Another article about bike delays and shortages, another extremely mixed bag of comments. After we followed up from a forum post on delays at Ribble with an article a fortnight ago, lots of you got in touch once more. One of those was Ben Mowbray of E-Bikeshop, who sent us a detailed explanation of the problems his company are continuing to deal with.
While the situation is hard on everyone and no one likes to still be waiting for a bike they ordered months ago, we felt Ben's thoughts were worthy of publication to allow our readers even more insight into the issues being faced across the bike industry. Here is Ben's email to us in full:
I read with great interest your article on delays from Ribble and the customer response to them over breakfast this morning.
Although a competitor, I can identify with their operational issues. Of course, the cycling industry globally is suffering. With delays in component production, shipping of these components to assembly factories, and then delays with these factories themselves, lead times move back and forth all the time and while there's little excuse for poor customer service, often, it's more often than not (at E-Bikeshop at least), not of our own choosing. Everything moves more slowly and costs much more now.
A retailer of multiple brands, we're in exactly the same boat. At the height of demand last year, we were managing as many as 500+ pre-orders at any one time, with as many as a couple of dozen bikes both joining and leaving that number each day.
Before exploring the "why" of the issues this creates, it's probably also useful to understand how orders used to be placed by retailers, and how we have to do them now.
Prior to the CV19 pandemic and prior to the launch of a new model year, we would order around 3 months' worth of bikes from each manufacturer and at the same time, provide them with a "forecast" of what we expect to sell in the remaining 9 months. Topping this up throughout the year was no issue and we could order "on spec". Cube for example are making 196 different ebike variations this year (yes, we counted!). We only stock around 40 of these, picking out what we believe to be the best value. If we needed something for a customer that we didn't ordinarily stock, it was absolutely fine to order just a single bike from them and it would arrive around a week later.
Since 2020, this has all gone out of the window. Now, because of the spike in demand for all bikes and increased pressure on the manufacturers by their component suppliers, we have to order an entire year's worth of bikes up front. We're also in most cases expected to do this with no dates, specifications and before we even know the price of what we're ordering. Millions of pounds of product ordered on blind faith in the brand, along with a reasonable amount of "guesstimation" from the previous year and market experience. If we dont do this, we get nothing. Most of the manufacturers are currently able to sell their entire year's production capacity to dealers globally in less than a week from opening their order books. Once this "book" closes, we can't order any more, at all, at any point in the year so it's important to get it right.
Even once this difficult process is complete, it's not simply a case of the bikes just all arriving in one big truck on launch day. We have a very large capacity for storage but like all shops, we can't take our annual allocations for bikes all in one go and likewise, the manufacturers can't make them all in one go for everyone either.
Our orders are broken down into monthly deliveries - a trade-off between when we expect to need them, against when the manufacturer expects to be able to get them out of the door based on when they expect to get all of the components together from often dozens of other businesses like Shimano, Bosch, Schwalbe, etc. This means that contrary to what might seem logical, we don't get a whole model line in all sizes and colours in one go. We might for example get all of the smalls one month, mediums the next, etc. We can request an even spread of models/sizes/colours arriving each month, but this is very much at the discretion of the manufacturer and based on what components they have arriving at their factories, and when.
It's probably now easy to form the picture in your mind that from a dealer perspective, this is a huge headache and logistical nightmare over the way things were previously. Long gone are the days where you simply ordered something and it arrived without much hassle. We now have the same dozens of suppliers, in turn fed by hundreds of individual component manufacturers spread out around the world, but who are now also all dealing with the effects of Covid on their staff, business operations and country. If any one of these suffers a delay due to raw material shortage, labour shortage, a decreased output due to government mandated social distancing in the workplace or as has been the case with Shimano on more than one occasion, a total government enforced factory closure , this has a knock on effect all the way down the chain.
In order to effectively manage the now much larger order volume along with the extra customer service and administration that goes along with it, we employ someone full time just to handle the process here. Twice a week, with unbelievable diligence and precision, she manually checks thousands of individual bikes in multiple bike manufacturer backorder reports and aligns them to customer pre-orders already in our system. The "rest" (bikes ordered by us without a pre-order against them already) are listed on our website with expected arrival dates. We've recently moved to providing a "chart" on each product page to highlight each size/colour variant and its ETA.
The biggest issue is that none of our suppliers provide us with pro-active notice on delays and this will be the same for other UK retailers of the same (and no doubt other) brands. We're expected to find this information for ourselves. It's entirely possible, for instance, that we might believe a bike is due to leave a manufacturer tomorrow for delivery to us in a few days time, and with no notice we can find its date moved 3 months into the future. It's literally impossible to account for. How are retailers expected to offer class-leading customer service with such scant proactive information?
When doing our weekly checks, we verify every bike on the back order for each manufacturer, not just the ones which might be due in the coming days/weeks in order to make sure that every bike remains accounted for throughout the whole process (around a days work each week). Very often, we might find bikes originally due to arrive in a month's time are now due in 2-6 months time (my own new MyO build Orbea Orca suffered this on several occasions).
Any time a bike is delayed, we immediately email all affected customers. This can sometimes be hundreds of customers who we email individually, with their name, order number, and new delivery "ETA Month". Often we can be sat in the office until late into the night to do so. You could call these the "lucky ones'', where we've been able to give them reasonable notice that there's a delay and offer the option to switch to a sooner arriving bike. For the ones where we discover with just 24 hours until the expected ship date that the bike has been delayed by a month or more, what more can we do as a retailer?
When it comes to communication, there doesn't seem to be any right or wrong answer. Bikes more often than not don't just get "re-dated" once. They can move back and forth on a daily or weekly basis, probably in line with visibility of components at the manufacturer.
Of course, we could update the customer every time their bike moves, but we've tried it before and it made customers more angry. Emailing someone the first time it's moved to tell them it's been delayed by 3 months only to email the next week to say it's come back forward, to then email a third time saying it's gone backwards again as you can probably imagine is highly frustrating for customers. Under promise and over deliver is by far the better option. We give our customers the "delayed date". If it arrives earlier, fantastic. If it's further delayed, we provide them the dreaded news within 24 hours of our finding out.
I guess the short of this is that as retailers, when it comes to dates on bikes in particular, we're the "blind leading the blind" and very much "damned if we do, damned if we dont" in some cases.
The cycling industry is one of few where it's largely staffed by enthusiasts. Good people, personally invested in the hobby and just doing the very best we can for our customers, even when it means the team sitting in the office until 10pm to provide updates. The fall out of course is that while many customers are understanding and we work very hard to get everyone the bike they want in the fastest possible time, a minority are entirely the opposite. We've been called conmen, scammers, we've had people threaten to come and smash our shop up, and I've personally had someone tell me they can find out where I live and carry out violent acts too dark for road.cc to publish, all because of delays out of our control but communicated immediately.
Likewise, when reviews are left, they're not left for CV19 having caused this, not for Shimano for slowing everything up with factory closures, and they're not left with manufacturers for their total lack of reliable visibility to their stores. They're left for the stores. The frontline men and women and the small business, some of whom we've seen are already struggling or closed. The people to be called upon when something goes wrong, or right.
I think it's important as a customer to remember (and is perhaps often not considered) that unless your retailer is obviously willfully neglecting their duty to you as a customer, we have far more to lose than to gain by not providing timely updates to customers. There are delays, but every single part of the bike industry supply chain really is working absolutely flat out to do the best that they can with what they have available and inside the rules set out by their respective government in a mid/post-pandemic world. If it doesn't meet pre-pandemic expectations, it's sadly probably out of our control.
Waiting for anything isn't fun, especially when it's as exciting as a new bike, but we very much share the customers' frustration when it comes to delays. Not only does it mean we're going to have to spend another long night in the office doing our duty to our customers, but it also means we're being limited in our ability to do our job through no fault of our own. We're not in the business of just sitting on people's money - there's no long term gain to be had from it. We're in the business of getting people out and enjoying the UK on two wheels, and nothing beats seeing a customer out of the door on their shiny new bike in the comfort that we'll be there for them when they need us.
A relationship between a bike retailer and its customer should be mutually beneficial and if nurtured through effective, thoughtful communication between the two we can all achieve a lot more now, and hopefully a lot faster once this is all over.