Ask the trade: How are bike shops adapting to low stock availability?

It’s fair to say that how you react when a crisis hits can define your future. Still managing unprecedented low stock issues for the bike trade we ask a panel of retailers their methods for navigating the current choppy waters…

low stock panel

What was your strategy when the reality of the low stock availability became apparent?

Tim Astley, Berwick Cycles

If I’m honest, it took time to develop a coherent response. Things took off and moved so fast it was difficult to keep up. It wasn’t until the first lockdown restrictions eased that we were able to put ourselves on anything like an even keel.

When it was clear we were going to be short of bikes, probably by early summer 2020, we assessed how our key suppliers were reacting and realised we needed to cast our net wider in order to try and secure what stock there was. This meant untested sources and we had to work very much on what little we knew about those new suppliers and what we could glean from others. Our guiding principle was not to compromise on quality. This approach helped us a little bit, but we’ve never returned to our pre-pandemic stock levels.

Jake Voelcker, BicycleWorks 

We basically did three things:

Firstly, we placed large forward orders so that our supply of components is assured, even 24 months ahead from some suppliers. This means we’ve been hit a lot less hard than some other bike brands.

Second of all, we improved our stock control systems and website so that it gives real-time availability information to the staff and to customers. I think it’s really important to keep customers informed and to communicate all the supply issues honestly, and when we do this people have been amazingly patient and understanding about any delays.

Lastly, we came up with contingency plans for alternative components, and even alternative bike models, depending on what stock is available and what the market demands. So far, we’ve not made any drastic changes, but it’s good to know that we have a plan B if it’s needed!

Jon Colborne, The Bike Inn

We had to make some calculated decisions. We needed to ensure as far as possible that we had on hand the parts we were most likely to need, without panic buying or stock piling which might leave us with a costly over-stock situation. We were also aware that reduced supply and increased demand could lead to inflated prices. Whilst we have long established relationships with many of the major brands, we knew that we couldn’t expect any special treatment – everyone was in the same boat!

We began by reviewing stock used over the previous 18 months, comparing this to what we held, and attempting to anticipate what we might need for the foreseeable future. As soon as anything was used, we would replace it as fast as possible. This often meant casting our searches wider and wider, and investigating new suppliers and marketplaces as various parts became more scarce.

We also sought alternative ways to achieve the same professional outcome – using our creativity to deliver different solutions for our client’s problems.

Willy Bain, Bicycle Repair
Bicycle shops had exemption to stay open, so that was the point where I asked what could sell out and adapted accordingly. My first thoughts were nitrile gloves, masks etc. Then I assumed stock of inner tubes, tyres, freewheels, chains, cassettes would reduce quickly.

What I didn’t predict was the upper end stuff disappearing so quickly, with no replacement options.  A customer needed a certain brake calliper recently. March 2022 is the next available stock, so he ended up buying one from a private seller on eBay at twice the retail price, with no warranty.  At least now stock does appear to be filtering through, and all praise to suppliers.

How are you adapting to the harsh climate of low availability – have you adapted the business at all to cope?

Tim Astley, Berwick Cycles

It has been essential to adapt. As well as broadening our supplier reach, we have stepped up our proactive customer communication to ensure that expectations are managed as much as possible. Customers have generally responded positively. I’ve been surprised by the different ways our suppliers have reacted. Some have been keen to demonstrate their continued commitment to small IBDs by allocating available volume and running a strict queuing system. Others, unfortunately, have either struggled to cope themselves, or have chosen to devote supplies to the biggest bidders, effectively freezing out the small shops. I think this will contribute to a re-shaping of the retail bike trade in the longer term.

Jake Voelcker, BicycleWorks 

In the medium to long-term we plan to source more stock from Europe, or even the UK. Many of the Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers still have long lead-times, and shipping costs are high (and look like they may remain that way), so it makes sense to source as much stock as possible from more local manufacturers. This is something we’ve been wanting to do for a long time for reasons of cutting down on transport and carbon emissions, and now it looks like the Covid pandemic has accelerated the process.

Jon Colborne, The Bike Inn

For the workshop side of the business, one of our most creative adaptations has seen us manufacturing parts in-house where necessary. We are fortunate to have a lathe and a milling machine, as well as the skill and experience to use them, at our disposal – and we have certainly been glad of this additional resource.

As well as our in-house workshop, we had to have a radical rethink when it came to our bicycle mechanics training school – our doors had been closed for five months during the first lockdown, so providing an alternative route for learning and qualification became critical.

We began generating our own recorded lessons, as well as offering virtual classrooms and masterclasses, alongside theoretical material, to ensure our students could still receive the crucial interaction with their tutors that makes learning so much more effective. This has meant that many future mechanics have been able to start their training whilst still in lockdown, putting them half-way towards their goal ready for when the travel restrictions were lifted.

Willy Bain, Bicycle Repair
Late nights! I was on one of my suppliers’ websites at 11.45pm recently. I saw four nine-speed chains available, then I saw some 11-speed and basic eight speed chains available. I didn’t want to be too greedy so tried to process that and the website froze. Back at 2.00 am, no joy. The order processed at 7.45am. The nine-speed chains never turned up, but the others did. That’s the reality of looking for stock.