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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
Competition Is Still Stiff Among the Big Three

BY STEVE FROTHINGHAM

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 businesses.

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 president.

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 Intercooler.

"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 manager.

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.


Return of the Super High End.

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.

"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 around $150.

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.


Staggered Deliveries.

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.


Styles and Colors.

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.

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.


New Features.

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 Air Speed.

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 Armas said.

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," Whitsel said.

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.




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