It’s been a difficult few months for bike shops and workshops, and for those who rely on them. We’ve been doing our best to insulate our customers from the industry-wide problems, with a fair degree of success, but it doesn’t look like things are going to get easier any time soon, so I’ll try and explain what’s going on.
What’s the problem?
The whole bike industry has experienced a “perfect storm”, with lots of separate events combining to create a bigger problem. Obviously Covid has played a part, in shutting down factories in Taiwan, China, Japan, Malaysia, Italy, Germany and anywhere else that most bike parts are made. Many of these factories usually make the parts nine months to a year ahead of when they actually arrive in our shops, so this halt wasn’t immediately experienced over here. At the same time, every part of shipping – dock staff, customs officers, even actual ships – suffered big drops in staff numbers and everything slowed down and backed up. There was a global shortage of shipping containers because so many were stuck waiting in ports. Coincidentally, That Ship got stuck in the Suez Canal and also held up hundreds of ships in the queue behind it, and thus millions of containers, for months more.
But the “good news” has also contributed to this storm – we’ve seen unprecedented numbers of people getting on their bikes since the start of the pandemic – some to avoid public transport, some to find a new form of local exercise when gyms were closed, some to try new places to ride and types of riding… it’s been brilliant to see, and we’ve tried to keep up with this demand and keep as many people riding as possible. But that’s also meant our stock, and our distributors’ stock, has been used up more quickly.
How does it affect us?
Increased demand for bike parts, and stalled or dwindling supply, has meant a worldwide shortage of parts. Even without the confounding factor of Br*xit – which has meant some companies have decided it’s now too much hassle to sell things to our awkward little island – most bike shops have struggled to get hold of the sort of things we’d normally find in easy and plentiful stock. Things like 9-speed chains, or V-brake pads, or 26″ inner tubes. We’ve had a whiteboard at the back of the workshop with “DANGER LIST” as its title since January, and the list keeps getting longer, with very few things getting removed.
This isn’t unique to us, of course. You’ve probably spotted that most bike shops don’t have many bikes to sell. And most online shops are going down the honest route of quoting long lead times, because they can’t get hold of the groupsets to build up the frames they’ve got. It’s not unique to the UK, I’m told – countries that rely heavily on bikes for everyday transport like the Netherlands suffered big problems finding replacement parts too.
Another way it affects us is financially. According to one of our distributors, the average price for getting a shipping container to the UK from Shimano has gone up from a fairly stable $2500 to around $18,000. That’s over seven times the price, which has a really big effect on the cost of bringing in bulky items like helmets and wheels, where you’re “mostly shipping air”.
This, unfortunately, means a lot of things simply cost a fair bit more for us to buy in.
What are we doing about it?
As soon as supplies started looking a little unpredictable, back in May 2020, we started ordering further in advance and keeping much higher levels of stock in the shop, where possible. We’ve never normally needed to keep 50 pannier racks in stock, but if we don’t know whether we’re going to be able to get any more for three months, we’ve had to be prepared – and find space! We’re devoting time each week to keeping our ear to the ground and planning further ahead for stock we might need several months from now.
We’ve always sourced our stock from a diverse range of suppliers, it’s one of the advantage of being independent – we can choose the best quality and /or the best value and shop around. We’ve built good relationships with practically all the distributors in the industry because we’re usually pretty good at finding you that one weird bit for your non-standard bike setup. But now we’re also spending a lot more of our back-office time hunting around our less-used sources for parts that are still available, and even buying in from overseas sources where needed. We’re testing out products we don’t usually use, like SunRace cassettes, for compatibility and durability, and we’re building a blacklist of fake or poor quality parts we don’t want to curse customers with!
We’re also trying to keep customers informed. We’ve been out of stock of simple things like 8-speed 11-32t cassettes for short periods, and while we (and the rest of the country) waited for stock to arrive sometimes we advised customers that actually the best thing to do was not to replace their worn-out chain, but for us to clean their old chain and cassette and keep them meshing well. Or, if the chain was worn but not worn-out, sometimes it’s best to replace it as a pre-emptive measure so they don’t have to replace the cassette for a while. I explain this at much greater length in our blog entry “Why do I need to replace my chain and cassette?”
And as for the prices… unfortunately there’s not much we can do about those. We’ve tried to keep our prices constant and avoid unpleasant surprises to customers, but sometimes when we’ve had those unpleasant surprises ourselves (Shimano RS100 wheels almost doubled in price a couple of months ago!) we’ve had to charge customers more than we originally quoted, just to cover the cost. I don’t like putting prices up. Like most people who start their own bike shops, I did it because I love riding bikes, I love encouraging people to ride them and I love the pleasure that comes from riding a reliable machine. And I hate feeling ripped off.
So we’ll continue to spend extra time hunting around for the best – and sometimes only – deals on parts; we’ll continue making space for more stock than we used to. We’ll continue putting more money into holding stock for longer. And we’ll continue doing our best to keep your bikes running smoothly and reliably even if nobody will be able to supply a new part for a few months!
And I’ll try and blog more with updates, and to answer any questions you may have. Please use the contact form on our Find Us page if you want to ask anything.