Bike shops busier than ever, but owners worry about stock supply issues
Pete Lilly of Sweet Pete's Bike Shop poses in front of his store in Toronto on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, May 23, 2020 3:05PM EDT
Hundred of bikes once hung from the vertical racks at Sweet Pete's. More bikes stood side-by-side on the floor.
Now, there are a lot of empty hooks and plenty of floor space.
It might seem as if business is booming at the store amid COVID-19. After all, more and more Canadians are looking to pedal power over public transit during the global pandemic, and parents are buying bikes for their cooped-up kids.
But owner Pete Lilly, who has three Sweet Pete's shops in Toronto, is concerned about the company's future. Because while bikes are leaving the store, few are coming in.
“It looks and feels like we're going out of business,” Lilly said. “The cupboards are bare.”
Lilly's store in west Toronto has stocked as many as 700 bikes at a time. Now, he has about 300. He's closed his other two Toronto stores both due to staffing issues and a lack of merchandise largely caused by the global manufacturing lockdown.
“All the factories are back online now, but the lead times are so long that whatever we have right now is as much as we're going to have until July,” said Lilly, who has owned Sweet Pete's since 1997. “So it's a little bit grim when you look up and down the row, and you're like, 'Wow, I'm used to seeing this stuffed with bikes and having a basement full of backup, and being able to call a supplier and have something here tomorrow, or two or three days if it's coming from Vancouver.'
“Now, you go on all these business-to-business websites, and all you see are zeros. They're out of bikes, and we're getting close to being out of bikes.”
As experienced riders drag their old wheels out of storage to the shops for repair, and novice cyclists desperately search for a new bike with the perfect fit, some bike shop owners say customers may have to be patient as stock issues get sorted.
Will Arnold has owned Experience Cycling in Duncan, B.C., 60 kilometres north of Victoria, since 1995. He said he's never been so busy.
“When COVID first hit, for two weeks we were very quiet. And then it just came unglued,” Arnold said.
His store averages about $177,000 in April. Last month? Sales topped $287,000.
“This is the best I've ever seen our cash flow and I hope it continues,” Arnold said. “The bike business, don't get me wrong, it's profitable but the margins are slipping every year.”
But bikes, he said, are scarce. He's down about 300 bikes from the usual 800 he normally carries, and he's had to turn some customers away, including a long-term patron who he referred to a store in Victoria.
“All the hardtail, entry-level bikes and kid bikes are sold out,” Arnold said. “We have some kids' bikes coming next month, but our hardtails that we rely on are not being shipped into Canada until August.”
Olympic wrestling champion Erica Wiebe joined the bike brigade a couple of weeks into Calgary's lockdown. The Tokyo Games were postponed to 2021 shortly after Wiebe locked up her Olympic berth, and with no events to train for, or access to training facilities, Wiebe bought a white Liv Avail SL performance bike off Kijiji.
“Biking outdoors on a road bike has always been something that was a little bit scary for me,” said Wiebe, who does a lot of indoor training on a stationary bike. “But I thought, you know what? I'm not wrestling right now.
“And there's a lot of fun aspects of road cycling, like the adrenaline of hitting a bump and thinking you're going to die,” she laughed. “I'm all in. . . this summer is dedicated to just building my aerobic base and having fun on the bike.”
The 30-year-old Wiebe, who's been logging about 100 kilometres a week, stood in a long lineup outside a Calgary bike shop recently. The mom in front of her told sales staff she was interested in bikes for her two kids. The sales person brought out two bikes. Sold.
Shop owners say kids' bikes, and entry-level commuter and mountain bikes are among the hottest sellers.
And with much of the manufacturing done in Asia, where COVID-19 brought the business to its knees, the distribution channel is churning in slow motion. Delivery, whether it's by ground, sea or air, has slowed to a virtual halt.
How long would it take a bike coming off the assembly line today to arrive in a store in Canada?
“It could be as long as six months,” Lilly said.
Ben Cowie, who owns London Bicycle Cafe, said even getting bikes from companies outside Asia is difficult.
But he has a company mantra for this unique coronavirus sales season: “Bikes aren't cancelled.”
While he's had to shut down the cafe side of his store, he's optimistic about his bicycle business, despite the void of stock.
“We're a little smaller, and through a fluke and happy accident we did a lot of our ordering early this season. So we're actually in pretty good shape in terms of inventory,” he said. “I know I can't reorder stuff, so basically, what I have is what I have. If I can't get your size, it's not here.”
All three shops are also swamped doing bike repairs. Arnold said he's seen customers bring in bikes they've long neglected, including a man last week who hadn't ridden his bike in 10 years.
Cowie's London, Ont., shop pivoted by developing a mobile bike station that allows his staff to fix bikes in customers' own driveways, “so we're not sharing tools, we're not working in the same space, people aren't coming and going in and out of the shop... really trying to use this as an opportunity to do things better.”
With demand at an all-time high, and incoming stock almost non-existent, owners also say some customers' tempers are flaring, making their jobs all the more difficult even though they're working harder than ever.
Arnold said a man in his store “tore a strip off” him last week. “I said 'Sir, I'm sorry, but I'm human and we're trying.' We're so behind and the phone's ringing off the hook. You're saying to them, 'Look, we're trying to get to your bike, but it's just a no.' So that's hard when they hear that.”
His staff, Arnold said, is working late and skipping lunch breaks.
Lilly said he hasn't taken a day off since it started.
“We're pleading with people,” Lilly said, “to be patient with us during a pandemic because we're doing our best.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2020.