IBD Focus: The end of the road

Jim Clark, owner of Jim’s Cycles in Northumberland, tells Rebecca Morley why he is retiring from his bike shop after 34 years.

Jim Clark is retiring after 34 years of running his bike shop, Jim’s Cycles, based in Northumberland. This means he will close the shop, a decision that was made partly due to the rise in online sales. In a struggling retail environment where store closures are becoming all too common, he explains the impact the internet has had on his business.

“A lot of it has to do with the retail side of the business, not so much the repair side,” he explains. “On the retail side of it, our figures over the last three to four years have dropped dramatically profit wise. The workshop mid-spring through summer is very busy, but it still doesn’t bail out the front shop. And that’s basically what happened to M Steel Cycles in Gosforth as well, and one or two other businesses.” M Steel Cycles, which had been trading since 1894, shut in 2017. Clark adds that he wants to issue a small thank you and dedication to Geoff Dobson, one of the former owners of M Steel Cycles.

He continues: “Our suppliers need to start looking at their pricing structures. At the end of the day, they’re still making good money. And they’re very reluctant to start giving us better terms, if you want to call it that. If they don’t start giving us better terms, all the small bicycle shops and even the big ones are going to have no customers left. A lot of it is to do with greed. They’ve had a monopoly for years, and so have we. But because of the internet pricing structure and online sites, our way of business that we used to have on a plate isn’t there anymore. We’re looking towards our suppliers to reduce their costs so that we can reduce our costs to the consumer, but it’s just not happening. We’re being drummed out of the market. Even I’m buying parts and spares off the internet, as some of the time, I can find an item cheaper. I feel embarrassed asking customers for certain sums of money when I know that if they went on the internet they could get that at a vastly reduced price.

“Especially for someone like me, who’s been with the trade for 34 years. I’ve been a cyclist for 53 years, I’m an ex-amateur racing cyclist and endurance rider, it’s been my life from the age of 13. That’s one of the main reasons why I’m quitting now, while I’m ahead.” He says people come into the shop with a bag of spares or accessories that they’ve bought off the internet, and ask him to put them on their bike at a knockdown price, which he says he can’t do. He adds that he used to be able to do a subsidised labour charge, because he was making profit on the spares and accessories he was selling, and in turn putting them on the bicycle, but that stopped happening, and Clark describes it as a ‘vicious circle’ which is only going to get worse. “You can only adapt to a certain point, but at the end of the day, if you’re not getting the footfall into the shop because of internet suppliers, how do you drag them in?

“I think what will happen is, if the trade itself, the suppliers, don’t start giving us a fairer deal, then people are going to go on the internet and buy the spares and accessories there, and do the repair from that. There are quite a few businesses around the North East that have closed in the last two years, and they’ve all cited, partially, internet sales. This has been ongoing for the last, with the bicycles, for the last six years, and as far as the workshop, spares and accessories are concerned, probably the last three to three and a half years. It doesn’t matter what you do. I’ve put signs out, ‘discount this’ and ‘discount that’, and advertised, but it doesn’t make any difference. You may be getting rid of or selling a spare or an accessory, but at the end of the day, you have to take less money profit wise. Where’s the logic in it? We’re in it to make money.”

The internet has been a growing concern for many businesses across the retail industry. Cambridge shop Ben Hayward Cycles also closed down in 2017, shutting its doors after trading for over 100 years. The statement on its Facebook page also referenced the changes in the High Street, saying: “The High Street has changed, retailing has changed and despite our best efforts, we find ourselves fighting to survive let alone thrive in our saturated Cambridge/world marketplace.” In November last year, the ‘oldest bike shop in Bath’, Johns Bikes, closed its doors to the public. It had been running since the 1970s. Even established bike shop chains have suffered, one notable example being Evans Cycles. In October last year, the retailer was sold to Sports Direct as part of a pre-pack administration, which resulted in the announcement that half of its stores could close. JD Sports Fashion and Halfords had also been in the race to rescue the struggling retailer, which traces its history back to 1921 when the first F.W. Evans Cycles shop opened on Kennington Road in southeast London.

Clark continues: “There isn’t an overnight solution that’s going to fix this, unless some of the online sites start to go bust, and go under. We all know about Evans, and there are a few more that are struggling. Only the healthy ones will survive, but it’s the healthy ones which are hammering the trade.” Jim’s Cycles has had some staffing changes throughout its time, as 16 years ago when Clark was 50, he dismissed all his workers and decided to run the shop by himself as a one-man band. This helped bring his costs down, he says. “It’s just as well because I own the premises, I’m not paying out rents and things. So I’m not paying a lot out, but I’m still way under what I used to make.”

Now, the shop has been sold to a developer, meaning Jim’s Cycles as it is will cease to exist, he says. “It’s just the climate that we’re living in. There are a lot of business people out there with whizz ideas and all that, but at the end of the day, are those ideas sustainable, and are they making any more money. Optimism is one thing. Surviving and making a living is another. If things had been what they were, there’s no way I would have thought about retiring. I’m still riding about 200 to 250 miles a week. But I’m ready to go, and I will miss the trade. I’ll miss the people who come in, the customers. My customers have been very loyal up to a point, but money speaks. I’ve broken the news to them and they said: ‘Jim, what are we going to do?’ Because there isn’t another bike shop for maybe five or six miles away.

“I’ve always been self-sufficient, and I’ve always tried to give my customers value for money on all aspects. Value on the stuff that I sell them, and value on my expertise and labour. I’ve got a sign on the counter that reads: ‘Skilled labour is not cheap, cheap labour is not skilled.’ Everybody laughs at it, but it’s the truth.”

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