The Association of Cycle Traders (ACT) is the largest cycle trade membership organisation in the UK and has been promoting cycling for more than 100 years. Daniel Blackham catches up with director Jonathan Harrison.
This piece first appeared in the October edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
This calendar year has seen the face of the bike industry in the UK and Ireland change.
As the trade body for independent businesses, the ACT has been a source of information, support and advice for many retailers when they need it.
“Our work tends to mirror the experience that cycle retail is going through,” said Jonathan Harrison, director of the ACT, “it dictates, to an extent, what become our priorities.”
“There is no doubt that it has been a challenging year for the sector. The sales peak experienced during the pandemic is over – but that hasn’t come as the shock to the sector that the wider media have been trying to portray. That’s why they’re called peaks.
“But equally, whilst you shouldn’t get too carried away with the highs, the notion that the market has fallen away completely and that interest in cycling has suddenly vanished is equally unhelpful and untrue.”
With the general public starting to seriously consider alternative travel routes that aren’t the car, Harrison hopes that this will begin to positively impact IBDs up and down the country.
“The growth in location based cycle rental schemes, low traffic neighbourhoods – though these now risk becoming a political football with a general election on the horizon – and the focus on active travel, even though the budget for cycling and walking in England has been cut by more than 50%, are all motivators to encourage people to take to two wheels which, we believe, will filter through to cycle retail over time,” he said.
“All of this, of course, has taken place against a background of rising inflation that has provoked a cost-of-living crisis, which has had a knock-on effect on bike shops as it has on all other areas of retail.
“Our task continues to be a source for our members to find the best support and the best services to guide their businesses through this patch and emerge stronger as a result. It might sound a cliché, but challenges are also opportunities, and the bike sector has consistently shown its ability to rise to challenges and seize opportunities.”
ACT and BIRA
In June this year, the British Independent Retail Association (BIRA) announced a merger with the ACT.
This strategic union brings together more than 1,000 independent retailers, fostering a united group of more than 5,000 retailers encompassing diverse sectors such as cycle shops, pet shops and independent department stores.
The enlarged group aims to stand as a “true reflection” of the independent retail sector in the UK.
“The day to day experience with the ACT remains very much business as usual,” explained Harrison.
“But it gives our members the chance to be part of something bigger. It gives us – and therefore, you [IBDs] – a louder voice, a higher profile and increased buying power.
“The merger provides a more influential retail business advocacy role with Government as BIRA is extremely active in lobbying on behalf of the small retailer. In recent years BIRA has enjoyed great success in several policy areas, not least in persuading Government to introduce the retail discount on business rates.”
By joining forces, both BIRA and the ACT anticipate unlocking further growth opportunities and encouraging collaboration within the cycling sector for all of its members.
“It also gives ACT – and therefore BIRA members – access to a much broader range of services, some of which will be coming on stream within a matter of weeks,” said Harrison.
“We have always felt that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and our merger with BIRA gives independent bike shops around the country stronger representation and a louder voice offering better value for money than ever before.”
An important element of the ACT offering is Cytech, one of the bicycle industry’s premier training and accreditation schemes for mechanics.
Cytech is owned by the UK cycle industry via the ACT.
“Cytech has now firmly established itself as the largest cycle technical training and accreditation scheme on an international level,” said Harrison.
“With 14 training locations worldwide, a new addition in Auckland and a soon to be launched Dublin facility – we’ve been busy.”
As with all facets of the trade, Cytech has had to move with the times and expand the course offering to cover e-bikes – but it remains the foundation for those looking to launch their career.
“The course mix has broadened as we partnered with Giant to provide a specific Giant Cytech technical e-bike qualification and in Q4 we’re re-launching the online Cytech theory one,” said Harrison.
“It’s where the Cytech journey begins, suitable for all shop staff working in the cycles trade.
“Over 25,000 accreditations have been attained by candidates since inception and IBDs remain the core audience for Cytech skills development, supported by full Government funding in the UK.”
Understandably, lots of individuals and businesses in the industry will be looking forward to wishing 2023 farewell after the challenges it has presented.
However, with a couple of months left to tick off on the calendar, Harrison and the ACT are looking forward to a couple of positive months to round out the year.
“It’s going to be an exciting few months for the ACT as we launch several key initiatives and partnerships,” he said.
“You’ll probably have seen the announcement of our partnership with gogeta (see news hub P10-11). Like us, gogeta want to get more people on bikes, and they believe changing the way in which the Cycle to work scheme is provided needs a radical re-think.
“After years of working within the constraints of a scheme that has been funded by the IBD, with commission charges of up to 15%, the structure has limited the true potential of the tax incentive to cycle to work (introduced by the Government back in 1999). Now is time to change that.
“The ACT are proud to endorse gogeta to employers, employees and the cycle industry as the solution for a more effective and equitable cycle to work scheme.”
The partnership with gogeta isn’t the only thing that the ACT is preparing to launch.
“We also have a new business banking product to add to our portfolio coming soon,” said Harrison.
“It is something that has been in high demand amongst ACT members for some time now and we are almost ready to press the ‘go’ button. So, watch this space.”
As mentioned earlier, the ACT is not immune from the same challenges and questions facing the industry.
The discourse around e-bike battery fires caused by misuse, cheap conversion kits and unsafe, imported batteries and chargers continues to garner negative media coverage.
Despite this, Harrison believes there is an opportunity hidden within the noise.
“We will be working with partners to provide much more information to cyclists on what to look for to make sure that they are safe and how, for example, to spot fake batteries,” explained Harrison.
“We want to show that e-bikes are safe provided you have them properly maintained and checked, and that you are aware of the precautions you need to take when buying replacement batteries and chargers.
“Again, watch this space for more.”
To find out more about the ACT visit cycleassociation.uk, call 01273 427 700 or email email@example.com.