Bike Shops and the Pandemic: A Case Study in Crisis Management

We all knew the pandemic was coming earlier this year. I had always thought it would play out as it does in the movies, where an unsuspecting public has no time to react. In reality, the government did not try to mitigate the spread by taking action early on, there was no search for Patient Zero (if there ever was one), and there was no large-scale effort of locking down points of entry before it was too late. Twelve weeks in, we know that the reactions of local communities are the ones that have had the most impact. We have learned during this time that people do not do what we expect them to do. The only way to survive this disaster is to manage and mitigate, rather than try and stop it.

The way the virus affected the population in California was very uneven. The Bay Area, those counties in the San Francisco economic sphere, were the hardest hit. These counties were locked down first by their respective health departments, about two weeks before governor Gavin Newsom issued the statewide order. In effect, it was an experiment that would ultimately lay the groundwork for the rest of the state. Which businesses that could stay open were, in fact, one of the primary takeaways from these initial orders.

I manage a bike shop in Santa Barbara, California. When faced with a looming lockdown, the shop owner and the management team got together and reasoned out how — and more importantly — why we should stay open. We weighed the pros and cons. We did our critical thinking. We took into account everything we could think of regarding the safety of our customers and employees.

The decision by many bike shops in the country that they were essential services drew both praise and criticism. The governor’s statewide stay-at-home order did not specifically mention bike shops in the essential transportation guidelines. To be clear, neither did those of the county nor the city of Santa Barbara. The earlier Bay Area county lockdown orders initially did not mention them either. However, after a day or two into those lockdowns, the mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles, along with the Santa Clara County Health Department declared that bike shops were indeed, essential.

Governor Newsom’s order also specified that people needed to exercise to maintain their health and happiness. I admit that was confusing at the time: why would we get a stay-at-home order, only to be told it was okay to go outside? As we know very well now, that when faced with a crisis, the desire for everything to be normal is powerful. Psychologically, we all have a need to be outside. We are social animals, and it is in our nature to resist confinement.

There was some initial push-back within our circles. A very few but very vocal people opined that we were trying to profit from the crisis. As a kneejerk reaction, this seems logical simply because of the optics. However, choosing to run a bike shop, especially during a crisis, is a commitment to bikes, not pure profit. For the uninformed, most local bike shops run on a shallow profit margin. To assume that any gains brought by a pandemic will go solely to the owner rather than back into the shop itself is incorrect. Our detractors made it seem like the management was celebrating in top hats and monocles, spilling champagne on our tuxedos, doing the Charleston. At the same time, our workers toiled in a coronavirus-infested retail space. That visual is wrong. Period. Full stop.

We cannot control people’s perceptions. What we could do was be transparent. Our reasons for remaining open were a) to provide jobs for people who needed to work, b) to provide essential transportation services, and c) to ensure that the members of our community could get the bikes and equipment they needed to get outside and exercise.

The rush on bikes was another story. At first, I thought that that we would see a marked decrease in customer activity. Maybe people would trickle in on their way to essential activities like grocery shopping. Maybe we would get to repair a few essential workers’ bikes. I was naïve enough to believe, wrongly as it turned out, that most people would try and isolate themselves at home.

Quite the opposite. Foot traffic increased, by orders of magnitude. Both sales and service were seeing huge numbers. Tune-ups and repairs were soon weeks in backlog. It became evident that the majority of the people coming to the shop were not essential workers. Instead, it was the work-from-home crowd, the newly unemployed and furloughed, and their families that were dying to get outside. It still blows my mind.

Entering into spring, a period which traditionally sees increased bike sales and service needs, denying these requests would only have exacerbated the problems of dealing with such significant customer demand. For instance, if we closed, the customers would possibly (but not probably) wait for us to reopen. More likely, other bike shops would have to take on the extra load of customers that we did not help. That would only serve to increase the chances that more people would be visiting the same areas at the same time. It seemed to us that staying open would help prevent that.

The first few weeks were difficult. We were continually experimenting with how many people we could let in at one time. Our sales floor and service department were not designed for social distancing. We adjusted by allowing only one or two people into the shop. Lines began to form. Some blamed us for making their lives hard. Most people still hadn’t accepted masks as an everyday thing. There was a lot of friction on the customer service front. “Inconvenience” was a word repeated many times (among other words).

Eventually, we hit our stride and developed a system that works. We ended up closing the sales floor and service department to customers. We purchased some handheld point-of-sale equipment and began helping people outside. Because we were quickly depleting our new bike inventory, and we needed to store the backlog service bikes somewhere, closing the sales floor helped to solve that problem. We are fortunate enough to have a front patio with plenty of bike racks. We placed a cross-section of the types of bikes we carry outside so we could begin a conversation without letting customers inside. We also brought bikes out for test rides. We erected a tent in our parking lot, so our mechanics could inspect bikes and check in repairs.

Early on in the crisis, we were also able to launch our e-commerce website. We were fortunate to have it nearly complete before the pandemic hit. It was just a matter of getting our inventory system and the site to sync. After 12 weeks of lockdown, we have developed a system whereby we can effectively help customers, stay safe and clean, and continue getting the community the bikes and accessories they want.

There is a bright side. People are now used to all of this. Customers know what to expect when they come to a shop that won’t let them inside. For most of them, they wait patiently and wear a mask when asked to do so. We don’t hear “inconvenience” (or the other words) nearly as often. Most importantly, none of us have tested positive for COVID-19. Our staff is well educated and will isolate themselves if they think they are putting the rest of us in danger.

Since the lockdown started on March 19 of this year, many bike shops have sold more bikes than ever before. At our shop, we are selling them as fast as we can build them. Fortunately, most bike companies, especially those we deal with, are still on track to release the next year’s models. Some of them have been arriving already.

The question of whether bike shops are essential services or not is moot. If, by some rare occurrence of mutual agreement, all the bike shops in the country agreed to close at the beginning of the pandemic, people would have found other ways to enjoy their time outside. Sure, there are risks of getting infected, even while in motion. But with the local trails crowded with hikers, people jogging in the middle of the street to avoid other pedestrians, you just cannot fight human nature. As for the question: did we put our business ahead of people’s safety? Absolutely not. There are closer interactions between people at the grocery store and in their own homes than there are at our shop. If anything, we believe that we contributed to our customers’ ability to better cope with this crisis.

Riding a bike is awesome. But there is still a lot more to be done before this is over. We know it is difficult to do as we are not the authority on the pandemic, but please take our advice: Please think of others when you hear the latest pandemic numbers. Avoid riding or exercising in groups, wear a mask whenever you can, and sanitize whenever possible. This crisis will end, but not without these minor inconveniences to our daily lives.

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