In every crisis, there are always a few businesses able to thrive. Each empty shelf and each long line is a windfall for your local grocery store. Important digital communication channels like Zoom, Skype and Words With Friends are seeing their traffic spike. Even yeast is now a growth industry… though I guess it technically already was. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the retail bike biz is among them.
But it was kind of a surprise to me. Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with news about races being postponed, events getting cancelled and trailheads sprouting caution tape. All the while, normal people have been flocking to bike shops and, thankfully, they’ve been allowed to. Shops being deemed “essential services” has been a hot topic since the outbreak, with some brands even encouraging riders to reach out to their representatives to ensure that they have the right to stay open. Now, business is booming at those shops, and we wanted to find out exactly who and what is behind that boom.
I chose six shops, each in one of six states, half blue and half red. California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Arizona and South Carolina. They’re what I’d call “normal” shops. Shops for whom mountain bikes are a significant portion, but not the entirety of their business. I called all six shops this week to find out how busy they were. Three of them had to call me back. They were too busy.
“It happened pretty much overnight,” says Cory Foster, manager of the Sunrise location of Oro Valley Bicycle in Tucson, Arizona. “It was like a switch.” That switch got flipped around early/mid-March. It was exactly the same for every shop I spoke with, and the reasons aren’t all that mysterious. As soon as the pandemic declaration resulted in the closure of gyms, malls, theaters and parks, Americans suddenly had fewer choices for recreation. Many filled the gap with riding. Plus, anyone who relied on public transportation now had a good reason to get on a bike instead. But the most significant impact came when schools began shutting down. “The first week, it was a lot of kids’ bikes,” remembers Foster. “People were realizing, ‘I’ve got kids at home, and their bikes are too small for them.’”
A couple shops noticed that spread to the parents by the second week. “The kids have bikes, the parents don’t have bikes, so they’re now coming in,” explains Brian Miller of my personal alma mater, Bicycles Etc. in Lisle, Illinois. Most of those parents, of course, are at home right now. With many outdoor gathering places either illegal or unsafe to visit, families are turning to bikes. Miller reminded me that this has happened before. “Remember when gas prices jumped and people were dragging their bikes out of the sheds?” Do I ever. I was working at a different shop in 2007 and, until the recession hit, our business was up something like 50 percent. Road trips were expensive. Going to the beach or a theme park was expensive. Riding a bike was not.
The trend has extended to service as well. Peak Performance is a shop in Granby, Massachusetts, outside Northampton. It’s literally a one-man show, starring Mat Harris. For a few years now, he’s been almost exclusively service. Still, he’s overwhelmed. “If you looked at my shop right now, you can’t even walk. It’s jammed with bikes.” Like the other shops I spoke with, Harris has found this bump in his service clientele isn’t dominated by any one single demographic. “Really, it’s just regular people. It’s carbon, steel, gravel. Mongoose, Huffy, Nishiki. A Cannondale that a guy wants me to put super high handlebars on, you know.” Like the people Brian Miller mentioned who over a decade ago were pulling their bikes out of the attic instead of filling their tank with gas, these are customers who just don’t ride their bikes often, much less work on them.
But there are a few shops seeing an uptick in their high-end business. Universal Cycles is a small shop in Studio City north of Hollywood owned by Kevin Ramirez. In normal times, they put on regular demo events in the mountains northeast of Los Angeles. Universal does have the requisite hybrid and commuter inventory you’d expect from a big-city bike shop, but Ramirez seems most excited about the jump in high-end mountain sales. “Since the Fox 38 dropped, I haven’t been able to keep one in the store.” And it’s a much-needed shot in the arm for brick-and-mortar bike sales, which have been struggling for years. “It used to be one of those things where you’d hear ‘You own a bike shop? Oh…’ Now it’s like ‘You own a bike shop? OH! I need a bike!” Universal’s bread-and-butter bikes are also doing well, but stock is limited. As he runs out of commuter hybrids, he’s moving people onto entry-level mountain bikes, which also aren’t going to last forever.
That was another overarching narrative I found. On the other side of this demand is a supply chain that is not going to be able to keep up. And the disruption as COVID-19 spread through Asia earlier in the year has not helped. No shop reported delays in receiving small parts from distributors, but complete bikes tend to come with an extra day or two of delay as suppliers work on limited stock and delivery infrastructure is overwhelmed. But more than that, the bikes themselves are simply running low. Overwhelmingly, shops identified price points between $500 and $1,000 as the biggest growth area. That is a pretty narrow range, which means there simply aren’t that many bikes in the price point these new customers are looking for. Josh Travis is the manager at Phat Tire Bike Shop in Bentonville, Arkansas, and they saw this coming. “The only reason we’re as busy as we are is that we ordered a ton of bikes on our last order.” But that approach takes a lot of warehouse space, a lot of good credit and a lot of forethought. Not every shop has all three, so some brands have been able to pull back the curtain early on their new model-year bikes to meet demand. “Trek is starting to post 2021 models, which gives us a hint that they’re planning on bringing in their boatloads of bikes.”
Other shops have gone so far as to bring on entirely new lines when their existing ones were out of popular models. “We actually had to pick up another brand to get kids and family bikes. We picked up Jamis,” Mike McMillan tells me. McMillan owns Sunshine Cycle Shop, housed in a corrugated metal Quonset hut in Greenville, South Carolina. That location has made it hard for McMillan to balance safety and service. “This is South Carolina, and sometimes the message doesn’t come through as quickly here.” Sunshine is being exceptionally, but not unreasonably, cautious. Customers are served from outside the shop in a 10×10 pop-up tent. On rainy days, McMillan has a section of the store roped off where he can serve customers from within, but Greenville is a region where many people believe the lockdowns are unnecessary. “I think we’ve had, since this started, probably six or eight customers walk out on us.” That’s something no small business wants, boom or not. But that brings me to the other overwhelming thread among the shops I spoke with. McMillan is looking to protect his employees and his community. Most shops I spoke to are regularly cleaning surfaces, vigorously cleaning touchpoints on new and repaired bikes and, when necessary, allowing employees to work limited hours or take leave entirely until they feel it’s safe to return to work. We’ve said it before other times we’ve checked in with the retail landscape since all this started, but shops have an extremely difficult choice to make when weighing the health of their employees and the health of their business. In a time of crisis, they have the opportunity to thrive. It’s hard to say no. And more than that, the customers who are coming to their doors are coming with greater needs than you or I might. Chances are, you and I already have a working bike. Maybe two. But this new wave is populated by newcomers. People with little else to keep their family or themselves together. Providing for those customers is the definition of an essential service.
This article originally appeared on Bikemag.com and was republished with permission.
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