Curt James knew what he was getting himself into when he decided to peddle bicycles for a living.
The 37-year-old South St. Louis-native grew up in his father’s South St. Louis County bike shops and has witnessed the challenges bicycle retailers face from big-box retailers.
“In my honest opinion, the industry is inconsistent,” James said. “It’s feast or famine, I guess you could say.”
James opened his bike shop in Maryville late last year. He said he had been looking in Collinsville for about a year before he found what he feels is an ideal spot, just further north in Maryville, where he sells Raleigh and Scott brand bicycles and TerraTrike recumbent bikes as well as accessories. He also provides bike repair.
His father, now retired, stops in to James’ The Bicycle Center at 2918 N. Center St. from time to time. Now in his seventh month of business, James has witnessed the changes in the industry first-hand.
“It’s definitely different than it used to be, obviously,” he said. “But I’ve always enjoyed it. I loved bikes and bike riding. My dad made a good living at it, and I’m giving it a shot. I always worked for him and never owned a bike store before. I just worked at them. I’ve done combination of other things in between, but I always came back to the bike store.”
A recent sales report reveals that bicycle retailers sold more bikes last year than the year before. However, overall profit has declined.
Dustin Dobrin, Director of Research and Information at the National Sporting Good Association in Mt. Prospect, Ill., tracks bicycle and sporting goods sales. Earlier this month, he reported that while U.S. bike sales were up by 3 percent in 2014, over 2013, the amount of dollars from those sales were down by 9 percent.
Dobrin said that this suggests that the industry has been carrying a glut of inventory and retailers were selling at a discount to reduce their stock.
He also said that the average price per bike has declined by about 12 percent in that span, which he believes was driven by sharp discounts to help reduce large inventories. Overall, the number of bike riders have been dropping since 2000.
“From the year 2000 to 2014, we’ve seen bicycle riding pretty much flat among adults at about 25.5 million adult bicycle riders, those 18 and older,” Dobrin said. “We’ve also seen a decline in youth riders, which we define as those aged 7 to 17. We’ve seen a drop in youth riders from 17.6 million in 2000 to 10.1 million in 2014. That’s been a big drop.”
Belleville bike shop owner Hal Leventhal has witnessed the industry’s ebbs and flows in his 32 years of working and eventually running Bicycle World at 4516 W. Main St. He watched as high gas prices fueled his business for a time and lured more into the market.
“It peaked in ’08 when fuel prices first went over $4 a gallon,” Leventhal said. “I think it brought in a lot of new retailers that wanted to get into the wave, if you want to call it that, and it’s been good and rising slowly since ’08. It did plateau in ’08, but it’s still very healthy. I just think the peak has been hit, but I think it is slowly growing.”
Steve Parks has been in the bike business since 1979, when he opened his first bike shop in Edwardsville. Today, he still operates The Cyclery and Fitness Center, which also has a store in Centralia, and he opened a third location in Shiloh in January 2014. He said he has seen many other bike shops come and go in his time.
“Part of the reason that people get into this business is they want to do it as a hobby,” Parks said. “This is my profession. We have to make it work. A lot of people when they open stores are thinking all they have to do is sell $5,000 bikes because it’s easy and you don’t have to sell as many. But that’s not what puts food on the table. It’s a lot of things.”
Parks believes providing the best product has kept his business moving forward throughout the years. He said the Giant brand bikes that he sells are the No. 1 selling bicycles in the world and the Trek models that he also carries are the top seller across the nation. His stores also provide expertise when helping customers find the right bike for them.
“We try to sell the right bike to the right customer,” he said.
Over the years, Parks’ business added fitness equipment as fitness retailers have faded from the metro-east.
“All of the fitness stores on this side of river are gone,” he said. “We’ve been selling fitness equipment, which helps us stay in business longer because we have more than bikes.”
James also said his business and other independent operators can take the time to provide personalized attention and provide quality bicycles at good prices in an inconsistent industry.
“I thought there was plenty of room and plenty of population for another bike store, but I’m different than some of the bikes stores that are smaller and family-oriented and some that are bigger and more corporate-like,” he said. “I like to stay smaller because I can keep better prices and provide more personal contact.”
“It’s inconsistent, I would say. But for me, overall, it’s been pretty good.”
Contact reporter Will Buss at email@example.com or 618-239-2526.