Pandemic windfalls cut both ways for some Holladay companiesOct 04, 2021 12:27PM ● By Zak Sonntag
Eric Flynn tinkers with a client’s bicycle. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)
By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]
At the back of an open-floor bicycle shop in Holladay, Eric Flynn winded the drivetrain of a carbon fiber road bike up on a work stand. The bike’s rear cassette purred with that soft, mechanical hum that cyclists find so soothing. Flynn is replacing a chain derailleur, and it’s one of a long list of repairs on his schedule today, which, like most days since the pandemic began 18 months ago, is positively packed.
“We’ve seen a wave of business like we’ve never had. We’ve been so busy that we had move to this new location because there wasn’t enough room at our first shop,” Flynn said.
Flynn, owner of Flynn Cyclery on Murray-Holladay Road, is amongst a small cohort of local business owners who’ve cruised through the pandemic with flying colors, garnering increased revenue with products that appear tailor-made for the conditions of lock-down lifestyles. Where most companies in the last year have been bending over backwards to sustain sales, Flynn is breaking his back to keep up with them.
“At one point we had 75 open work orders. That is a lot,” Flynn said.
Flynn believes people took to pedaling as a way to ease the ever swelling levels of stress that came with coronavirus uncertainty. Additionally, after hordes were furloughed, people found themselves with more discretionary time.
“The gist is that people got bored and decided they wanted to start biking again. They pulled out their old bikes that had been sitting in the garage and brought them in for repairs. It has been busier than ever.”
Flynn is not the only Holladay-based company to experience lockdown windfalls. Consumer behavior changed in a variety of ways that steered patrons to other local entities as well.
“When people realized they were stuck at home, they needed things to do, which meant I couldn’t keep puzzles in stock to save my life,” explained Kent Parry, owner of Parry’s Office Supply on Holladay Boulevard. “Business was better because people were working from home and they needed stuff they were accustomed to getting from their office, like paper and ink.”
Parry explained, however, that while some changes in consumer behavior lifted sales, the pandemic also chipped away at other forms of revenue, creating an unpredictable seesaw in the financials.
“As I gained new customers in one area, I was also losing some of my commercial accounts because businesses were closing. So far it seems to have balanced out a little in my favor,” Parry said.
If the pandemic-altered consumer behavior tilted slightly in Parry’s favor, his gains are a far cry from those of his retail neighbor, locally owned franchise company ACE Hardware, who has seen gangbuster success since the pandemic began.
“For the first few months following the beginning of the pandemic we exploded. Our sales tripled. The store was filled with customers constantly. People were eager to fix things around the house. Our canning lids and paint were difficult to keep on the shelf,” said Ben Passey, assistant manager at ACE, describing scenes of customers jockeying for supplies.
Success cuts both ways
Yet even as these local businesses saw upticks in sales, the increase cut both ways as the global supply chains were badly disrupted and caused headaches in product sourcing.
“After this huge wave of consumption, all of a sudden the lights went out at the places that make all our products. The whole industry was dried up, so we had to scramble to find parts,” said Flynn, whose industry is “95% dependent on products from Asia.” The timing was especially hard coming after the cycling industry saw price increases from a U.S. tariff war with China, which was just an overture to the supply difficulties that followed with the pandemic sourcing troubles. The issue became problematic to the point that manufacturers implemented “anti-panic buying” policies which limited retailers order placements.
“They won’t let me buy more than five bike chains at a time. So when they’re available a notification goes off on my phone at 6 a.m. and I need to immediately place an order or those chains will be gone,” Flynn said. “People think we’re lazy, but that’s not it. The problem is that we have to wait as long as three months sometimes for something as simple as a derailleur. So we’ll have bikes lined up row after row because we’re waiting on the parts,” he said.
For Parry’s Office Supply, the uncertainty of sourcing is exacerbated by the uncertainty of his commercial accounts. “I lost most of those commercial accounts at the start, and some have come back and some have not. It’s a rollercoaster, and that’s a challenge,” Parry said.
What the future holds
By most metrics, economic uncertainty will continue to characterize the small business environment in Holladay through the rest of the calendar year. A less than rosy August jobs report from the U.S. Department of Labor coupled with swelling delta variant concerns and unexpectedly high hospitalizations threaten to waylay the business recovery and is keeping consumers and small businesses wearily moving into fall.
A recent white paper from Goldman Sachs explained the COVID surge is “slowing the road to recovery,” based on polls of 10,000 small businesses across the country who expressed concern about the increasing infection rates on their business.
Despite some gains, companies like Parry’s and Flynn’s nonetheless are leery about the coming months even as they hope that when we put the pandemic conclusively behind us that the new normal, wherever it settles, will have people hanging on to some of their lockdown habits, including outdoor exercise and the practice of personal letter writing.
“One of the things I like best was to see people writing personal letters to each other as a stay-at- home activity,” said Parry, as he dropped a new fountain pen into his display case. “It was a nice turn back to a sort of personal touch, where people are writing letters to each other as a stay-at- home activity. That has continued, and that’s a great trend for a stationery store.”