.
After a few years of cautiously feeling out the maximum that a
consumer will pay for bike helmets, and even backing off for a couple seasons, the Big Three are
leaping for the $150 mark.
Return of the Super High End.
"That seems like the place to be," said Plizka. Specialized's King Cobra, which features large
vents, new pads and other features Plizka declined to talk about, will be available in March for
Plizka said the company planned on an 18-month development cycle for the helmet, instead of the
usual six- or nine-month cycle.
Bell's Intercooler also is still many months from completion.
Giro's Clark said the helmet market has matured to the point where many cyclists are buying their
second or third helmets. Those buyers are more likely to buy an expensive model.
Giro's $150 Boreas, available in January, is the company's new top-of-the-line road model. The
Exodus RL, an off-road model, remains at S150.
Giro also is introducing a $190 model, the Switchblade. It has a removable face guard for
dual-slalom competition, free riding or recreational downhill riding. "Or just for the guy who's
intimidated about riding at a ski resort," Clark said. The injection-molded face guard can be
removed for a cross-country riding.
Another sign of supplier confidence is the policy of staggering new model deliveries.
"We've got a new model coming out each month from August through January," said Greg Shapleigh,
Giro's marketing director. If we could do them all in one month, we'd do it in September for the
trade shows, but that's just not possible." he said.
Giro, Bell and Specialized will deliver new mid-priced models first, with the high-end model
introductions scheduled for next year.
Bell's Whitsel said a long list of new helmet features creates a bottleneck when it comes
time to getting helmets out the factory doors.
"The more you push the envelope, the less chance there is of getting it ready on time," she said.
For Specialized, the introduction strategy is part of the company's plan to separate its
accessory sales effort from bike sales. It is too difficult for the company's reps to show
retailers the bike line and the accessory line in the fall, Plizka said.
GT's accessories director, Bill Armas, warned that some helmet prototypes at the show will
change by the time they go into production.
"There's a problem of real helmets going against prototypes. By the time a company gets a
new model through testing and certification, it could look a lot different than it did at
the show," he said. GT will ship its new models by trade show time or soon after.
At the high end, style is everything. Even if your shop sells few $150
helmets, it is worth paying attention because chances are that today's $150 helmet will be
selling for $59.95 in three seasons.
Styles and Colors.
While Bell's Evo2 has an organic appearance, Giro's Exodus RL and Specialized's Cobra were
inspired by race cars.
If Bell's new high-end offerings are any indication, the automobile appearance won the 1997
style war. Bell's Intercooler and Nemesis have automobile-inspired styles, and Bell even
has a picture of a Corvette grille in its new catalog.
In other style news, Bell colors are bright and shiny this year, while Specialized designers
made sure consumers can buy helmets that match their Specialized bikes.
"It's something the lower-price consumers, in particular, appreciate," Plizka said. Specialized
is doing all its helmet graphics in-house to attain the "family look," he said.
Giro is introducing a third version of its Roc Loc rear retention system. It has
more adjustability and comfort. It gives retailers a way to sell up from lower-price models
with the first or second generation Roc Locs.
Visors are being downplayed. Specialized designers made sure their new $50 Air Speed helmets
are appealing with or without visors. Specialized uses clear Velcro to attach the visor on the
Bell's Whitsel said she has noticed more off-road riders cycling without visors.
Giro is paying increased attention to niceties like including an extra set of fitting pads
with some helmets so riders can alternate pads to let them dry between rides.
GT is moving away from one luxury feature it offered on its high-end Machete model last year--a
storage bag. "People were telling us they just didn't care all that much for the bag," GT's
All manufacturers continue to market improved ventilation, with more vents and air-flow features.
Bell's Intercooler has something called A.C. Technology, which is short for air conditioning.
Bell's catalog says the Intercooler has too many vents to count. "It's something like 44,"
Giro's new Boreas, which several riders used in this year's Tour de France, also has more
vents than the Helios, the company's top road helmet last year.
GT is going in a different direction by returning the focus to lightness, Armas said.
"We've been adding all these features and increasing the amount of head coverage,
and weights have come back up. There are some racing helmets out there that weigh
13 ounces. The old Bell V-1 Pro only weighed 14," Armas said.
Armas said some vent designs appear light and airy but require more liner material,
increasing weight The extra material also makes helmets larger, so they look great on the
shelf, but produce the dreaded "Mushroom Head Syndrome" when worn.
"We've made a big effort to reduce weights across the board this year. It requires new
tooling that's more expensive and takes longer, but that's our focus. Our new Pegasus
comes in at 10 ounces and it's the best ventilated helmet we've ever done," Armas said.
Copyright 1997 by Miller Freeman, Inc, Santa Fe, New Mexico. All rights reserved.
Used with permission.