Supply chain bottlenecks are holding up winter gear in Anchorage

Sue Westfield, manager of The Bicycle Shop, on Nov. 12, 2021. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Sue Westfield jogged downstairs to the roomy basement of the The Bicycle Shop in Spenard, the day after Anchorage got its first foot of snow. It was crammed full.

“This is where most of the bikes are stored,” she said, gesturing to a sea of bikes, parked under boxes with more bikes waiting to be assembled.

But the bikes are mostly for the wrong season — summer bikes that came in late this year. There are a few higher-end winter fat-tire bikes in the showroom. The shop is still waiting on the rest. It has a waitlist for fat bikes that goes back to last winter.

Across Anchorage, with snow covering the ground and temperatures dropping, those waitlists are common. The demand for winter outdoor gear is high. And some residents looking for Nordic skis, fat bikes and other winter gear are having a tough time in their search.

“We just have like all these pages and pages of people’s names and phone numbers,” said Westfield, thumbing through a binder. “​​It’s kind of funny because we’ve never really done that before, but we’re just trying to go with the times.”

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Westfield said demand has been high since the pandemic began back in spring 2020.

“Like, there was a point where we only had like unicycles and folding bikes left,” she said. “It was crazy.”

Americans nationwide have increased spending on outdoor gear in the last year and a half of pandemic with less opportunity to be indoors and, in some cases, more disposable income in part due to federal aid money.

At The Bicycle Shop this past summer, it was mountain and road bikes that were low in stock, said Westfield. And trying to get people their rides was a logistical nightmare. Westfield compared it to the life of a day trader. 

“I’ve never worked on Wall Street, but I could imagine it. The moving, shaking,” she laughed. “I mean, it was fun in a way, because it was really challenging to try to get people the bikes that they wanted.”

So why all the delays and shortages?

The increased demand for outdoor gear is just one part of the picture, said Darren Prokop, a professor of logistics at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He said it’s important to consider the myriad steps in the complex, finely tuned supply chains that get those products to Alaska.

“What is the demand and supply of the shipping containers? What about the vehicles that are needed? The ocean vessels? The trucks? What about the drivers and other operators of those vehicles, what’s the demand and supply of them?” Prokop said.

The pandemic has impacted all parts of the system in different ways, resulting in the delays Alaskans are seeing now, said Prokop.

“If there’s any mismatch in any one of those, it will be a ripple effect that will shoot all the way downstream along the supply chain, leading to bottlenecks where you’ll have too much stuff in one place and not enough stuff in another,” he said.

Prokop said the chaos in the supply chain likely won’t be resolved until uncertainty over things like potential lockdowns or worker shortages quiets down. 

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In the meantime, the waitlists for winter gear will likely continue.

Over at Alaska Mountaineering & Hiking, owner Jason Buttrick said demand for skis has also gone up. 

“Some folks are having to wait a few weeks until a pair of skis arrives in a proper size for them, where most years, we’d have like four or five different options for anybody to choose from on kind of any given day,” he said.

Buttrick said the shop pre-ordered skis as soon as they became available, but they’re trickling in as suppliers have them available. He’s also seen limited deliveries for some clothing, snowshoes and boots. 

On a recent weekday afternoon, a long rack on one side of the shop held a few dozen skate and classic skis in various sizes.

“Normally, we’d probably have two to three times as many skis on the wall as we do right now,” Buttrick said.

Even used gear is feeling the effects of increased demand and limited supply. Dana Drummond owns The Hoarding Marmot, an outdoors consignment shop nearby. Nordic skis, backcountry setups and snowboards are all hot right now, he said.

“If we’ve got affordable, at this point, kind of older setups under $300. I mean, those are gone, same day,” he said.

Dana Drummond, owner of The Hoarding Marmot, on Nov. 12, 2021. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Drummond said that despite the demand, the shop hasn’t increased prices. But he said staff are usually less inclined to lower prices on consigned items.

And like everyone else, he’s also waiting on more gear to arrive. 

Drummond said he placed an order for new beginner to intermediate level Nordic skis from a company in Austria over the summer, hoping to expand into the market for affordable ski equipment.

“At one point we expected to get those at the end of September and, here we are, middle of November, and we’ve still got no exact word,” he said.

Back at The Bicycle Shop, Westfield said staff have been aggressive about placing orders early for as many bikes as they can get, betting that demand will keep up like it has the last year and a half. 

More fat bikes are expected in December and January, Westfield said. But unpredictable shipping schedules and manufacturing bottlenecks have made it tricky to get people the bikes they want when they want them.

“In some cases, it’s mostly just domino effect delays, whether it be shipping, or a lot of times certain bikes are just waiting on one or two components — the wheels, the brakes, the drive train,” she said.

Westfield said despite the snow, she’s encouraging customers to get their summer bikes now, while the supply is still good. 

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Kavitha George is the host of Alaska Morning News at Alaska Public Media. She also reports on business, labor and the economy. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org.

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