2020 was a boom year for cycling. The pandemic drove an increase in demand for bicycles as people looked for a safe way to travel and exercise. Neighbourhoods were redesigned by councils to accommodate the rise in pedal traffic. Suppliers struggled to keep up with demand.
Many bike shops have thrived in this time but others have closed due to supply chain problems. We spoke to PUSH Cycles in Hackney, north-east London. Owner Ciaran Carleton, told us about the perfect storm of last year and why customer service is key.
“I opened PUSH in 2009. I was working in fashion retail in Covent Garden where we would give customers a positive experience while they were choosing suits. I bought myself a new bike for a similar price and was very underwhelmed by the experience. I decided that I would open a shop and approach bike sales in a different way.
We sell a carefully chosen range of new adult and kid’s bicycles from Ridgeback, Genesis, 6KU, Mercian, Pelago and Cinelli as well as accessories including our own range of T-shirts, hoodies and water bottles. We have a workshop space downstairs and offer a range of maintenance services and repairs as well as custom builds. Our customers come from the local area.
When we opened twelve years ago, it was the middle of a cycling boom. Cycling has always been common in Hackney as we are close to the centre of London and have access to parks and the canal. People use their bikes to commute and for everyday journeys. (In fact, Hackney has the lowest levels of car ownership in the UK.) In the 2000s new cycle routes and less pollution meant that cycling grew even more.
We had some ‘interesting years’ and the business was generally split equally between sales, accessories and repairs. In previous years, the workshop saw us through the winter, with sales picking up as the weather changes. 2020 was a whirlwind, very different.”
“Last spring, during the first lockdown was our busiest ever time. We had queues of people down the street. People were desperate for new bikes and very quickly it was impossible to get stock. We’re still feeling this now. Orders I placed in June last year, still haven’t arrived.
It’s been a perfect storm affecting the whole industry. Bike production was dropping in 2019 as demand slackened, then COVID hit reducing production even further but increasing demand sharply. A shipping container issue means bikes made overseas can’t get to the UK now or to factories to assemble the parts. For example, Genesis have lots of frames but there are no gears for them. Factories have closed because of COVID and Brexit.
Manufacturers have bumped up their prices because it is costing them more to transport finished products and import the parts. I am placing orders now for 2022 and hoping we’ll be able to sell them. We know of other bike shops which have closed as the supply chain meant they couldn’t drive any sales.
I closed the workshop in the first lockdown as we were so busy with sales. I was working on my own. It was a couple of months until we started fixing them again. We were only open 10-3 in order to get the work done. I was going home exhausted. Recently, I hired four new members of staff to keep up with all the repair work. It’s been lovely to have some help.
We have space outside the shop where we can talk to people. We sanitise the grips and wear masks so it all feels safe.
In November, there were suddenly lots more people around when locals and international media came to visit the controversial statue of Mary Wollstonecraft. We are located on Newington Green and the statue is within eyeshot of the shop! The Green was buzzing every day with people who came to see the statue for themselves. There was a lovely atmosphere.”
“We are part of a great bike community here. Bike shops swap parts and we look out for each other. We each send customers off to other shops which might be able to help when we can’t. Even though there are a lot of bike shops round here, the market doesn’t feel crowded. We each sell specific brands and those manufacturers wouldn’t let us open accounts with them if they already had a stockist nearby.
We have an air pump outside the shop which people can use for free at any time. We’ve had new customers come to us because they have been using the pump for years.
We get a real mix of customers, from people who look blankly when we talk about pumping up tyres, to those who just care about price and others who are the cycling experts who test my knowledge with lots of questions. Part of our customer service commitment is that we keep everyone happy. We sell quality products and spend time helping people find the right bike for them.
We do sometimes get bad reviews and it has upset me over the years. Mostly it is because someone is having a bad day. We are not responsible for the broken glass on London streets! A man once came back the next day with beer after he’d shouted at us. Generally, we are happy to do small jobs for free and are happy when someone buys us a coffee or brings biscuits to say thanks. We love it when people say ‘I made it to that meeting because of you’.
My parents have lived above the shop for 40 years, it’s where I grew up. My mum looks after the flower boxes on the street and moans when people rest their bikes against them! When I was little it was a mini cab office, then empty, a tailors, then empty again for a long time. I always wanted to do something with it. At the moment I wish I could spend more time with my children but at the moment we are riding this cycling boom wave.”
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