Bonnie Tu Interview: Changing mindsets, colour palate politics and stepping out of Giant’s shadow

“It’s been difficult to change mindsets, even within our own sales forces. But if they refuse to ‘get it’, they leave Giant,” jokes Bonnie Tu, Liv’s founder and industry-proclaimed Godmother of cycling.

Bonnie and I burst out laughing on our Skype chat, but it’s a serious point – the bicycle business has in many segments been reluctant to change its tactics when selling to women. In fact, to my surprise, Tu singles out a key European market as a particularly stubborn territory.

“They’ve been hard to crack, many have the mindset that this is a boy’s game! Other brands have told the dealers there that it’s absolutely fine to sell women a man’s bike and treat the sale in the same fashion. I think it’s easier for many shops to remain set in their ways and resist education that would ultimately help them grow,” says Tu.

In the United States, where Liv now represents nearly 40 percent of Giant’s business, the dealer is been credited for their maturity by Tu.

“In the US they understand retailing. They have countless books on sales tactics, undertake training and they will adapt willingly. The result for our dealers there is that they are thanking us for helping them significantly grow their sales. We spend a lot of time on education, even internally. Studies have shown that women can control up to 80 percent of many household’s income, so it really benefits those who embrace education.

“What we are finding too is that females are buying at least one or two different outfits to cycle in every year. With the right approach you’ll have a far more regular customer. If you are selling a refrigerator to a woman, you’ll see them once every ten years. If you sell a bicycle and make the experience rewarding, they’ll be back regularly.”

As pointed out by CyclingIndustry.News columnist Jay Townley recently, the value of repeat custom cannot be under estimated.

Tu agrees: “We had a customer a few years back who bought a bike with a basket fitted. She would take her dog for rides around the local area. She recently bought from our Liv Taiwan store a performance road build with all the gear. The potential for repeat custom and gradually higher value custom is proven.”

With seven own-brand stores now present nationwide, including the recently relocated Taiwan branch, Tu suggests the boutique experience is key to success.

“We’ve 1,520 areas in which Liv is present in stores globally. Those who offer a boutique experience always sell the most as it’s what the female shopper is accustomed to. Our seven brand stores are great success stories. We’ve three in Taiwan, two in China, one in Japan, but most interestingly we have added one in Dubai. The shopkeeper absolutely insisted it be Liv branded. Women’s cycling is considered controversial there, but one club with 1,000 or more members is resisting that and there are now designated areas to ride for women.”

Perhaps the strongest of a wealth of global ambassadors for the brand are found in Afghanistan however.

“The Mountain to Mountain women’s cycling team ride our bikes and they’re now up for a Nobel prize.”

“In Japan women want Giant as it’s the household name. They just aren’t interested in anything else, so we have to tailor our strategy accordingly. The colour palate issue often makes people tetchy! Luckily we have been pretty on trend so far. You can’t please everybody, but generally we have observed that Asia enjoys vibrant tones, while the mature markets like Canada and the US prefer subtle colouring,” says Tu.

From the merchandising right through to clothing and accessories, consistency has been key to the considerable success of store’s that have embraced the Liv makeover.

“That applies to the bike catalogue too. The women’s line is simpler than the men’s, with less niche items, but greater emphasis on perfecting the range that we do have. We enjoy all the same technology and manufacturing expertise of Giant and with no premium on price. Affordability is key to Liv and our best sellers all fall between $350 to $1,000.”

That’s not to say that women aren’t buying into performance gear, however. In the US, mountain biking is a key market and one that is experiencing the same repeat and more affluent custom. Germany is much the same story. Asia meanwhile has a strong performance road following.

It’s at the performance end of the scale that Liv benefits from its partnerships with pro cycling athletes – currently the Rabobank Liv team on the road.

“The earliest example of feedback from our sponsored athletes regarded the characteristics of each bike. There seemed to be some inconsistency and that cropped up after races. Directly from their feedback we ironed that out and were able to create a better overall bike as a result,” explains Tu. “The teams are often the cornerstone of our development at the high-end, though we don’t see them necessarily as a promotional asset.”

Though not considered performance gear, Tu did speak of an electric bike product currently in development too.

“We have some work to do here still,” she said. “If you make it lighter, which it needs to be, you also make it more expensive. It’s coming, but that’s all I can say!”

Sticking with technology and Tu says that Liv and Giant now have an Android and Apple app that will not only track your mileage, but will sync with many bikes in the catalogue selling for $500 upwards to alert a user to tampering on the street. It’ll even alert an emergency contact with GPS details when the bike senses the rider has been involved in crash. For those bikes unequipped with the tech, aftermarket compatibility is a possibility. The RideLife App launched in Taiwan this March.

Sales worldwide for Liv surpassed $120 million USD in 2015. But when asked what were Tu’s aspirations for the year ahead the bigger picture was very much part of the answer.

“We set out in 2008 to create a better product for women and we’ve put in the hard work changing mindsets and developing well-researched product. We now see some other brands doing the same and we welcome that competition, as long as it’s done right. It saddens us to see it done wrong. For the benefit of growing the market for the long-term we want to see the right investments made and the end of ‘shrink it an pink it’ once and for all,” concludes Tu.