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.

In Defense of (Relatively) Cheap Bikes

2017 Specialized Allez E5 Sport

2016 Specialized Allez E5 Sport

I spend quite a bit of my time riding, working on and thinking about bicycles. Most every conversation I have about bicycles involves some sort of cost associated with the subject bicycle. The dollar amounts spoken of may be of certain components, the entire bike, or cost to worth ratios (otherwise known as bang for your buck).

Let’s talk road bikes for a second. I think we can boil down the average prospective customer into three camps: 1) rides really expensive bicycles and thinks it is worth it to ride super nice bikes; 2) is surprised at how expensive bikes have become but really wants to ride; and 3) has a modest budget, would rather not spend their entire savings but is willing to take the advice of more experienced riders and buy an affordable bike that suits them.

For the expensive bike crowd, there is a vast range of snobbery or personal taste which makes them always discount an affordable bike. For the more frugal, affordable means Craigslist (or worse, 1970s) pricing. With $400 hybrids being the bottom of the price spectrum in most shops, they can be quite beyond help. However, I feel that the majority of people fall into the last group. It is these customers that many bike shops need to treat with the utmost care. Acting too snobbish about what they can afford will no doubt leave some of them feeling low or stupid. Shifting to the other extreme, talking purely about budget, could have the same effect. They may go away feeling that the cycling world is too exclusive for them.

This is why, when it comes to most people, that the first thing I ask is what type of riding they wish to do. I then gravitate towards an affordable bike first. If they say they are looking for more, then I show them the higher-end stuff.

Please also keep in mind that I am talking about people with little to no experience riding bikes but would really like to get more into it. There are those in the industry that will tell this person to buy what we believe to be a mid-range bike. This is usually a road bike with a carbon frame and a compact-double drivetrain. Possibly Shimano Tiagra or 105 components. It may have an FSA or PraxisWorks crankset, may or may not have disc brakes (mechanical or hydraulic), and a carbon seat post. Usually, this falls in the range of $1,900 to $2,300 depending on the shop and not including any deals or sales.

If the person has the dough and doesn’t mind so much, so be it. But I often advise to go with a more starter model rather than the mid-range. Why? Well I want this person to enjoy their purchase without having to realize that they may have spent too much for their level of riding. If they stay with the sport, all the better. They can hand the entry-level bike down or sell it and get a more expensive bike later. This, I believe, benefits the bike industry more. Not only will more riders get accustomed to various levels of builds, they will be more excited about their upgrades.

Consider the lower-end of the spectrum. They are not designed to be crappy. Far from it. In fact, many of the components and frame technologies that are in a $900 bike were top of the line a decade ago. If your customer isn’t racing, that should suit them just fine. They get quality products at a lower price. Are there disadvantages to the customer? Sure. They will get a slightly heavier bike, components that are not as smooth as the top of the line stuff. But relative to a pro, the experience will no doubt be the same. They are still learning. They want to get excited.

Ultimately, it is up to the sales staff at the bike shop to build a relationship with this type of customer. That way, the upgrade cycle will seem natural. They more they ride bikes, the more they see their skill level improve. The more excited they will be when it is time to upgrade. We not just selling products, my friends. We are selling a lifestyle and an experience. There is no room for snobbery as all equipment is the best relative to skill levels.

That is why I am happy to sell a bike like the Specialized Allez E5 Sport to someone who is just starting out. The bike has everything a new rider needs. Plenty of range in the gearing. Carbon fork for comfort/weight reduction. Non-aggressive riding position. This type of bike should do well for a new rider for a couple of years or until their skill level improves. When they are ready to upgrade, all the better for them and our shop.

So please, bike shop employees: keep the snobbery to a minimum and use it only with your level of riding friends. Cycling is not an exclusive lifestyle and the more of us there are, the better. Remember that.

Riding in Circles: a Pilgrimage to Nagoya

Facade of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

Facade of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

It’s been almost three months since my visit to Nagoya. I have been letting a lot of memories from the trip sink in deeper so that I may better process them for writing this post. I had a good time there. I need to get it on paper. It’s time…

I was over in Japan on what some may call business. It was a vacation from my regular job but I was traveling for a specific reasons completely unrelated to cycling. Japan is a great place to visit. It’s so different from the States and there’s lots of awesome stuff to see. But I had been there for a while and none of what I was doing was keeping me near a bicycle. I decided that a dedicated side trip to a particular bike shop was in order. After all, I have been following some of these shops for years now on social media, and through the travels and articles of others.

One such shop was Circles in Nagoya. I had finally been able to set aside a full day to travel from Kyoto where I was staying to Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture. I had a rental car and it took us about 2 hours to travel the 130 km (about 80 miles) to make the journey. Travel by car in Japan is a lot slower than here in the US. The speed limits on the highways are a lot lower (80km/h or about 50mph), and there are toll booths everywhere. The drive was beautiful but expensive. But it was a pilgrimage of sorts. After about 30 dollars’ worth of tolls, we made it to Nagoya hungry and excited.

Let me  take a moment to explain something here: For a lot of people, there are always places that they feel drawn to. For some, there are religious destinations, for others, national parks or mountains to climb. In all cases, the importance of the destination is relative to the person’s personal experience. Cycling is a lifestyle, in all the forms and disciplines that it manifests itself. For me, it’s visiting other bike shops. Whether I stumble across one, or make it a point to go, it’s a compulsion.

So we arrived in Nagoya. A few minutes of finding the shop and parking a few blocks away, we arrived at a place that, honestly, I never thought I would get to.
Before we ventured inside, I took a few pictures of the facade. As I pressed the shutter button on my phone for the tenth or twentieth time, I realized that I should eat. I didn’t want to go into Circles on an empty stomach, risking passing out from all the excitement. So we went to Early Birds Breakfast which occupies the opposite corner and adjoins Circles’ repair shop. The small cafe and Circles have a mutually beneficial relationship with both businesses promoting each other. Cyclists love for coffee and breakfast food helps too, of course. Having had nothing but Japanese food (big surprise) for two weeks, it was an easy decision to set upon some western-style breakfast food. After loading up on coffee and sausages, we went into the bike shop.

Display window of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

Display window of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

Upon first impression, Circles is like many bike shops in Japan. Specializing in road, bikepacking, adventure cycling and commuting, it is stuffed with bikes and accessories, with every corner being used to effectively draw your eye towards whatever is there. The shelving and racks are all wood and done in sort of a DIY style that makes you feel like you are in your best friend’s very well-organized garage. The atmosphere is warm and friendly. Even though the space is filled with things I have seen before, I can’t help moving from shelf to shelf, staring and taking everything in. The ceiling was crammed with all sorts of frames from Surly, Fairdale, and All-City. And that was just the bottom floor.

Circles is organized into two floors, each with a separate purpose. The street level has complete bikes, frames and components. The repair shop and most bike sales take place there. Even though it is awesome, it is the regular shop. The [place where if you were stopping in for tubes, tires, a rack, or even a complete bike. The upstairs, on the other hand, is the high-end custom shop. There you can get your premium bike builds and all the primo kit you could ever want. The ceiling in there was crammed full of Chris King Cielo frames (more than I have ever seen in one place). There, the shelves were stocked with messenger bags, bike packing supplies and winter cycling apparel.

It was upstairs that I met one of the store managers, Shige. Being the only foreigners in the shop at the time, he walked right up and greeted us in English. Unlike some other bike shops I have been to in the past, you could tell that the staffers at Circles really love bicycles. They seem to treat everyone, no matter what kind of cycling they are into, exactly the same. As I looked around, I noticed that every staff member was really into the conversations they were having with their customers. I could chalk that up to Japanese retail culture (sometimes a breath of fresh air compared to the States), but I think it was more than that. These folks really enjoyed their jobs.

Since I was a little different (my glorious mustache tends to set me apart in Asia), Shige didn’t hesitate to make me feel like I belonged. I think he genuinely wanted to know why I chose Circles as a destination as if he had no idea that this shop wasn’t at all popular. He seemed very happy that after I told him I came to Nagoya just to see his shop. Just as I was about to ask him if there was more to all of this, he suggested I stop for lunch at the Pine Fields Market in another part of the city. I paid for the only thing I could think to buy there, a Circles 10th Anniversary edition Chris King headset and we said our goodbyes to Shige and his crew.

Front of Culture Club, Nagoya, Japan

Front of Culture Club, Nagoya, Japan

We arrived at Circles’ other operation, a DIY bike shop called Culture Club. It shares a space with the market and, interestingly enough, SimWorks headquarters, which is a smaller office on the upper floor. This shop was something that I wish we had here in Santa Barbara. Imagine a space where you can get new and used bike parts to build your dream bike. It is not a warehouse full of a bunch of dirty old frames and parts. It is a well-organized bike shop where a person can get excited about building something that they could never get off the shelf. Used parts were sorted and labeled in a way that made them look new. If I wanted a 9-speed Ultegra rear derailleur, I would find it it a bin, close to the 9-speed STI shifters. The staff at Culture Club, like Circles, was very friendly and seemed very interested in the projects of their customers.

Pine Fields Market, Nagoya, Japan

Pine Fields Market, Nagoya, Japan

It was about that time where we had to leave to get back to Kyoto. Before we did, we went around the back of the shop to have a bite to eat at the Pine Fields Market. The coffee was good and the baked goods were even better. Like at the main store, these two businesses are mutually beneficial. It’s a sort of co-op atmosphere. The staff, again no surprise, was awesome. But it was winter and there were reports that it may snow. Being from Southern California, I was worried about driving back to Kyoto without snow tires on the rental car. So we left Nagoya 3 p.m. to hit the road.

The drive back was filled with my friends and I talking about nothing but bikes. There was talk of starting my own shop with a similar style to Circles. But it soon became clear that Circles couldn’t exist anywhere else. Other bikes shops can try, but it the people that work there and the customers who buy there define that shop. One cannot exist without the other. But that doesn’t mean I cannot apply some of the things I learned from my short visit should I ever try. If you want a genuinely awesome bike shop experience, I urge you to do the same and look up Circles next time you find yourself within a hundred miles of Nagoya. It’s worth the 30 bucks in highway tolls.

Pete

Pete

Working on a vintage custom BMX cruiser
Shot at Cranky’s Bikes on State Street in Santa Barbara, CA

Yes, I work at a competing bike shop (Velo Pro). But also yes, I love bicycles. Cranky’s is one of those bike shops that I have a hard time staying away from. They tend to carry a lot of stuff that attracts me as a mostly asphalt rider. So I guess I am part of their target market. I love going in there from time to time to talk bikes and stare at all the gorgeous track frames hanging over the counter. I must confess, that in the spirit of supporting local business and our biking friends, I even buy some things from them from time to time. Pete and Josh are really cool guys. The owner, Jim C is really not cranky, either.