The changes in the economy that have brought so much pain to many American families and consumers may also be showing a generous flipside to the sporting goods market.  As families struggle with the rising cost of gasoline, the increased cost and inconvenience of summer travel and the much-publicized scare from the effects of BPA in some consumer products, there have also been big benefits this summer for categories and the companies that produce them as consumers stay closer to home, shift commuter habits and turn to a more environmentally friendly approach to drinking water.

One of the categories that has seen the most benefit is the bicycle business.  Based on retail point-of-sale data compiled by SportScanINFO, the overall bicycling and cycling products business was up in double-digits for the three-month summer period since Memorial Day.  The full-line sporting goods channel business outpaced the overall improvement, while the discount/mass channel posted a high-single-digit increase, lagging the market.  The real push came from the specialty channel, where sales of bicycling and cycling products were up in strong double-digits.

The bicycle business was up more than 20% for the three-month period, while the accessories and gear categories were up in the high-teens, held in check by reduced sales of cycling-specific footwear. Mountain bikes and comfort/hybrid bikes led the gainers.  The specialty channel posted very strong growth in the accessories/gear business, increasing nearly 50% for the summer as consumers loaded up on more bike bags, helmets, gloves and tow trailers.  As evidence that a good portion of these gains are commuter-related, the specialty business nearly doubled sales of bike-related lighting and reflector products.  The full-line sporting goods and discount/mass channels saw the category grow by more than a third for the summer.

Perhaps as part of the trend in cycling, but also due to the move to a more eco-friendly lifestyle, the market has also seen a sharp increase in sales of water bottles.  The move to BPA-free product has fueled much of the growth, but analysts also see the trend as part of a movement away from multi-pack bottled water to water bottles filled from the water cooler at home or at work.  Fewer bottles filling the landfills or polluting the environment is part of the reasoning.                     

Water bottle sales were up nearly 50% according to the SSI data, but were up more than 150% in the specialty channel.  Growth in metal and plastic bottles outpaced the overall category as consumers replaced their older bottles that may have contained BPA or Phthlates.  New products from Camelbak have also helped fuel a surge in average selling prices as the company posted a 16 point gain in market share for the summer versus the year-ago period.

Other categories also saw improvements over the summer as consumers shifted lifestyles and habits and made more informed choices, driven in large part by the economy.  The cost of filling up a motor boat with fuel may be driving a number of key trends.  First, sales of watersports equipment declined in strong double-digits versus the summer of 2007, driven by sharp declines in water skis, ski-related accessories and towables.  The other side of that trend, however, is that human-powered boat categories were boosted by increased run-off in the mountains after last winter’s epic snow, and a trend to flat water boats by health-conscious boomers.

The other area for increased participation was in family camping, which many attributed to a move to vacations closer to home.  Reservations at national parks and other recreational areas soared this spring as people opted to get closer to nature and perhaps to spend less time in a plane.  Sales of family tents were up by more than a third for the three-month summer period.

These trends are not seen as short-term, but may be early indicators of other opportunities in the market for this holiday and next spring.  Retailers and vendors need to be looking at the implications in the apparel and footwear categories as consumers head in this direction.  Like a good summer movie, expect to see even more energy over the next 12 months as neighbors share stories of a great family trip instead of an ugly slog through airport lines.