GEARS and COVID : A Lesson in adaptability and embracing change

To say that COVID had a huge influence on the bicycle industry is certainly a massive understatement. Very early in 2020, we quickly to noticed that once the gyms began to close and people were becoming apprehensive about public transit, the demand for urban-style and commuter bikes began to gain some serious momentum.

Momentum that carried through the entire year as folks transitioned to working at home and life for many was forever changed.

Life in the bike shop also changed for us as we worked to adapt our business to meet these demands. The first thing that became apparent was the swing from in-store shopping (once we closed our doors) to on-line and curb-side-pick-ups. Buying bicycles via our webstore went from a rarity to common practice in the blink of an eye. At times, demand for all things bike related, was so high, we actually had to occasionally shut down the webstore so we could catch up with processing orders and moving bikes across all our locations.

As we moved through the first year of COVID, we also began to recognize that this impact on cycling was becoming a global phenomenon. Supply was being completely outstripped by demand as vendors, wholesalers and manufacturers struggled to fulfil orders. Add to this, factory closures due to COVID infections and challenges with raw materials and shipping…. this became the perfect storm of contrasts with no perceivable end in sight. Our gut instincts said this overwhelming demand and lack of inventory was easily going to carry into 2021 (and possibly further).

One lesson COVID taught us… expect the unexpected

By the end of 2020… our shops and warehouse were basically empty. As was every other bike store, vendor, and manufacturer across the country and across the world. We had gone from what was the best sales year in our 30-year history, to wondering how we would now survive, pay our staff and keep the lights on in all four GEARS locations.

To counter this, we began to re-configure our business. We began with placing some of the largest orders in our history in the hopes that if only percentage of what we asked for was delivered, we’d be able to ride-out another year. A long-shot and one that took some financial risks (and intestinal fortitude)

With the roll-over into 2021, we also realized that other changes needed to be made for us to continue being a viable bicycle retailer. We had already been working on developing a new warehouse and distribution centre in Burlington. A project that actually began prior to the pandemic. Given the rapid transition we had made from in-store to on-line retailing, we knew this was a positive step in the right direction… as long as we had inventory to fill this warehouse.

Spring of 2021 we made a couple of drastic changes. We closed our highly successful location in Leaside at the end of March. With little to no inventory being available to feed this shop, drastic measures were called for and we merged the team with our downtown shop in the Canary District.

At the end of April we closed down our Oakville location and moved this Team to our new Burlington warehouse. A warehouse with the eventual capacity to house 10,000 bicycles.

While this was taking place, we came across an opportunity to truly switch things up in Toronto. We found a new space (one we could own), just down the road from our Canary location. And by the end of May we shut down the Canary shop and opened the new GEARS Toronto location.

Still, we had no inventory.

All this is slowly beginning to change. With the end of the 2021 season now upon us, we’re actually feeling very positive as we look to 2022. Will we have all the inventory we need? That’s a difficult question to answer as all vendors continue to struggle and will continue to do so for at least another 12 months. Will things ever return to normal? Another difficult question. We don’t think so. But once thing is certain, given the immense interest in cycling, the future of our business and the bicycle industry looks rather secure.

As we finally approach the end of the 2021 season, inventory is beginning to rolling into the Burlington warehouse

And when inventory begins to flow once again, GEARS will be ready.

Things we have learned

Our staff and people are our most important asset.

Being open to change and being adaptable to new influences (both positive and negative) is the key to business survival.

Questioning our strengths and challenging our weaknesses has allowed us to grow and mature as both individuals and as a company.

Bicycle retail has changed more in the past 2 seasons than the last decade. This change continues to accelerate.

The future of bicycle retail is a business that blurs the lines between bricks and mortar and digital sales.

Clear communications of both good and bad news allow us to make decisions. It’s the not knowing and ambiguity where things get difficult.

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