Two months ago, bike shops were facing the same challenge as every other business: Stay above water when it seems the whole world is drowning. Many were preparing for a sort of hibernation, including putting a halt to the often huge speculative restocking orders that happen that time of year. For most shops, that hibernation lasted about a week. Then suddenly, bikes started selling like toilet paper, a phenomenon we just recently covered. Now, two months later, the world’s supply of new bikes is running out. Like toilet paper.
Although the disruption in Asia certainly hasn’t made things easier, none of the brands I spoke with were ready to point to China as the source of the problem. In fact, some weren’t ready to comment at all since no bike company wants to admit they don’t have bikes. Regardless, the problem isn’t on the production end. The interruption overseas was relatively short-lived, and production is back at capacity by now. Most of the western world came into this crisis with the inventory at about normal for this time of year. And time of year is a big factor because the shortage is partly seasonal.
It’s springtime, and much of the world would be getting on new bikes now anyway. We’re also just a couple months from the end of many brands’ model year, which is an odd thing to say in the middle of May. It wasn’t always this way. The anchor of bike-release season used to be the Interbike trade show in September. But over the years, release dates slowly started creeping up the calendar. Now, some brands tease new high-end bikes as early as Sea Otter in April, with most releases happening in late spring and early summer, hitting the shelves soon after.
The model-year changeovers themselves used to happen differently too. Back in my shop days, I remember filling the shelves with closeout bikes as fall was on the horizon. New-bike sales would start to ramp up over Christmas and peak in spring and summer. We’d then bring in closeout models in fall, and the cycle would be ready to start again. That changed in 2008 and 2009. After the recession, brands were a lot more conservative with their production quantities. Knocking ten or fifteen percent off hundreds if not thousands of bikes at the wholesale level is not a good way to end the model year. Given the choice between taking a huge hit from discounts or running out of bikes in the middle of summer, many brands choose the latter.
That gap in the supply chain was already hard for shops to deal with, and this sudden new rush has widened the gap considerably. It varies by brand and model, and thankfully, the mid-range and entry-level tend to face the fewest delays during model-year changeover because bikes in that category simply see less innovation. Lower-priced components aren’t released in new iterations as frequently. That’s part of how they’re lower-priced. “Higher-end bikes typically get more change, more technology and more delays,” says Kevin Noble, national sales manager at Kona. So, although they may be some of the first to be announced, they’re often the last to arrive. A couple brands told me they expect to see their first 2021 bikes in that entry-level category sometime in June, but many of the shops I spoke with will be waiting for most of their popular bikes until July or, in some cases, as late as October.
There’s not much to be done about it. Even for those bikes getting here in October, systems were set in motion well before the pandemic. As is the prevailing narrative these days, it’s hard to plan for two weeks from now, let alone six months. If brands do choose to react to the surge, they wouldn’t see results until long after summer is over.
At Marin, they went so far as to shuffle existing bikes around to meet demand. “We did pull some inventory from our warehouses across the globe to help alleviate the shortages, which helped. Some markets are not/were not allowing for any cycling, so demand had slowed,” explains Chris Holmes, marketing manager at Marin Bikes. But of the brands I asked, Marin was the only one to confirm they went that route. “The boom has been global, for the most part,” explains Michael Mayer, director of product marketing at Trek. I heard much the same from the brands who commented on the trend. It’s been up to shops to find ways to get people on bikes, and in most cases, customers are opting to go a few price points up to make it happen. But to serve those who can’t afford to do so, some shops have looked to open new brands that may have carried, but that’s complicated. Kona, for example, is expanding, and is more nimble than larger brands when it comes to opening up new accounts at shops. It’s something they’re constantly working on. “But when the pandemic crisis hit, the sales reps had to politely tell some shops, ‘Hey, we’re supporting the IBDs that support us.’” As current dealers are struggling to get bikes, it’s encouraging to hear brands refuse to undercut them for the sake of opening a new account.
“Most certainly, we have had a number of multi-store and big brand ‘concept stores’ reach out to us for bikes, but right now our priority is taking care of the loyal dealers who have been with Marin for years,” says Holmes.
As with a lot of problems the coronavirus has brought us, there are no easy answers to solving the supply shortage. Some customers will continue to turn to higher- and higher-end bikes, others will turn to the used market. Others will opt to repair or upgrade their existing bikes, though that will put a strain on an already overworked bike-service community. But as I heard from some of those shops and the brands that supply them, this isn’t entirely unprecedented. I’ve mentioned the spike in bike business that went along with the spike in gas prices back in 2007 and 2008. My shop found several lifelong customers during that time. There was a similar increase during the mountain bike boom in the early ’90s. Even Lance Armstrong’s reign made a splash the industry is still feeling today. Though it’s worlds more troublesome, this trend will be no different. More people are on bikes, and a lot of them will stay there.
This article originally appeared on Bikemag.com and was republished with permission.
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