On March 9, Woody Smith, owner of the Richardson Bike Mart stores around Dallas, was dismayed to hear the order to close all non-essential businesses in the county. Worried about the shutdown’s devastating economic effects on his four stores, he made the difficult decision to lay off all 28 part-time staff members.
When the county declared bike shops “essential” and allowed them to re-open later that month, Smith found himself facing a new problem: too much business. He promptly re-hired his workers and told them to work as many hours as they’d like.
“It’s mind-blowing, what I’ve been seeing,” Smith said of the soaring bike sales. “I never even dreamed that there’d be a line of people waiting to come into my store. Pretty much the whole eight hours a day we’re open, there’s anywhere from five to 20 people waiting outside. It’s just constant.”
This bike boom that Smith and other shop owners are witnessing is the result of a perfect, pandemic-induced storm: with gyms closed, long-distance travel limited, and stay-at-home cabin fever setting in, many have turned to cycling as a way to keep fit and stay sane. People are also remembering that bikes are just a lot of fun—and now they have time to enjoy them.
According to March retail sales data from The NPD Group, “children’s and adult leisure bicycles have seen double- and triple-digit sales increases” among U.S. consumers, and the sales of indoor cycling equipment (like rollers and trainers) have grown by over 268 percent.
While bike shops nationwide are being inundated with orders, social distancing requirements have utterly transformed the typical store experience. Shop owners are making major operational pivots to respond to the overwhelming demand for their services, and that has included shifting from physical retail to local e-commerce.
Transitioning to an Online-First Business Model
The average percentage of total sales from the Richardson Bike Mart website was hovering just around 2 percent before the pandemic hit. Once stay-at-home orders swept over the country and online shopping suddenly became the only option, customers were flocking to the shop’s website in record numbers. The store sales team quickly adapted to the changing situation and became online workers, handling bike orders and selling accessories via phone and email.
“Online sales are likely going to account for 30 percent to 40 percent of our sales this year,” Smith said, noting that bike sales have gone up 63 percent compared to this period last year. “It’s hard to say because we’re not even halfway done with the year, but it’s gonna be pretty big.”
Hundreds of business owners are seeing similar results as they turn to e-commerce platforms to handle the massive influx of online shoppers. Ryan Atkinson, president of SmartEtailing, operates a website platform specifically designed for independent bike shops. He has been getting a firsthand look at how the COVID-19 crisis is causing many shop owners to adopt an online-first strategy.
“Retailers have had to transform their businesses nearly overnight,” Atkinson said. “Their websites have allowed them to keep revenue flowing so that they’re not only able to secure their own income and stability during this time, they’re able to grow. Daily online sales of bike shops on our platform have been consistently 25 times higher than this time last year.”
The need for a remote way to conduct business has been critical everywhere, but particularly in states like Michigan, where restrictions have been more severe due to the prolific number of coronavirus cases. When initial state lockdown mandates in March had bike shops closing their doors, Michael Reuter, CEO of American Cycle & Fitness, worked with the state advocacy organization to lobby for “essential business” status.
Once that status was achieved and Michigan bike shops were able to reopen in late April, Reuter found that demand for bikes and service had skyrocketed. His best option was to move forward with the help of his e-commerce website. There, customers have been able to order items through personal shopper forms with store associates contacting them for a sales experience with a more human touch.
“Because we were shut down in April, we actually had a good supply of bicycles heading into May—and a lot of pent-up demand,” Reuter said. “We did more online business in just a few days than we typically did all year.
“Unfortunately, the surge in May sales could never make up for the loss in April,” he added, citing the constraints of staff size, needing to do business at an arm’s length, and the beginnings of a supply shortage.
Prioritizing Staff Morale
With the explosion of online orders and long lines of eager customers—many of whom are new or returning to riding—it’s an exciting time for the cycling industry at large. However, it’s also been causing immense strain on the staff of bicycle shops all over the country.
Mechanics are slammed with back-to-back repair and maintenance appointments as bikes that haven’t been ridden in years are brought in with flat tires and worn out chains. Non-stop phone calls and staggering numbers of orders to fulfill have workers toiling to the point of exhaustion. As a result, managers are doing whatever they can to keep their teams in good spirits.
Some shop owners, like Smith in Dallas, have been rewarding frazzled employees by treating them to lunches and gift cards to local businesses. He’s also been working right alongside them, helping out where he can. “I’m selling and servicing every day—mostly service, because that’s what we’re getting a lot of,” he said. “Labor for service is up 86 percent since this time last year.”
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Others have attempted to spread out the burgeoning workload by bringing on more staff members.
“We are hiring and training more people but have not been able to catch up,” said Mike Olson, owner of the Trek Bicycle Superstores in California and Bike Gallery in Portland, Oregon. “But we’re getting better every week. I tell my guys to give themselves a break, because we are building the plane while flying it.”
Seattle bike shop owner Shawna Williams has refrained from making new hires at Free Range Cycles due to the economic uncertainty. But with each day bringing dozens of new customers and mounting pressure on mechanics to have a quick turn-around, it was clear that burnout among her three-person staff was inevitable.
She immediately made adjustments as necessary, instituting paid mental health days and closing the shop earlier than usual. “Compared to the typical spring uptick, the number of people wanting repairs or new bikes is astronomical,” Williams said. “It’s evident to me that we’re in this weird time for the long haul. Shops that don’t prioritize their employees’ physical and mental health are not going to be able to weather this storm.”
Preparing for Post-Pandemic Business Operations
While no one can say for certain what physical retail will look like after COVID-19, many bike shop owners are planning to keep their online sales platform active so people can continue to shop from a distance. Atkinson has been advising his clients to be prepared for e-commerce to play a bigger role in their business moving forward.
“I think this is the new normal,” he said. “The retailers who operationally and strategically manage this change the best are going to be the retailers that are most successful over the next 10 years.”
Bob Mann, co-owner of Summit City Bicycles & Fitness in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says the shift to online, phone, and curbside sales has stressed all of the systems and processes his business used previously, but was essential to surviving the quarantine landscape. He, too, believes that these operational changes are here to stay. “Online ordering and curbside pickup will continue to be important to adapting, and many customers will expect and prefer it going forward,” he said.
There is another issue that many would-be new riders have noticed: bike shortages, which Mann describes as a “one-two punch” in terms of challenges.
With people snatching up mainly low-cost cruisers, hybrids, entry-level mountain bikes, and kids bikes, the industry is running out of product. Some shops are losing the headwind they had going into June and are seeing their growth start to stagnate—not because customer demand is slowing, but because there is simply nothing for them to buy under $1,000. Many store owners fear a potentially grim outlook for the rest of the season.
“Retailers are bringing on new lines of bikes,” said Atkinson, who has been busy connecting manufacturers with shop owners experiencing shortages. “They don’t care what the logo is on the downtube, they just need bikes.”
But beyond the profits, problems, uncertainty, and overwhelming busy-ness this pandemic has created for bike shops, many owners are pleased to see the general public’s surging interest in cycling.
“It has been stressful but rejuvenating at the same time,” Smith remarks. “Folks who haven’t ridden in years or just used to buy bikes from department stores are now coming into a bike shop. My gut says that for many of these people, it’ll stick and they’ll become long-term riders.”
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