What next for the Bicycle Dealers’ Association?

For those tuning in to the CyclingIndustry.News website throughout September the Bicycle Dealers’ Association will not be a new name, but just in case you’re hearing it for the first time, the UK bike market has a new retail group. CI.N quizzes one of the founding members, Phil Cavell, on what happens next…

For the time being The Bicycle Dealers’ Association is best described as a pressure group made up of independent bike shops who feel as though they’ve not had a voice on a number of key issues to date.

“This is in a sense reminiscent of what book shops went through when they fought back against the raw deal they were getting in the face of Amazon’s ascent,” says Phil Cavell, one of many retailers behind the BDA, but by no means the face of the Association.

But is this a true association, or will this be a single issue pressure group that disappears as others have before once the dust settles?

“I think it has to become that,” says Cavell, “otherwise there’s good odds history will repeat and we will find ourselves without somebody at the table when the next key issue affecting independent bike shops arises. That’s been the problem, it’s our own fault that we’ve let things like the Cycle to Work scheme steam roll us to a degree. We have not had a cohesive and collective voice to bring to discussions that directly affect our trade.”

As documented, for now it is the Cycle to Work scheme in the crosshairs of the pressure group. Cavell says that a brief radio silence is not an indication that interest in pursuing the structure of the scheme and what third-party facilitators gain in commission is over. In fact, in the background there’s apparently plenty bubbling away (at the time of writing a Change.org petition has 95 signatures calling for an overhaul to legislation). By late October heading on for 200 independent retailers had expressed an interest in backing the BDA’s efforts, we were told.

“We would prefer to have some progressive discussions with Cycle to Work scheme providers, it would be easier to do it now rather than wait until we have 1,500 signed in support. There’s not a independent bike dealer in the land that is going to say no to a sensible revision of the scheme, so it’d be beneficial to all parties to start the conversation right away,” say Cavell.

(Editor’s note: It has not been confirmed, but CyclingIndustry.News has since been informed that the olive branch extended initially may not have been taken up. More on that later)

As most will have seen, Cyclescheme did produce a new position statement at the end of September having apparently been drawn to the negotiating table by four leading bike labels in a discussion mediated by the Bicycle Association. It was following this that Cyclescheme released a statement stating that from November 1st it would reduce its commission to a level more familiar to years gone by; 8.33% excluding VAT on all bikes, accessories and helmets. Furthermore, no commission will be taken beyond that redeemed on the first £3,000 of the ticket price, meaning those selling electric bikes and high-end commuter models will not be penalised harshly.

Bike retailers were largely unmoved by this reduction, however, and many questioned why no retailers were present at the table earlier this year. While some welcomed progress others commented on how the scheme is fundamentally set up and largely unavailable to those who need it most; for example the unemployed, a population now sadly swelling.

“There’s two people paying for this scheme, the UK taxpayer and the bike retailer, I don’t think penalising the independent was part of the initial intention,” says Cavell. “Therefore, the Government has to review things and ask is this how we intended things to work? If not, then reform is due. Whether that comes from the top down or bottom up is now the issue. I should add that the quick revision from Cyclescheme has been noted, but that’s not the end of this. It’s not just that offering, Halfords has been harsher still to retail partners and stayed quiet in this episode. Now the whole sector needs to be reset and to deliver that from the bottom up the only way possible is be in the room. That’s why we are growing our base.”

Asked whether the Bicycle Dealers’ Association felt the Bicycle Association’s bid to mediate discussion had been fruitful, Cavell had praise for the organisation, but remained determined that without independents directly represented work would continue to press ahead on this and other issues.

“I believe the BA had the best of intentions. I’m happy for them to be at the table, though the root of the organisation lies with the manufacturers, so I maintain the retailers must have a voice in this. We’ve had discussions but no formal invite to discussions yet,” starts Cavell. “They must be credited, I think, with their lobbying effort on behalf of the retailer to keep us open as an essential service through the pandemic, for that truly has helped the bicycle industry flourish, in particular it’s given bike shops a chance to demonstrate to Government just how essential we are to the transport mix going forwards.”

It is here that we get a sense for where the future of the BDA may lie. Cavell goes on to say he felt pride in how bike shops delivered or their communities during the world’s darkest hour in recent history.

“To a degree this rise in militancy here is down to our desire to protect an essential service for this country. All through the pandemic our stores were open, delivering bikes to key workers, keeping people moving and happy. What service did the online giants that cause the industry so many problems deliver during that time for their communities? The local bike shop was essential and needs to be protected,” he says.

It is at this point imagery is conjured of customers rolling direct to consumer bought bikes in to stores, something Cavell likewise flags as an area where bike shops like his may feel exploited.

“This remains a live issue and something independent bike shops should have a discussion on to create cohesion in policy. Every time an online bought groupset is brought in you take on liability, give advice for nothing and take on the labour. Thereafter it is somewhat your responsibility to maintain this for the customer. What is a fair policy and remuneration for this for the local bike shop? I don’t think that’s been discussed enough.”

Though the backing for the debut message is strengthening, it does not come without its own risks if not well managed. As it stands the BDA is a young organisation made up of time-strapped bike shops. As has been seen previously with retail groups that have come and gone, the strain on a figurehead can be significant and so the BDA is likely to begin dishing out responsibility over time. Asked whether it will eventually become a paid up service representing the bike shops, Cavell says “We’re not there yet, but most likely it will if we are to run a campaign akin to what the book trade saw.

“One of our founding members, Andrew Hutchings of Cotswold Cycles, was very involved in the Book Sellers’ Association, so he has been through this with book shops. In terms of bringing in right legal structure he’s been there and done it, but obviously such things have a cost. In the grand scheme of things it will not a huge amount of money required and the benefits we shall shoot for will outweigh the costs.”

Responsibility will have to be shared if the group is to succeed and the notion that having somebody at the table for every discussion is critical to success and indicative of a need for leadership. While a handful of shops have thus far shouldered the responsibility of data collection and pushing emails back and forth to coordinate the next steps, there is gap to fill in meeting the workload head on. In feeling out the shape of things to come there is a sense that fluidity exists as the network comes to understand what ingredients will be required to give the group clout. Will it stick to business issues, or will it branch in to advocacy? Perhaps it could become a buying group as has been seen on mainland Europe with Germany’s ZEG, which in 2014 packed enough clout to buy brands from the Accell Group.

Cavell again focuses the conversation around the debutant issue, highlighting that such buying groups have tended to fail in the UK previously, though adding that it never hurts to have a communal hand at the table, so it cannot be ruled out.

“I don’t necessarily need somebody to negotiate with suppliers for me, but an overarching body is useful. It balances power in discussion. 1,500 voices all saying aye, that has a lot of power.”

For the time being then, there is no diverting the Bicycle Dealers’ Association attention from the issue at hand. It is hoped that the issue of how the Cycle to Work Scheme functions could be raised in Parliament by an MP sympathetic to small businesses under strain. Bets have been hedged that this strategy is the correct one. It does indeed appear to have been noted, as seen in our latest print issue interview with Labour MP Ruth Cadbury.

As put by Cavell “I don’t think they are going to scrap the scheme as the bike industry has really shown its worth lately, with refinement of this legislation everyone stands to benefit. The Cycle to Work sector requires us to sell the idea enthusiastically on the shop floor. If a retailer is not keen it won’t do as well and that translates up through the chain in sales. No one is enthusiastic of losing 15% margin. Once this is resolved then we can become passionate sales people and advocates.”