The Model Year Mistake

A new model year can be exciting. New things often are. But a time stamp is also a license to depreciate. Every new model year becomes a past model year, even an “old” model year, at some point. Release the shiny, new thing and flip the hourglass. Its time is limited, its value fleeting.

Sometimes, there’s a reason to release a new thing, modified shapes, geometry, or tubing. But sometimes a model year is just a new set of colors or an updated parts kit. Things like this might herald a new season and dangle a carrot in front of eager consumers, but the model year mistake is killing the bike industry, one bad forecast at a time.

There are a lot of great bikes out there. In fact, the market is crowded, and so the big companies trumpet new releases as a way to gain mindshare if not immediate market share. You know this paradigm well, living in a world where everything is eternally new and also improved. Companies profit from a cultivated sense of disposability, encouraging riders continually to move on to their next great bike.

And this model works fine, except for the environmental impacts, and the odd season when supply far outstrips demand, like the season we’re in now. In a time like this, past season inventory is a toxic, rapidly devaluing asset. It’s the albatross around the industry’s neck.

In fact, let me walk back the opening statement of that last paragraph. This model does not work very well, even in seasons when demand is robust. Because every season leaves orphan bikes behind. It is not a mystery why the big brands all run Labor Day sales. It’s the mechanism for purging as much of that model year inventory from the system as possible, to make way for the new model year. These perennial discountfests hurt the bike shops who have full wholesale cost sunk in those bikes, meaning even a well-run shop loses control of its base margin towards the end of every season.

A model year is a four-digit number, or maybe even just two digits and an apostrophe. It’s an adjective of sorts, but one that isn’t particularly helpful to bike builder, shop or customer. When a bike is genuinely improved, a company can iterate its name in other ways. Otherwise, it’s imposing a value penalty on a bike based on nothing more than when it was made. Is last year’s bike bad? Well, no. Is this year’s bike really better. Maybe.

But then again maybe not.

Join the conversation
  1. khal spencer says

    The auto industry invented planned obsolescence, right? Now the bike industry, trying for short term profit, is doing the same. To hell with the bicyclist who wants to keep an older bike running and can’t find spare parts (been there, done that) or the environment, when each new marginally better shiny object has an added carbon cost. Adventure Cycling did a story a couple years ago about, I think, Trek, doing the carbon budget on bikes. IIRC, the biggest item was shipping stuff from across the Pacific. Why not keep stuff running longer instead?

    A bicycle should be durable goods, not something to be devalued because Father Time turned over a new year or because the new 11 speed shifts 1% better than the old 11 speed. And God help you finding 9 speed indexed parts.

  2. alanm9 says

    On the other hand we need a better way to designate components. I need to replace the brake hoods on my c. 2017 Ultegra but have no idea what to look for. But I knew exactly how to find new headlights for my 2014 RAV4

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