What difference can bike shops make to cycling advocacy efforts?

In grassroots cycling advocacy potentially lays the foundation of the next boom for bike riding. Graeme Hart, Owner of Harts Cyclery explains how he came to be involved in bike advocacy and how being a voice for the every day cyclist benefits his trade…

We’re curious on the inner-city trends in Scotland. What has been selling well in Edinburgh and what are the drivers?

In terms of bikes, my biggest seller is Gazelle. Overall, it’s a pretty even mix of regular and e-Bikes. I’ve promoted them a lot and it’s a brand that totally fits my cycle advocacy and belief in citizen cycling. I also do well with the other well-recognised brands carried; that’s Kona, Focus and Cinelli, while for the children with shift loads of Squish bikes. I stock Puky, too, which are lovely bikes, but are more of an acquired taste in the current UK kid’s market.

The general trend is probably e-bikes, though. Both Gazelle and Focus have strong offerings that have sold well.

Bike trends aside, retail has been chopping and changing trends quite aggressively in recent years – how have you altered the structure of your biz in recent years?

Bluntly, I don’t have a structure, I don’t have a plan. I’m just a straight up, small, local bike shop and I fly by the seat of my pants. There is still a strong business model in just being a good local bike shop with a good retail and service offering.

I read a lot on what’s going on in the industry and in transport, I go to trade shows. I get a feel for things and take it from there. I have about 20 bikes on display and some run-of-the-mill P&A. I have two complete work benches and stands and a wall stand for bike builds out the box. I sell what I believe in and what I race and ride. I believe in bikes (specifically, normal people on everyday bikes) and quality product and service. The rest flows from there. I have myself (owner/mechanic), one full-time mechanic, Frank, and two part-time shop assistants; Danny and Cammy.

To what extent are consumer buying habits changing in your part of the world and does that weigh on your approach?

I think the main reason people choose me is reputation, locally. Many are keen to support a good local business. I do get customers from further afield for particular brands, Gazelle, in particular.

I try not to worry too much about price, in the sense that quality speaks for itself and there are no shortcuts. I used to sell cheaper adult bikes, but it’s not worth it when the quality isn’t there. My adult bikes really start at £500 and when you talk to people they do get it. I always point out that their toddler’s branded Micro Scooter is £120.

With Edinburgh being a hotspot for tourism, particularly around New Year and Fringe Festival, how do you promote your hire biz to tourists?

Honestly, I don’t really. There are a number of big hotels near me (one directly opposite) so I get a lot of walk-ins for hire and I get a few email bookings, too. We now have a Cycle Hire scheme in the city, which is excellent. We’re also the nearest independent shop to the airport, so I also get a lot of bike builds from the tourists that have flown in, just because of our Google Maps listing. There’s bikes out of boxes that the owners need some help with, or bikes that have been damaged in transit, we get them all.

You have some form on the cycling advocacy front, how have you made progress where it’s seemingly very tough going?

Really, I couldn’t tell you what industry at large in the UK is doing. I hope that lots is going on behind closed doors, but in almost seven years since opening, I haven’t heard a peep publicly from any big hitters in UK industry.

Chris Boardman has been an absolute hero and what he’s achieved in terms of shifting the debate and now what he has planned in Manchester is great (saying that, he really needs to make a proper, practical bike).

Most of the good stuff is coming from advocates and campaigners. Twitter is an incredibly powerful tool for local politics and all the doors that have opened for me have come about from engagement on Twitter (Community Council, City Councillors, Senior Council officials, even MSPs and MPs). Although, credit where it’s due, whoever it was that lobbied to get bicycle shops included in the list of exempt shops during the Coronavirus restrictions (the BA, I believe) might just have done the biggest thing for cycling in the UK in a generation.

What was the outcome of your efforts and how did it mobilise others?

All really positive. I have been included as a stakeholder in a number of infrastructure projects and, incredibly, I seem to have become a respected voice in Edinburgh cycling advocacy. Councillors and junior and senior officials ask my opinion on things, in private and publicly. It feels kind of ridiculous. There are several local campaigners and one group in particular (Spokes) who are absolute heroes who have taught me a lot in terms of being less mouthy and more considered. Knowing your facts and being taken seriously gets results. That would be my lesson to others.

To what extent is a changing mobility demand an opportunity for shops that lead the way on the discussion?

All I see in modern urbanism are opportunities for the bike industry. The age of the motor car (ICE or electric) in our urban spaces is over. Bikes and e-Bikes (and cargo bikes) will be a massive part of urban mobility in this century, but we really need the politicians to get on and build infrastructure.

Making cycling safe for children and families (and adults who don’t like traffic) is the biggest challenge the trade faces. If you look at the economics and practicalities of electric cars it doesn’t add up. Not everyone in a flat can have a charging cable out to their car. These people need mass transit and, for local, personal mobility, they need bikes. Manufacturers need to keep making a good product at a good price (which they are excellent at doing by and large), but they need people on bikes and that means one thing in our town and cities: infrastructure.

I’m non-plussed about e-Scooters. Yes, they are a type of urban mobility, but they are no bikes. They don’t go very far, you can’t carry weight or kids on them, they don’t give you a workout or any health benefit. We don’t have an underground in Edinburgh, so being able to fold something up and carry it with you isn’t that big a deal. If you don’t have to pedal it (with the exception of balance bikes), I’m not that interested, to be honest.

In recent months we have reported the closure of chain stores, online giants struggling with profit and more. Once the Coronavirus dust settles, might the independent sector have new opportunity to attract customers?

Yes, I very much think so. The nationals are competing with their own websites which are discounting – total madness. It’s almost like fancy, expensive high street stores with big overheads and low margins aren’t profitable. Who knew?

Low-overheads and agility are name of the game; that combined with a lean, expert workforce (sales and mechanics) and good product selection mean that independents can offer what their local customers really want. I can’t see a good reason why people won’t be on their bikes more than ever this year. Bikes will be used for local transport more and there won’t be much flying off on foreign holidays this year – people will be in the UK and using their bikes to explore and keep fit.

Before we talk about the challenges, what opportunities lie ahead for bike retailer that’s both agile and plans long-term?

The beauty of being independent and agile; you don’t need to worry about planning long-term. The only important thing in that regard is your location. Is there a solid market where you are? Yes? Well, then you’re good to go. All that means is population, really. The appeal of bikes is universal; find enough people in one place and you’ll find enough people that need bikes. The market and trends may drift slightly from year to year, but people will always need bikes of some form another. They will always need their bikes fixed and serviced. They need expertise and product available locally and that’s what independents do. Believe it or not, the vast majority of us do it really well.

How big a part of trade do things like cycle to work, finance business, bike fitting and other means of getting revenue in represent nowadays?

A rethink could be in order for some of those aspects of trade.

The cycle to work scheme is appealing to customers, obviously; they save money and they get a bike. But it’s unappealing to retailers; we lose margin and, personally, I have an issue with how regressive a benefit it is. Those that earn the most save the most, at our expense, and that’s not right. Don’t get me wrong, the schemes are well administered and they do drive some sales, but the incentives are all wrong.

Finance is important. I use V12 and the Scottish Government’s interest-free e-Bike loan scheme has driven a lot of sales. I must say, I haven’t done a lot V12 lately. A lot of people just seem to be buying bikes on credit cards and sorting out their finances themselves, certainly below £2,000.

I really do believe in the traditional model of the local bicycle shop, though. Bike are getting more complex and more diverse and people need their bike shops more than ever. Bike shops have been going strong for 150 years – we don’t need gimmicks. Some will fail and some will struggle, but that’s true of all business, regardless of market trends. It’s a model that just works.

If you would like to take to cycling advocacy, CI.N has collated a library of research and data that you can use to help bolster your case for investment.