When worsening news of the novel coronavirus began shattering illusions of maintaining normalcy, swarms of shoppers raided stores, and supplies of disinfectant, toilet paper and N-95 masks vanished from shelves.
After families felt securely armed with essential supplies to carry them through the next millennia, the outdoor recreation industry welcomed a surge in new buyers seeking ways of safely expelling pent-up energy from time at home. But as weeks in isolation stretched into months and the world prepares to round the one-year anniversary, recreation businesses continue facing unparalleled demand that shows no signs of slowing.
“COVID is greater than anything we could’ve dreamed of happening. It’s so outside of the box of anything we’d imagined,” said Jordan Knicely, sales and marketing manager at Mole Hill Bikes in Dayton.
Knicely has been in the business all his life under the hand of his father, who founded the store. He said that as the reality of lockdown began to weigh on families in late March of 2020 and kids transitioned into learning from home, parents flocked to the shop and bought out all entry-level equipment.
“The No. 1 thing going out was kids bikes. Kids were stuck at home from school, and parents needed something for them to do,” Knicely said.
When the entry-level bikes were cleared out, other recreational exercise items followed as people sought ways of dispelling the pressing restlessness of isolation. Then, the higher-end brands began disappearing, too, until there was little left in stock.
“A lot of businesses haven’t done but so well, and it’s kind of been on the opposite side for I think most bike shops because people are trying to get outdoors and do something that is safe,” Knicely said. “We feel like we’ve been blessed.”
But with summer came bumps in the market as manufacturing plants were hit with COVID-19 cases and the surge in demand quickly outpaced the supply. Knicely said the industry’s bottleneck has barely budged.
“Middle of summer we started realizing there isn’t going to be enough bikes,” Knicely said. “It’s hard getting stuff, and backorders went from being a couple of weeks to a month, and then within a period of about three months, we moved to nine to 12 months out, which is kind of where we’ve sat at all winter.”
Harrisonburg resident Steven Cash has been a hobby cyclist for more than 30 years and felt firsthand the fluctuation in the market last year, selling several bikes online and over-ambitiously buying a new set of wheels for himself that he now regrets and is trying to resell over Facebook Marketplace.
Cash said he first got roped into the online market rush last year when he posted a bike for sale. When he heard about the bike shortage, he quickly took it offline, but not before an interested buyer already saw the post.
“I actually wasn’t going to sell mine but had a guy begging me for it,” he said. “It was actually a pretty high price. … My listing was deleted when he contacted me begging to sell it.”
On the trails and roadways, Cash said he had no problem with the bike world, but the shortage made an unnecessary dent in his wallet with the purchase of a 2020 Giant bike.
“The bike shortage really didn’t impact me other than making a poor decision to buy such an expensive bike that I didn’t need,” Cash said. “When I bought this bike, it was literally the last dual suspension bike in the store. At the time there was no telling when there would be more in.”
Some had better luck and were able to profit from the manufacturing bottleneck.
When Harrisonburg resident Marcus Kline and his son took up downhill biking in 2019, Kline thought the sport would be a great father-son bonding activity. Then, the sudden lockdown of 2020 brought a surge of new cyclists onto the trails and his son grew uninterested in the long lines.
“No fun for a kid in 70 degrees with full gear on in line 30 minutes for a five-minute blast,” Kline said of the lift lines that stretched to the parking lot at Bryce Resort.
Rather than let the gear collect dust, Kline put everything online for sale and was able to sell everything in a package deal for a pretty penny.
“Kids downhill bikes sell fast,” he said. “When they see they have to buy a new $4,000 bike if they can find one, then the used search begins.”
Knicely confirmed there’s a hunger for anyone able to keep stock in supply and remembered a cyclist who traveled from Atlanta to purchase a basic gravel bike.
While some big-box stores are restocking outdoor recreation shelves, Knicely said the return to a normal market remains out of sight as stores are forced to blindly order.
“We ordered 2022 models, and they haven’t even given us estimated dates. We’ve just had to order without knowing prices or dates,” he said.
While the bike industry breaks headlines, other outdoor recreation sectors are also struggling to catch a break from the seemingly endless demand.
When asked how business is fairing, Dubby Carr of Dubby’s Fishing and Hunting could only say, “crazy.”
The ability to keep stock is a make-or-break for businesses, and Carr said having empty shelves is no dream come true as it can mean months without customers.
“It’s kind of been a double-edged sword. You sell a lot of stuff, but you run out of a lot of stuff,” Carr said.
Winter’s off-season has allowed the business a cushion to mildly catch up for fishing supplies, but Carr said ammo is a hot commodity for both hunting and personal protection reasons.
“You saw a rush into ammunition because people were afraid,” Carr said. “There were fights over toilet paper and stuff, so people who would’ve never bought a gun bought it for protection. They were afraid of their neighbors.”
Rather than relying on manufacturers for goods, Carr said the freeze in supply for fishing and hunting comes from allocation.
“Now, we basically have to wait,” Carr said. “Under allocation, they don’t even know when they’re going to get it.”
And without reliable supply, Carr said the fear of not meeting payments on bills becomes very real, despite the quick buy-up whenever something is in stock.
“Nobody saw this coming,” Carr said. “If this had happened when I just got in the business, I would not have made it.”