By Gabriela Carroll
East End bike shops are struggling to keep up with the steadily increasing demand for bicycles due to long-term stay-at-home orders as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bicycles are quickly disappearing from bike shops and warehouses, just as demand is peaking.
“It’s a little disappointing when you just have to let these people down, but at the same time there’s nothing we can do,” said Sag Harbor Cycle Shop employee Paul King, who noted that it may take months to resupply his stock from manufacturers. “Customers always want everything right away. But a lot of the companies are telling us like October, November, December for a lot of the models, and a lot of them aren’t even telling us when.”
Most bike manufacturers are in China and Taiwan, according to King, and shut down in January and February when the pandemic peaked there. The disruption in supply came just as demand here started to spike, and the industry is scrambling to produce enough bikes to match the number that consumers and shops are looking for.
Since the bicycle industry in the Northeast picks up over the spring and summer, bike shops pre-order large numbers of bicycles during the winter months, according to King.
This practice gave East End bike shops an advantage during the shortage, since they were working from a large stock from the beginning of the pandemic. But as the shops start to run out of their initial supply, finding bikes from manufacturers becomes more difficult.
“The guy at the warehouse is telling me he could skateboard in the warehouse because there’s no parts,” said Khanh Ngo, owner of Khanh Sports in East Hampton. “There’s nothing, it’s like we can’t ship anything out, we don’t have anything to ship you.”
Ngo said he is shipping bikes to customers as far away as Florida and Vermont, because supply is so low nationwide. Water sports equipment, like paddleboards and kayaks, are also in high demand from distant customers, according to Ngo. People in Florida and California are ordering equipment from here because their local shops are sold out for the season.
When bikes do become available from the manufacturers, purchasing them becomes a mad dash for the stores, King said. Bicycle shops buy up as much stock as possible, and are forced to pay much higher shipping costs because they can’t buy in bulk due to the lack of supply.
The most popular models, according to King and Ngo, are hybrid bikes and children’s models. Customers want bikes they can cruise and go to town with, and an outdoor activity for their kids, who have been cooped up inside for too long. However, because of that popularity, those bikes are extremely hard to find.
“People are willing to buy almost anything that will fit them right now,” King said. “They’re willing to go up higher in price, so we’re getting people that usually wouldn’t be on such a high end bike buying them because nothing else is left. Anytime manufacturers have something available, we’re just ordering it. Whatever it is, we know people are gonna buy it.”
This May was the best month ever for the Sag Harbor Cycle Shop, according to King, who said he sees lines out the door every day. Khanh Sports is also selling unprecedented numbers of bikes. Neither store had to close during the pandemic, because they were deemed essential businesses because they sell transportation.
The repair business also increased exponentially during the pandemic. King said the stock rooms, once filled with new bikes ready to be sold, are now filled with bikes customers have brought in for repair. People are bringing in bikes they haven’t used in years to be repaired so they can ride, according to Ngo.
“Bicycles are the new toilet paper,” Ngo said. “They are! Customers bring in old bikes just to get one gear, 10 speed. They’re like, ‘I don’t care, just one gear.’ I’m like, ‘We can’t fix this until I get the parts,’ and they don’t care, they just want a gear so they can ride it. This is their therapy. That’s the only way I could say it because it’s the only way they can get out and actually do something right now.”
At Sag Harbor Cycle Shop, King says they’ve seen a huge backlog of repair orders, since every employee is working with inventory and customers aiming to purchase new bikes. Customers line up out the door to buy bicycles every day, with King arriving to work to see lines of 20 or more people.
The pandemic has also caused the bicycle shops to change their normal operations to fit new social distancing requirements. Sag Harbor Cycle Shop tried initially to allow one family to be in the store at a time, but helping one group at a time led to even longer lines, and in order to assist more customers they started conducting all transactions outside of the store.
Despite bicycle shops being an essential business, Ngo closed his shop in East Hampton Village, opening only his Montauk Highway location so that he would not be the only business open in the center of town. But he still received backlash from some residents who, still confused by the shop’s continued service, reported the business to the police for being open illegally.
The employees are working extra hours to keep up with the demand. Ngo said he hasn’t had a day off at his shop, open seven days a week, between repairs and new sales. King said he and his fellow employees work extra hours in order to build the new bikes, which are pre-ordered by customers weeks in advance, and to fix those in for repair as quickly as possible.
“I’ve been working here since 2013,” King said. “In previous summers, even in July and August, during the weekdays we’d maybe get a few customers a day. It was pretty dead. Nowadays, every single day, there’s just a line of people outside. It’s just crazy how much of a change the pandemic caused.”