June 10 (UPI) -- After years of lackluster and declining sales, the U.S. bike industry has received a major push by the COVID-19 pandemic, as distancing rules and other restrictions have led more American families into the outdoors.
Overall bike sales surged by 31 percent to $1.3 billion in the first three months of 2020 compared to the first quarter last year, according to the NDP market research group, as people looking for safe recreation embraced bicycling amid strict stay-at-home orders nationwide.
Ridership increased even in areas where movement restrictions weren't as tight, due to shutdowns of non-essential businesses.
The industry is benefiting, experts say, because biking has proven well-suited to new realities of the COVID-19 era. With bicycling, the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus is low, it's compliant with distancing guidelines and can be a family group activity.
Bike shops have been allowed to stay open as an essential transportation industry, and many people have flocked to them, according to figures compiled by the non-profit PeopleForBikes coalition.
The group says online bike purchases near the start of the health crisis in March soared nearly 1,400 percent and in-person sales climbed 41 percent year-to-year. Sales of bike parts, likewise, rose by 466 percent.
The pace of new sales has become so overwhelming that some bike shops have become swamped with buyers clamoring for new outfits or wanting old ones repaired.
The COVID bike boom has been a substantial departure from the norm over the past three years. Over that period, bike sales nationally were essentially flat or in slight decline.
Now, in what could signal a longer-term shift, the industry is seeing a return of the type of riders experts say have been drifting away for years -- families and children.
NDP analyst Dirk Sorenson, an expert in the consumer sports industry, said recent figures bear that out.
Sales of lifestyle and leisure bikes, which appeal to causal adult riders, rose more than 120 percent in March, and children's bike sales spiked 56 percent. Sales of road bikes -- those that appeal to more serious enthusiasts -- saw only 4 percent growth.
The return of family riders is pushing bike builders and sellers to rethink their core strategies.
"I certainly think the sales surge is inviting a lot of conversation on how to continue this trend," Sorenson said. "Finding short-term, practical ways to continue family interest in cycling for the course of the summer is an approachable step."
To keep up sales in recent years, the U.S. bike industry has had to focus marketing to a dependable, but smaller, set of serious, committed athletes, and by following trends like e-bikes and fat-tired gravel bikes.
With the renaissance of more traditional riders, Sorenson said, it shouldn't take much for dealers to keep the family crowds coming back.
"Simple efforts like educating retail sales staff on how to help newer riders get out and safely enjoy cycling again can pay big dividends," he said.
Longer term, he added, the opportunity is just as rosy.
"I see an opportunity for marketing to engage both families and enthusiasts. The challenge for both retailers and manufacturers is how to balance both messages and service both rider groups."
Earl's Bike Shop in Atlanta, for instance, has been so busy that owners told customers last month they weren't able to answer phone calls or emails any longer.
"We are thankful for all the business. ... However, we are experiencing a surge of repairs and sales," the shop's website states.