Skyrocketing demand. Disrupted supply chains. A worldwide pandemic and lock-down protocols. Not exactly what Skiis and Biikes sibling owners Devin and Gillian Montgomery anticipated when they took over the family business.
Words & Photos :: Kristin Schnelten. Sponsored by Skiis and Biikes
At the height of the summer season, “We had the lowest staff levels we’ve ever had in our stores, with more than triple the demand,” says Devin. “We were selling more bikes than we knew was possible. It was pretty intense, pretty wild.”
But what got them through that crazy summer—and is taking them into an equally unbelievable winter season—is their staff.
“It was pretty amazing to see the staff just rally around a cause, be really positive about everything and help each other out and stay safe, while making sure the customers were safe, too. The experience just really showed how we could bring a team together,” Devin remembers. “If you flex the system to its max, what does it look like? It looked like cooperation and teamwork.”
When the province-wide lock-down hit on March 18, the ski industry was in its end-of-winter wind-down. Seasonal workers would soon head to their summer jobs and remaining stock would be marked down or stored for next season. That gradual annual shift happened in a single day—stores had to pivot, and do it quickly.
For two months, all three locations were shuttered. “It was the first time we’ve ever been closed for more than one day, in 42 years,” says Devin. “We instantly thought we’d be closed for even longer, so after three weeks we had a big online sale. We tried to get product out and raise as much capital as possible for a lifeline, for an unprecedented time in our business.”
They focused on curbside pickups and deliveries. With online sales ramping up and opening-protocol clarity coming from the government, they brought staff back in to ship, receive, deliver — and build. With bike orders coming faster than they could assemble them, their normal one-week wait time was backlogged. “At one point, we had 62 bikes at the Yonge Street store, waiting to be built,” says Devin. “We brought in as many people who could build bikes as possible, and hired support staff to unpack and break down boxes, build specific parts.”
Then the bikes became scarce. New bikes were on back-order for months, throughout North America. Parts were suddenly difficult to find, eventually impossible.
Two of the major component manufacturers, Sram and Shimano, had their supply chain disrupted mid-winter, when the pandemic hit Asia, and “like dominoes, everything started falling away,” says Devin.
When customers couldn’t find bikes to purchase, they pulled decades-old models from their sheds and brought them in for service. Bike mechanics were left scrambling, repairing bikes with what they had on-hand, getting creative with their repairs.
“Mentally, everyone was in the same boat. People just needed some sort of normalcy, and biking gave that to them,” says Devin.
Staff came in early and stayed late. From open to close, all five phone lines were full, making appointments and taking orders. “We’re very lucky that our company is nimble and small, and we can change our strategy pretty quickly,” says Gillian. “Our staff was willing to change up the game plan in an instant. They were all on-board with starting new processes from scratch, just to be adaptive and help customers in a new way.”
Throughout the summer, they focused on appointment-based visits, with just two customers allowed into the store at a time. With bylaws ever-changing, manager Liz says, “Everyone just jumped into it, learning new rules, new protocols, determined to do whatever it would take.”
At the end of bike season, they applied lessons from that head-spinning summer to the upcoming winter.
Gillian spearheaded the effort to diversify their cross-country ski brands. Generally focusing on Fischer cross country skis, they expanded to add Swix, Leki, Rossignol and Atomic. Which was a stroke of genius, as the Fischer ski factory, manufacturer of the vast majority of all XC brands, burned to the ground in October. “It was,” Gillian laughs, “a very 2020 thing to have happened.”
“We’re seeing an unbelievable demand for both cross-country skis and snowshoes. Similar to bikes, they allow customers to get outside safely, together as a family. Even if the ski hills close, you can take them out to a trailhead, farmland, even parks in the city,” says Mississauga location General Manager Liz Katanik. And just like bikes, that demand far outweighs the supply. “Things are selling out before they get to the sales floor. We can’t get our hands on enough.”
Much of this clamour for ski equipment came early, with customers shopping pre-season and early-season, building to late-November.
“We had hired and trained our full team. Inventory was set, stores looking awesome, ready for Christmas,” says Gillian. “We invested money to ensure our boot-fitting stations were safe, with movable plexiglass screens to position between customers and ourselves when fitting, and more plexiglass between customers, seated 6 feet apart, just as a precaution.” Then the second lockdown order arrived. Just before Black Friday. Pivoting yet again, Skiis and Biikes Mississauga and Yonge Street reverted to curbside-only service.
A main pillar of their business through the years has been those personalized boot-fitting sessions, building relationships with customers while ensuring a guaranteed fit. Adapting this time meant moving outdoors, beneath tents. Appointment-only, hands-off fittings in the elements have shortened the traditionally hours-long process, but relationships are still being nurtured.
“I feel there’s a new connection with our customers.”
“I feel there’s a new connection with our customers,” says Gillian. “It’s more of a friendship now, less of a customer-employee thing. When we interact it’s more authentic. People are a little more genuine with their needs and we’re able to really help them, being flexible to help in any way we can.”
Still reeling from a whirlwind summer and now spinning through a winter season of unknowns, Gillian and Devin are bracing for the coming months and years. “Whether it’s new gear or service, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” says Devin. With next seasons’ bikes already on backorder and a never-ending backlog of parts, “I think we’re going to see the ripple effects for a couple years for sure.”
But in a time of distancing and never-ending upheaval, they’ve found a way to grow closer to both their customers and staff. Says Liz, “They’ve just been so resilient and adaptable, and so supportive of each other. I’m just really so proud of everyone.”
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