Business & Economy

Vermont bike shops see boom in sales and repairs

Freeride Bike Shop
Phoenix Mitchell of Freeride, a 12-year-old organization in Montpelier where volunteers fix and resell bikes. Mitchell said Freeride normally has sold about 15 or 20 bikes by the end of May. This year, it has sold about 40. Photo by Sophie Allen

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RANDOLPH — As first-time business owners, Rob Leeson and Robin Crandall knew little about what to expect when they opened the doors of their new bicycle shop March 1.

Not two weeks later, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency as the Covid-19 virus spread into Vermont. Crandall and Leeson decided to focus on their repair business, which was reassuringly robust, and wondered if they had too much inventory to start with. Their business, The Gear House, offers consignment bikes, bike repairs, and rentals, and is an authorized dealer for Bianchi, Rocky Mountain and other bicycle brands.

“They require you to order a certain amount of bikes to sell,” Crandall said in mid-March. “We are a little nervous as far as the economic impact” of the virus. “It’s a very direct relationship between the economy and spending.”

Ten weeks later, The Gear House is nearly out of new bicycles. The pair are trying to get more inventory into their store, but the dealers themselves have run into the same production problems that have plagued other manufacturing companies during the pandemic, including supply chain disruptions and staffing shortages.

The store has sold nearly all its entry-level mountain bikes, said Leeson on May 27. “It’s been first-come, first-served because the manufacturers are out of stock,” he said.

Vermont bike stores and allied businesses are benefiting from a trend seen around the world: As people were sent home from their jobs to avoid infection with Covid-19, a great many of them either increased their bicycling or started bicycling for the first time altogether. 

Adult recreational bike sales rose 121% and kids’ bike sales rose 56% year-over-year in March, according to Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, which released a study in May on sales of recreational items during the time of the pandemic. The magazine cited March retail data from The NPD Group, a research organization, that showed stationary bike sales rose 170%. Sales of indoor cycling trainers grew nationally by 286% in that time. 

The bike industry isn’t the only segment growing under the conditions of Covid-19, a period when many consumers — freed from their commutes, and sometimes from their jobs — suddenly have more time to pursue their passions.

NPD Group said sales of goals and nets, basketball systems, and balls designed for kids rose about 40% from the year before in March. Golf nets and screens were big sellers, rising about 144%, and basketball hoop sales rose 110%.

In Vermont, the surge in bicycling interest has even led to an apparent increase in memberships for the Green Mountain Bicycling Club, said secretary Kevin Bessett, who has seen an unexpected 10% rise in membership this year.

“There are more people signing up to the club who have never been members before,” Bessett said.

Robin Crandall, left, and Rob Leeson are the owners of The Gear House in Randolph. Seen on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Sales of bicycles and related clothes and equipment were rising before Covid-19 hit. The economy was growing, and the bicycle sector was expected to increase every year at a rate of about 5%, according to MarketWatch, reaching U.S. sales of $37 billion in 2024. Many municipalities globally have been implementing policies that encourage walking and biking over driving; health insurance companies and employers are rewarding fitness initiatives; and consumers themselves are increasingly looking for ways to stay in shape.

But bicycle retailers say they’ve also seen a distinct Covid-19 effect on sales.

Mike Donohue, a co-owner of the Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, said bicycling is one of a few activities available at a time when festivals and other gatherings have been canceled and travel is discouraged. The government stimulus package, which includes extended unemployment benefits, a weekly $600 federal unemployment supplement, and a $1,200 one-time payment to many Americans, helps too.

“Individual Americans who needed money have been able to get unemployment for the most part,” he said. “Many people aren’t feeling financially strapped. Not to say there aren’t people in dire straits, but many people have more than they normally would have with the extra $600 of federal unemployment.”

The Gear House shares space with the map room for Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trail Alliance, or RASTA, which runs group rides and a summer mountain biking camp for children.

Bike repairs — not just sales — are up as well, noted Leeson. The Gear House is the only repair shop in Randolph, and he said the two partners have taken in a lot of 20-year-old bicycles needing updates.

“We’ve cleaned quite a bit of hay and dust from a lot of bikes; that’s been the majority of our service,” he said. As the repair business took off, the store took repair orders online, and had customers leave bikes on the porch to be picked up later, eliminating human contact.

“We’ve been slammed. It’s been really great for us,” Leeson said. “It’s hard to know what percentage of our business has been from Covid or from people just lacking access to a bike shop for 20-something years.”

Rob Leeson, co-owner of The Gear House in Randolph, puts out a bike for display on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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