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Is the number of shops shrinking?

Published April 9, 2019

Editor's note: A version of this piece appeared as a Guest Editorial in the April edition of BRAIN. The print version contained an offensive phrase that we've removed from the web posting. We apologize for the offensive phrase. There's more in a separate post. — Steve Frothingham, Editor in Chief.

As described in a separate BRAIN article, Christopher Georger is offering his dealer list of 7,000-plus names to the industry through his company, Georger Data Services. This sheds new light on an accepted reality for a couple decades: That there are fewer than 4,000 bike shops in America, and their numbers are declining.

That’s not to say that the “conventional wisdom” hasn’t been questioned before. I wrote an opinion piece for BRAIN a few years ago repeating the (at the time) 3,950 NBDA retail store number, and got a call from Pat Cunnane of ASI. “Ray, that dealer number is way too low. Talk to Christopher.” I did.

When in the BPSA and 17 member bicycle companies took on the task of addressing a massive quick-release recall in 2016, we had a third party do a merge-purge of the GDS list, the Jay Townley/NBDA list, and a major industry supplier’s list. Based on the results, we mailed recall posters to more than 9,000 locations. Hmmm …

Of course, there are many ways to define a bicycle retailer. It’s even more tricky now, with the proliferation of mobile, service-only shops, fit studios, beer and bikes, the list goes on.

The Townley/NBDA definition (any business that does 50 percent or more of their revenue in bicycles, bicycle-related products and services) is clear and definitive but also hard to measure, because it depends on stores self-reporting revenues.

Georger’s definition — any business that is an authorized dealer of a bicycle brand and appears on that brand’s dealer finder — is clear and simple. And it’s also dependent on the brands keeping their finders current.

Whatever definition we choose, the important question is: Is the number of shops going up or down? So many doom-and-gloom conclusions about the future of bike retail are based on the “going down” premise.

And Georger’s list belies that premise. He’s showing the number of shops has actually gone UP, from 6,409 in early 2017 to 7,354 in early 2019. This says nothing about the health of retailers overall, which is clearly not getting better.

Georger thinks the growth may be due to the emerging e-bike market. New e-bike stores are opening, IBDs are branching out to separate e-focused locations, and existing e-retailers are picking up brands that Georger monitors and therefore showing up anew on dealer finders.

Bill Schuman, vice president of sales at QBP, which maintains a ship-to list in the high 7,000s, said he has been generally purging 400 shops a year from the list, because they are not doing consistent business with QBP. But he said he also adds about 400 new stores each year.

My armchair theory is that when established shops go under, it feeds a negative impression. The new, usually smaller shop that pops up to take its place goes unnoticed.

It reminds me of the “Facebook factor,” where individual cyclist fatalities get passed around and amplified, creating widespread concerns about cycling safety, despite federal statistics showing declines in cycling fatalities.

At any rate, I predict that a credible and reasonably priced dealer list such as the one GDS is offering will have many takers. I’ll take a little credit for getting Christopher to share the information. Nyle Nims, the president of Cycle Force Group, collared me at the CABDA Midwest show in Chicago and asked, “When is the industry going to get its act together and offer a good list?” I have heard this question many times before.

I called Christopher and urged him to get the list out there, not just for existing industry companies, but for new entries to the market, especially in the rapidly growing e-bike space. Christopher grabbed URL and built a website around it in a matter of days.

Nims was the first in line to sign on. “As part of the ‘small guys’ in this industry it is incumbent on us to seek retailers who are not on the radar and who may aid in both our dealer growth and that of the entire bicycle community. Georger’s list sounds like the answer,” Nims told me.

The real benefit may be in the conversations happening around the industry, now informed by some new information, in addition to all our conclusions from anecdotal evidence.

There’s general agreement we need a hard look at the definition of who is or is not a bike retailer. This will take a while, and in the meantime, I urge the 60-plus brands from whose dealer finders GDS is gleaning their information: Clean and update your lists, please. You’re the best source of information we have about how many bike shops there are, anyway.

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