Sales soar at Winnipeg bicycle shops, but pandemic hitting global supply chain

By | May 20, 2020

Dean Sampson, whose family has run a ski and cycle shop on Winnipeg’s Pembina Highway since 1964, thought he had experienced everything — but COVID-19 has put a new spin on that. 

“We’ve seen floods. We’ve seen recessions. We’ve seen probably over 30 different competitors come and go for different reasons,” said the Sampson’s Sporting Life owner.

“But I’ve never seen it where basically the whole supply chain is completely sold out of bikes that retail under $1,200.

“If a store doesn’t have it in stock, there’s nothing left to buy. In some ways, it’s become the new toilet paper.”

The pandemic has resulted in a myriad of events and summer attractions being cancelled, travel being restricted and people eschewing public transit.

Since indoor gyms have also been shuttered, many have turned to bikes as a way to get out and get some exercise, Sampson said.

“Cycling is one of the few things you can do.”

Dean Sampson, owner of Sampson’s Sporting Life, considers himself extremely fortunate to be in a business that is doing so well during COVID-19, which has forced many others to shut down. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

But it’s a bit of a catch-22. As demand spikes, the global supply chain for bikes and parts has been disrupted by the pandemic.

“It doesn’t matter if the bike comes from Vietnam, Bangladesh or Taiwan, the supply chain goes through China. That’s where most of the parts come from,” said Tim Woodcock, who owns Woodcock Cycle Works on St. Mary’s Road.

Like Sampson, Woodcock said he has a good supply in at the moment because he anticipated the supply chain impact when the factories in China shut down. He took a chance by ordering more stock than usual, which is now paying off.

“But when they run out, I don’t know. We might be able to reorder some things, but probably not until July or late August,” he said.

Customers line up at the doors to Woodcock Cycle Works on Wednesday. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Sampson also did a bigger order, calling it a “calculated risk.” If the sales didn’t come he could have been saddled with a lot of inventory he paid for, which would be old stock the following year.

That worry has subsided, with the store busy from when the doors open until closing time.

“It’s been a whirlwind. If it stays like this, in the next couple of weeks there will start to be holes [in the supply],” Sampson said.

Shops ‘overwhelmed’

With public health restrictions on how many employees can be in the store — and operating hours scaled back — the work is being done in a shorter amount of time and by fewer people. Consequently, everyone is involved in selling, building and servicing bikes, said Sampson.

“We are doing everything. It’s been insane,” he said. “You’re trying to pump through 60 per cent more shop work in the same amount of time.

“And from a sales standpoint, if you’d normally sell five bikes in a five-hour period, you’re now selling 10 to 15.”

Sampson’s employee Aaron Wijma goes over a bike brought in by Bret Gordon, right. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Jeff Martin, who owns Alter Ego Sports on Pembina, said people are also rediscovering old bikes stored in garages and sheds that haven’t been used in years and bringing them in for tune-ups.

“We just don’t have the capacity to handle all of that,” he said, noting the wait for servicing is close to a month with a wait list of close to 700 jobs — double what it normally is this time of year. “We are literally inundated.”

Staff also needs to build new bikes, which are selling fast. That can take 45 minutes to three hours, depending on the type of bike.

“It’s a stressful, emotionally taxing time for all the staff,” Martin said, urging people to be understanding about the delays.

“Nobody wants to tell a customer we can’t help you right now, but we are. We are doing the best we can and so are the other shops. Literally everyone is overwhelmed.”

His store opens at noon. On Wednesday, he had people lining up at 9 a.m.

Dean Sampson, owner of Sampson’s Sporting Life, works on a bike in the store’s showroom. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Woodcock, whose staff has likewise been working flat-out, says he is at the store seven days a week, coming in before opening and staying well after closing.

“There’s only so much you can do in a day,” he said. Online sales have added to the load.

“We had people buying from us from all over Canada because they can’t get it elsewhere.”

Distancing protocols

Woodcock has implemented a strict protocol of only allowing a handful of people in at a time. That has resulted in long lineups on the sidewalk in front of the store.

“That stresses me out because I’ve been a customer service person my whole life. I don’t like to do this, but we need to be safe,” he said.

Store staff ask people in line what they are shopping for so that once inside, they are paired immediately with a salesperson — from a safe distance. Once done, the customers exit through a back door.

“It’s not a time for browsing,” said Dawn Zifarelli, who bought a bike for her daughter Livia at Woodcock.

They went there Saturday morning and waited in line for 80 minutes, but Zifarelli applauded the efforts. There was plenty of room to move about and each bike Livia tried out was sanitized before and after.

Despite the frenetic pace of things, it’s a welcome change for Sampson. When COVID-19 started shutting down travel and activities, his store was hit hard. It specializes in ski equipment, and that business “fell off a cliff.”

It was an abrupt end that wiped out 10 per cent of his normal winter equipment sales.

“When you see a $100,000 reduction overnight in sales of winter product, it was very concerning what was going to happen with the bike season,” Sampson said.

Then bike shops were deemed an essential service under the province’s health orders — allowing them to stay open while non-essential businesses were required to close — and everything changed.

“I can’t say enough how fortunate we are. There are so many business that have had to close and people that have been unemployed, and my heart goes out to them,” he said.

“Our industry hasn’t had those negative effects and I am so thankful. It’s been a 10-out-of-10 bike season.”

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