Changing gears: How COVID-19 could lead to a permanent shift for Aussie bike stores

Washington Cyclisme Bicycle Store Brendan Washington

Washington Cyclisme Bicycle Store co-owner Brendan Washington. Source: supplied.`

For most small businesses, the outbreak of COVID-19 in Australia spelt uncertainty at best, and a real threat to survival at worst. For independent bike stores, that reality was no different.

But, come April, consumers are looking for new hobbies and new ways to get out of the house. And so, despite a wobbly start to coronavirus season, business at bike stores is getting back on track.

Ryan Bilszta, owner of Samson Cycles in Brunswick, Melbourne, tells SmartCompany when the virus first hit “everyone was scared”.

The business had had a decent March, he says, but that was before the effects of the virus really set in.

“Economically, I had written off April,” he says.

“The first few days of April were petrifying, as a business owner,” he adds.

But, just a week into this month, it became clear he had nothing to worry about.

“It exploded,” Bilszta says.

“It’s been our busiest month on record.”

The business imports parts, manufactures bikes and sells directly to consumers. Bilszta’s business model is based on keeping prices low, and he believes that may have made a difference in terms of his sales at this time.

Either way, “I didn’t see it coming”, he says.

“We’ve been under the pump, massively.”

There’s been no real trend to the demographic of people coming in, Bilszta says. People don’t seem to be buying bikes because they want to avoid public transport, as he initially anticipated.

What he has noticed is suppliers running out of accessories like baby seats, and fewer “tyre-kickers”.

People come into the store with a purpose, and that is to leave with a bike.

“Ninety per cent of people who come into the shop are buying something,” he says.

“Before, the ratio was completely different.”

For Bilszta, this is Christmas come early. Or more literally, Christmas come late.

“Christmas used to be the holy grail of the calendar year for bike shop owners,” he explains.

“But, because retail has suffered in the last three or four years, Christmas hasn’t been what it used to be.

“This is like the resurgence of Christmas from 10 years ago. We’re coming off a busy summer, and now we’re going into Christmas in April.”

“Dead quiet”

The story hasn’t been quite so clear cut everywhere. In Wodonga, in north east Victoria, Brendan Washington runs Washington Cyclisme with his wife Anna Fogarty.

There, it’s not quite the same demographic as in the city, Washington tells SmartCompany.

And in the first few weeks of the pandemic period, “it was dead quiet”.

Washington’s two stores are boutique — focused on high-end bikes and repairs, he explains.

“We’re not the run-of-the-mill big box bike shops,” he says.

As repairs and servicing provide the main source of income for the business, he tends to judge how well things are going by the number of bikes he has waiting to be tended to.

One Friday “before the panic set in”, there were 72 bikes in the shop.

“Four weeks after that, we had 12,” he adds.

“That’s pretty scary as a small business.”

The business has five casual staff members, and a second, smaller shop in the nearby town of Yackandandah.

While he’s trying to keep each staff member on board with at least one shift a week, he’s had to basically close the Yackandandah shop, opening just one day a week.

However, now we’re some six weeks weeks into the new world of COVID-19, Washington says he has seen some improvement. Enquiries about new bikes are starting to creep up, and he’s also getting bookings for repair jobs at both stores.

“With the cases up here relatively low, people are not as tense and not as scared,” he muses.

And, having been stuck inside for a few weeks, “they’re probably running out of things to do”.

“People are pulling their old bikes out of the shed to get them fixed,” he says.

Enquiries have also picked up from families, he notes. People are looking for bikes for mum, dad and the kids.

Washington, who bikes to work every day himself, says he has noticed there are more cyclists on the road — something that clearly bodes well for the business.

But, even if they’re not buying bikes from him, he’s glad they’re buying them somewhere.

“We might not be able to offer a bike for $400, but if another shop does, and then the person lives within our area, that’s future sales and services for us,” he adds.

Changing gears

Australian-born online marketplace BikeExchange is designed to connect consumers with retail cycle stores, and chief executive Mark Watkin tells SmartCompany he’s seen a noticeable increase in interest since the COVID-19 restrictions came into place.

In Australia, the business has already seen a 200% increase in sales revenue compared to April last year — and there’s still more than a week of the month left.

“Everything that we know and love about cycling is actually emphasised in this unfortunate period,” he says.

“It’s a sport and recreation, and a mode of transport … a lot of people have re-tapped into that.”

And it’s not only an Aussie trend. BikeExchange is in eight markets around the world, and the business is largely seeing the same trend in all of them.

In Germany, for example, April sales revenues are up 400% in April so far. Most of those sales are new bikes, Watkin says, as opposed to parts or accessories.

While the coronavirus outbreak has given cycling businesses a bit of an unexpected boost, Watkin believes this could be the kicker for a longer-standing change to the industry.

Cities all over the world are trying to be more cyclist-friendly, and implementing greener infrastructure. The e-bike trend was also already taking off.

To state the obvious, the uptick in sales means once all this is over, many more people will be in possession of a bike.

When restrictions are lifted, it will be interesting to observe how consumers’ habits change, Watkin notes.

“There will be a long-tail effect,” he predicts.

“We’re more likely to see an accelerated switch to cycling in day-to-day lives.”

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