Cycle Spirit London opened just months before the pandemic changed the course of the industry – Rebecca Morley finds out how the shop’s fared in challenging times
This piece first appeared in the June edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
Opening a new store can be challenging at any time, but starting just months before a global pandemic brings even more uncertainty. Thankfully bike shops were allowed to remain open during the lockdowns, a time which also saw cycling numbers soar, and a number of new cycle lanes pop up in the capital.
Cycle Spirit London in the north east of the city, which opened about six months pre-pandemic, was established after the area had received funding for cycling infrastructure. “They’ve actually nicknamed the area in Waltham Forest ‘Mini Holland’,” Cycle Spirit’s founder, who preferred not to be named in print, told BikeBiz.
“I knew the infrastructure was going in when I was looking to set up the store somewhere. Once all that comes, more people are going to start thinking about cycling, and they’re going to need a shop in the area to support that. I strategically put it there for that reason. And we placed it on one of the new cycle highways which is over 8km long, this is also a commuter’s route into the city. The store is almost like a cycling service station now.”
When the bike paths went in, so did School Streets – where roads outside of schools have restrictions on motor traffic at drop off and pick up times. “As soon as this happened, our demand started to increase because people realised it’s safer to start cycling in the area. They call it a 15-minute neighbourhood – within that 15 minute locality, they can have access to anything basically, rather than having to travel further out for basic needs. It’s actually worked out really well.
“We’ve found out very quickly that additional support really was needed. Infrastructure goes in but planners don’t have the resources to think about support apart from what they can do more to reshape the borough. When there’s an increasing number of cyclists, the bike shops then have to start thinking about how they’re going to have to cater for this.”
So opening just months before the Covid pandemic hit, what impact did lockdown and restrictions have on a store that was still so new? “I wasn’t in a position to compete with the bigger stores because supplies were running out. They had many years of profit behind them, but I was in a position where it was make or break within the first six months – it’s like having a cake shop with no cake.
“It was an extremely challenging time that I had because I was still trying to get the store set up, build the stockroom, get things running, then suddenly this happened. We have a large hospital near us, and because key workers were allowed to travel to work, all the staff decided to go in via bike and fortunately we were the nearest shop.
“That almost drip fed us through the Covid pandemic because the number of staff that came to visit was unbelievable, it just filled us up and really kept things moving, and as a result of that, our supply chain then became stronger.
“Our most supportive suppliers actually made sure they allocated stock to us, they kept us going through the process. They knew that the larger retailers were taking all the stock and they actually allocated stock to us for that reason, and that was like a safety net. I can’t even say how grateful I am for what they did because I had just set up a new store and we would have possibly had to close.”
Raleigh, Bob Elliot, Hotlines and Whyte Bikes kept Cycle Spirit London stocked throughout the pandemic, and because of that, the store managed to recruit the right number of staff. It went from a team of two to a team of five – four shop floor and one doing admin. Staff have over 40 years of bicycle knowledge, and this expertise is invaluable in achieving high levels of customer service, aiming to create a “culture of excellence” in cycle independents.
“We learned during the pandemic that there was also demand from over 50s. They were worried about public transport, so we saw a need to help that age group with all the challenges that they faced during this time.
“We started to see a lot of these people coming in, so we started prioritising them with getting them the right type of kit. That increase started and to date it hasn’t stopped. I never thought we would get that many people in that age bracket coming in, but that’s what’s happened and we have now started to focus on them because we realised that they don’t feel comfortable going into other types of bike shop. We have to tailor our approach to them, which was something positive that came out of the pandemic.”
The other main focus for Cycle Spirit London is commuters, offering a tailored approach to help people who wish to cycle to work. “That’s a growing market and we’re trying to carefully select which brands we’re going to use going forward. I’ve also been getting business support directly from Waltham Forest Council, which has been really beneficial because they’ve had a lot of insights on what’s going on in the area and statistics of what is needed.
“From that business support, we found out that there are also a lot of zero emission vehicles in the area that do deliveries, cargo bikes and family cargos, but there doesn’t seem to be anywhere that we can repair them. Working with the council, we’ve made adaptations in store, one of which was to put a much wider electric door in to allow these vehicles to come in. We didn’t realise how much customers would love that.
“The cargo repairs started coming in since January, we’ve done at least 11 cargos and every single one of them has come from a different borough. I just feel like we’ve come in on a high. It was really challenging and we’re just taking every problem that’s coming our way, the team is so solid and proactive, I couldn’t ask for a better bunch.”
In the last 12 months, the store has also launched a new e-commerce website, streamlined its repairs system, and started offering finance. “We’re a relatively new business, but we’ve managed to meet our objectives now after Covid.”