Anecdotally – Your LBS in the Time of Covid-19

The people who work at your local bike shop have had quite a year. They weren’t ready for the tidal wave of riders who, confined to quarters by a global pandemic, decided it was time to ride bikes. To a person, the ones I’ve spoken with since last March are exhausted. Caught between customers who don’t understand why they can’t have what they want and suppliers who can’t get them what they need, salespeople, managers, wrenches and everyone in between have been going at it hammer and tongs to get as many people rolling as their time and inventory would allow.

One shop owner told me that, in previous seasons he had made the mistake of handing out his cellphone number, a way of letting customers know he was there for them. He did not anticipate his voicemail box full to the point of not taking additional messages, everyday, every week, month-after-month. This is a guy who would drop a special order off at your house or pick up your service bike just because, and he began deleting his messages without even listening to them.

Another shop owner confided to me that he was glad his local government had shut down retail stores. It kept customers from coming in and wasting his time with fantastical requests and endless small talk. Instead they would call or email with a specific request. He could prep it in advance, schedule the pick up, and deliver it at the door. Demand was such that he was making good money, but he was much better able to manage his day.

A studio owner I know felt ambivalent about not being able to do bike fits. On the one hand he lost a regular revenue stream, and his sales of custom bikes declined. On the other hand, his transaction numbers went way up, as he sold twice as many stock-size bikes. At a time when he needed his business to be simpler, it was, even if his primary focus, high-end and custom sales, fell by the wayside.

The other day I spoke to a guy who was completely out of bikes. His primary line told him not to expect more until Spring, so he brought in another brand, only to find out they didn’t have bikes either. The day we talked he was headed to the shop “to mop the floor and catch up on paperwork.” Like many, he’d done big numbers through the summer, but with sales revenue plummeting now, he wasn’t sure why he even had the shop open.

“I can’t get chains,” he said. “I can’t get spokes to build wheels. I’ve been buying components from Asia, shady stuff, and sometimes it shows up and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s awfully hard to do service without any parts.”

I should, at this point, betray a strongly held prejudice. I believe the future of cycling as a pastime depends on a strong network of local bike shops, places where people can get bikes better suited to them than the ones they pick off the Internet for themselves, where mechanics who know how to set those bikes up can do so, and where cycling communities can gather for all of the reasons its important to gather. I know that not every shop is a welcoming home, and I know that many of our readers are proficient mechanics already. What I’m saying is that local bike hubs are instrumental in bringing new folks into cycling AND an important resource for established riders.

I don’t know how many shops I’ve worked with in total, hundreds in the US and plenty abroad as well. Qualitatively they run the gamut. Some great. Some pretty bad. But no one, I mean no one, opens a bike shop without loving bikes and believing on some level that helping people ride more is a noble way to make a living.

Most of the people I know out their in bikeland made good money in 2020, despite all the challenges of lockdowns, sanitization, mask wearing, higher demand, and a certain amount of helplessness from their supply chain partners. And now they all have wary eye on 2021.

How long the pandemic-driven interest in outdoor exercise will continue to drive bike sales remains to be seen, but no one I know is anticipating a drop off. Neither are they expecting supply chains to smooth out before the end of the year. A worst case scenario perhaps is local guidelines slackening enough to let customers back into the shops, but their supply of bikes and parts still being razor thin. The tightest strictures of virus management at least gave them a way to keep demanding customers at arm’s length.

The good news is that, in 2020, your LBS probably made good money and that the demand for bikes and all things cycling is booming. The bad news is that supply chains are stretched and in many cases broken, which leaves your local shop with fewer ways to take advantage.

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  1. Jeff vdD says

    Emlyn, and sense of whether 2021 shortages will swamp the 2020 boom? I worry that while the latter was great while it lasted, that it won’t have lasted long enough.

    1. Emlyn Lewis says

      Jeff, my fear, in talking to shop owners is that they’ll begin hoarding parts. They already have. And once they tip over into hoarding it will be harder for everyone to deliver bikes. I’ve already heard horror stories of nearly built bikes languishing in service areas just waiting for one or two essential parts, and that leaves the shops in a bad cash flow situation. The counteracting influence is that vendors aren’t really pushing pre-seasons, which means shops have more cash on hand. We’ll see how it plays out.

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