In this month’s distributor insight, Alex Ballinger travels to Cambridgeshire to meet the team at Ison
This piece first appeared in the January edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
If there’s one thing that’s certain about mountain bikers, dirt jumpers, and BMX riders, they know the brands they like. Whether it’s style, reliability, or even just habit, riders from these disciplines are some of the most discerning when it comes to the products they trust and are willing to ride.
Ison Distribution has plenty of experience in this area of the bike market, as the Cambridgeshire-based distributor has some of the most recognisable BMX, dirt jump and mountain bike brands in its portfolio. Last year I travelled to Ely, not far from Cambridge, to visit the Ison team and see what was in the pipeline for the coming year.
“An overseas friend of mine recently said to me ‘we’ve had quite a party for the last couple of years,” said Lloyd Townsend, managing director of Ison. “‘Now we’ll have to get through the hangover.’ It’s clear that there are going to be some headaches.”
The past year has been tough for many cycling businesses, including Ison, as the pandemic cycling boom came crashing down, and various global events conspired to put a squeeze on spending.
“One of the biggest challenges for 2023 revolves around getting back to some stability for the whole industry,” said Townsend.
Supply chain issues have been the biggest cause of concern for many cycling businesses, as long Covid delays have resulted in sudden overstocking issues, just as bike sales started to slow, and consumer confidence dropped off due to the rising cost of living.
The overstocking issue is well documented, but Townsend said there is another issue that may be looming: “I think most of us are aware that there appears to be a current glut of cycling products worldwide, but some of us are perhaps less aware that the cancellations made by the industry may present yet another new challenge for us all a little later.
“We’ve recently been told that many production factories are being starved of orders and consequently operating on three days a week (or less). This potentially presents the threat of factories being forced out of business if things don’t stabilise. It’s possible that the industry could see subsequent supply shortages becoming an issue for us all to contend with in the future.”
But Townsend said it’s not all gloom and doom heading into 2023, as Ison hopes to have good product availability, while consumers’ loyalty to their favourite brands can help keep the cycling sector strong.
He said: “I am also very much conscious of something my father said to me many times during his decades in business: ‘when things get tough, cycling tends to do okay’. After all is said and done, the cycling industry overall has some bright lights at the end of whatever tunnel we feel we might currently be in.”
Townsend said that online retailers may have reaped the benefits of Covid lockdowns, but that consumers are now choosing to return to cycle shops, particularly those offering good service, well-stocked showrooms, and competitive pricing.
He added: “Aside from the potential for new bicycle sales to continue to be reasonable as the underlying bicycle market grows for the future, I think there will be significant opportunities for dealers involved in offering upgrades and servicing for what is almost certainly an expanded customer base of cyclists as one of the legacy benefit effects of Covid lockdowns.
“I firmly believe that even if the cost-of-living crisis bites many households in the short-term, those cyclists among them who might choose to put off their next new bike purchase are still going to fix and fettle their favourite steeds with the products they want. Again, this is another opportunity for good bike shops with full-service facilities to shine.”
The transport revolution
While the bulk of Ison’s brands cater to the mountain bike and BMX sector, from Identiti jump bikes, to Halo wheels, and Demolition BMX components, the company has also launched into the micromobility revolution with Benno e-cargo bikes.
Townsend sees a number of long-term drivers for the bike industry – leisure time plus fitness and health desires for all age groups, concerns over congestion in the urban environment, demand for greener transport solutions, increasing media coverage of cycling disciplines in competition sport, and access to sports with an added adrenaline rush.
He said: “I believe that e-bikes and micromobility scooters are set to increase, but right now I don’t foresee muscle bikes becoming totally redundant as a direct consequence. If anything, the technical advancement of e-bikes and micromobility devices and cargo bike delivery services will
serve to increase the acceptance, infrastructure investments, and use of the bicycle in all its related forms. Cycling will continue to evolve, and we, as an industry, will need to adapt to the changes.”
The cycling landscape is changing, according to Townsend, with the shortening of the supply chain structure: “As a consequence, a significant conflict of interest area seems to be emerging between brands and distributors, and larger retailers in their engagement with end consumers.
Many brands are in effect becoming retailers and many larger retailers are becoming brands. This scenario can easily inevitably end up with suppliers and trade customers effectively becoming potential competitors instead of partners.
“I can see a potential situation where major brands (and/or large distributors) effectively take the place in the supply chain of some of the existing independent retail shops. I believe this will be less of the case in the more specialist sectors of the market, as the complex number of product options that the specialist sector can end up handling becomes difficult to efficiently scale for a large organisation.
“I believe that forward-looking IBDs and distributors can work more closely together to form a strong mutual bridge position in the specialist market sectors that will allow them to remain competitive in the future.”
The future for Ison
So what’s next for Ison? There have been no major changes to the portfolio, aside from the addition of KS and Tubolight in 2022. Tubolight tyre inserts are available across disciplines, and Ison offers the product as a stand-alone brand, or as part of the Halo wheels options.
KS dropper seat posts have been impacted by supply chain issues, and Ison has not yet had the full range of posts delivered, but these are expected to arrive, ready for next-day delivery, in early 2023.
Other changes include new products from existing third-party brands, including magnetic mountain bottles and phone cases from Fidlock, new locks from Squire, and new wheels from Princeton CarbonWorks.
Townsend added: “As well as adding new products from our existing great partner brands, we’ve also continued introducing new products from our own in-house developed brands. For example: we have new track and gravel wheels from Halo, new pedals, grips and saddles from Gusset, new drop handlebars and seat posts from Genetic and more.
“Our main focus has ultimately been to underpin relationships with the great brands and dealers we already partner with rather than looking to ‘collect’ additional brands that may potentially dilute our ability to best serve both our customers and suppliers.”
Ison is also investing in its back-office systems to improve its offering for retailers, recently installing a new phone system, upgrading its broadband, and reworking its computer systems to maximise efficiency. On the marketing side, Ison will be present at COREbike in February, along with the London Cycle Show in April, as well as several smaller events.
Late last year, Ison also announced it had reached a sponsorship agreement with iconic indoor skatepark Adrenaline Alley for TSG Helmets, and Ison plans to continue supporting athletes from across disciplines, ranging from the grassroots to Olympic level.
Townsend said: “We recognise that dealers have a lot of choice in who they buy from and which companies they choose to support in their shops. We remain grateful to all of the dealers that continue to support Ison Distribution.”