Boom cycle: Ottawa bike shops can't keep up with pandemic-fuelled sales surge

Ottawa cyclists
The pandemic has triggered a surge in demand for bicycles, Ottawa retailers say. Photo by Jorge Maria

Like virtually every sporting goods retailer in the city, Eric Kunstadt is seeing unprecedented demand for bicycles this spring as cooped-up Ottawans scramble to find ways to enjoy the outdoors and get a respite from the pandemic.

“Factories can’t pump the stuff out quick enough,” the president of Kunstadt Sports says. 

He says customers would traditionally take a day or two to reflect before purchasing a high-end bike, which can cost between $3,000 and $4,000.

But in 2021, Kunstadt says his customers know they need to move fast.

“They just buy it, because they know if they wait an hour it'll be gone.”

The retailer usually places its orders a year in advance, so Kunstadt called his suppliers last August. 

“One week after the bicycle bookings were done, the companies all called us back and said, ‘We're sold out for 2021. We need your order for 2022.’”

'Toilet paper effect'

It’s the same story across the city and beyond as pandemic-fatigued and exercise-starved citizens look for healthy, safe activities. According to market research firm NPD Group, bicycle sales in the U.S. were up 62 per cent between January and October 2020 compared with the same period a year earlier. 

Jose Bray, the owner of Joe Mamma Cycles in the Glebe, says he started noticing the supply shortage as early as May of last year. He partly attributes it to what he calls “the toilet paper effect” ​– that is, cycling enthusiasts and retailers heard there were shortages and began panic buying so they wouldn’t be left empty-handed.

Observers note biking is also a pastime that can still be enjoyed during the pandemic. 

For more than a year now, health authorities have recommended outdoor activities such as cycling as a way to boost mental and physical health while staying a safe distance away from others. 

“After the first shutdown, my first three customers were doctors,” Bray notes. “They came in to buy bikes to ride to work.”

But rising demand doesn’t necessarily put more money in retailers’ pockets, Kunstadt notes. 

“We aren’t selling more bikes,” he explains. “Once they arrive and are assembled, instead of selling the bikes over a four- or five-month period, (we) sell them over a two- or three-week period – they are all gone.” And there are no new shipments to replace them.

It’s not just bicycles that are in short supply – replacement parts are hard to find too, and demand for repairs has soared.

At Kunstadt Sports, 50 to 60 customers a day bring bikes in need of fixing up to each of the business’s four locations.

Meanwhile, the message on Ottawa-based Bike Mobile’s website is clear: “We are already overwhelmed with tune-up requests!” 

Repair shops swamped

“It’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem having too much business,” says Peter Westaway, the company’s owner. He now only takes appointments from repeat customers and is hiring more mechanics to meet the flood of requests.

Other bike repair businesses are also feeling the crunch. Adam Kourakis, owner of Velofix Ottawa, says he can’t keep enough parts in stock.

“There's a lot of repairs we can do. But if you needed a certain part for your bike, there's a good chance that we don't have it,” he says. “No one has it.” The company has resorted to providing only tune-ups that don’t need parts.

Kourakis started his mobile repair franchise seven years ago, growing from one van to six. After having his busiest year ever in 2020, he’s already seeing demand for his services triple in the first few months of this year and can’t find enough workers to keep up.

“If you know any bike mechanics, tell them to give me a call,” he says, only half-joking.