If you have, you probably noticed a lot of empty racks. If you were actually looking to buy a bike, you may have been told you'd have to place an order and wait indefinitely for a bike to come in. If you needed repairs on a bike you currently own, you may have even found a longer than usual wait to get the job done.
|Our local shop had a few rental bikes on the rack, and a handful |
of others with "sold" tags on them.
It's uncertain how long the situation will last, but for now, it seems that we might be in the midst of a new "bike boom" - or more specifically - a "COVID19 Bike Boom." What's going on seems to be what one might call a "perfect storm," of increased demand, and reduced supply -- and a lot of it has to do with the reaction to the corona virus, both at home and abroad.
I was talking with the folks at my local bike shop, and what they have been experiencing seems to fit the stories that people are sharing all over the country. More people are buying bikes (along with helmets and other accessories), and others are getting long-neglected bikes road-worthy again. As far as the shortage goes, what the experts are saying is that there are several factors that have led to the supply/demand issue.
First, bike shops (in most states) remained open even as many other businesses were closed. The need for transportation meant that many states declared bicycle shops "essential businesses" - and if you're reading this blog, you probably agreed with that notion.
Second, people have been "cooped up" with little to do - but outdoor exercise has generally been permitted, as long as people try to maintain some "social distancing." Many people have discovered - or re-discovered - bicycling as a great way to get some exercise and enjoyment. The fact that fitness centers were closed (and may still be closed) fits right into that as well.
Third, the supply of new bicycles has been disrupted - first because of economic uncertainty, and second because of the virus. According to bicycle industry insiders, many manufacturers had already reduced their production in the last couple of years because of concerns about the current president's trade war. One source I found said production had been down as much as 25 - 30% even before the virus hit. Remember that China accounts for a huge percentage of the world's current bicycle production. If you factor in Taiwan and Japan into the figure, you'll find that the vast majority of bicycles and components are made somewhere in Asia - regardless of what brand might be on the frame. And Asian countries were among the first to shut down because of the virus - and to take the most serious measures to contain its spread.
The last time we had a drastic increase in demand for bicycles was the bike boom of the early 1970s. In that "American Bike Boom" sales of bicycles jumped from about 7 million in 1970 to 14 million in 1972. And the biggest part of that increase was in adult bicycles which had previously been only a small market segment. The tremendous spike in demand meant that American and European factories could not keep up, which proved to be a major opportunity for Japanese bike and component manufacturers who had been eager to break into the American market. Within a decade, they would dominate the world.
There are a few things that are different this time time around. As mentioned already, most of the world's bicycles are now being made in China and Taiwan. As their factories closed down due to virus concerns, there's really nowhere else that could pick up the slack. Most bike "brands" that we might associate as "American," "British," "European" are now nothing more than names on decals that get stuck on the bikes. So when the Asian factories shut down, nobody else had the production capacity to crank out bikes to meet the demand, and that has meant empty racks in the shops, and a waiting game for new bikes to come in.
Another difference is that in the '70s bike boom, the biggest chunk in sales was in "adult" bicycles -- but especially for lower priced, entry-level "10-speeds." From what I understand from talking to both sales people and buyers is that this time people are buying everything and anything they can get their hands on. If they've got the means, they've even been buying the high-ticket items like bikes with electronic and wireless shifting. While it can be a little harder to track accurately, I've heard anecdotally that even sales of used bicycles are up. Whatever people can do to satisfy their current itch.
One thing that remains to be seen is how long before things go back to "normal." Demand could remain high as long as there is uncertainty about the virus and there are restrictions on what people can do for exercise and entertainment. I understand that factories in Asia are starting up again, so production should soon start meeting the demand.
Another thing that remains to be seen is how long will all these people who can't wait to get their hands on a new bike stay interested in biking. Not long after the boom of the 1970s, an awful lot of those bikes that were sold ended up collecting dust in basements and garages all over America. One can still find them today at garage sales for bargain prices, or (if you're really lucky) out on the curb on trash day, free for the taking. Will the current buyers be different? Will they keep riding even after everything is reopened and concerns about social distancing are just a memory? Or will the later half of the decade see tons of used bike bargains?
Only time will tell.