Cyclesmith Shifts Gears to Respond to Global Bike Boom

Halifax bike shop owner Andrew Feenstra BComm'95 pivots to keep up with customer demand during pandemic

By Gail Lethbridge

Photo: Meghan Tansey Whitton

You may think that having a roaring demand for your product is a good problem for a retail entrepreneur. There certainly are advantages, but when you’re in the middle of a pandemic, your store is shut down, you are having trouble sourcing inventory, and you are so exhausted you can barely see straight, too much demand can feel like the pressure of a tire about to blow out. For the past 15 months or so, this has been the world of Andrew Feenstra BComm’95, owner of Cyclesmith, which sells bikes, biking equipment and accessories to a community of cyclists in Halifax and beyond. “Inventory is still very stressed, but we are managing well,” said Feenstra, in April. “We have orders arriving daily for bikes and parts, but it's only keeping up with demand, not building up a supply.” It has been a long pandemic for Feenstra, of Dartmouth, who has been working in the business since 1994, first as a staffer and later as an owner. Shifting Gears

To use a cycling metaphor, Cyclesmith has been switching gears—up and down—since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world and their business. In the parlance of business, they have been “pivoting.” The pace has been breathless and the pressure unrelenting. Keeping the business going, meeting demand, and finding a supply of bikes has been an exercise in passion, persistence, and pure determination. But in a pandemic, you need to multiply these qualities by 100, simply to survive.

"A bike allows us to go away and escape from everything.” “We’re in the middle of a worldwide bike boom right now,” says Feenstra. “People are going back to basics. A bike is a simple thing that gives us that taste of freedom, from COVID-19, cellphones, and laptops. A bike allows us to go away and escape from everything.” That is certainly the positive for Feenstra, who believes bikes are a lifestyle accessory that can address many of the problems faced by the world today. He continues, “They build fitness, reduce traffic congestion, and they are environmentally friendly.”

The Perfect Storm

However, getting the product itself has been a challenge. Bike factories all over the world shut down in the beginning of the pandemic. The supply crunch, coupled with the surge in demand, produced what Feenstra calls “the perfect storm.” Feenstra, who has been in the bike business for almost 30 years, had to make some dramatic changes, fast. In addition to the supply and demand problems, he had to concern himself with keeping his staff and customers safe. Feenstra and his staff were now in the business of monitoring essential practices such as masking, safe-distancing, and other public health protocols. There were long lines of customers outside of his store, sometimes waiting for hours. Because COVID-19 numbers and restrictions were always in flux, the business model had to continue changing to respond to rapid changes. When the store was open, there were capacity restrictions. When COVID-19 numbers declined, the capacity restrictions were lifted. When COVID-19 numbers spiked, Cyclesmith and most other retail operations were shut down completely. New restrictions mean new business models Feenstra decided to shift his business model towards e-commerce. Staff were redeveloped from floor service to websites and social media channels. More staff were hired just to answer the phones, which were ringing off the hook. “We have grown four years in the past 12 months,” Feenstra says. “We went from 19 staff in March 2020, to 30 staff in March 2021. We have an entire E-comm department of four staff, which was only one staff member in 2019.” Cyclesmith’s online sales were less than 4% of sales in 2019 and now represent 20% of sales, and the growth has created unplanned issues as one action has the potential to cause a chain reaction in other areas of the business. To keep his employees safe and well, Feenstra also had to divide staff into discreet units and separate shifts to keep contact minimal. The last thing he wanted in this perfect storm was an outbreak of COVID-19.

Repair container in the parking lot The other part of Cyclesmith’s business model is repairs and tune-ups. That too had to change to meet the demands of the pandemic. Planning for summer COVID-19 restrictions, Feenstra found a shipping container and set up the repair operations in the parking lot outside of the store. “We never would have guessed we would be in full lockdown,” he explains. “Now, it's a blessing to have it. It’s been so well received by our customers, and we are again trying to offer best in class service under such circumstances.” Meanwhile, the demand continued. People wanted bikes. They wanted road bikes, all-purpose hybrids, mountain bikes, gravel bikes, and electric bikes. People of all ages wanted them, from children and families to weekend road warriors to seniors. Customer service and relationships with clients is a huge priority for Cyclesmith. Feenstra says this is the backbone of his business. Yet, it is hard to create a positive customer experience when you are monitoring safety practices and advising customers that they will have to order online, possibly waiting months for their bike to arrive. At one point, Cyclesmith shut down their phone service altogether because staff simply could not keep up with calls. They pivoted again to email-only service which presented new challenges because not everyone has email, and it takes longer to process orders.

Sometimes it was overwhelming When he looks back at a year like no other, Feenstra recalls a few times when it all felt too overwhelming. “There were three distinct times, last year,” he begins. “We were working ridiculously long hours. I was working 5 a.m. to midnight. One night, I was driving home. I realized I hadn’t had anything to eat for supper. I pulled into a fast-food parking lot and just sat there and ate, with tears in my eyes. I had sleep deprivation, staff was stressed, there was so much customer demand.” These are the lonely moments for an entrepreneur. But, with some sleep, food, and, while digging deep, Feenstra kept moving through the tunnel of uncertainty. The unknowns of uncertainty The toughest part of being an entrepreneur in a pandemic is navigating the constant state of uncertainty, with no road map. Beyond global supply chains unable to keep up with the increased demand for bikes, Feenstra says, “What was typically a 15-day turnaround has become a 500+-day turn around.” This global backdrop heightens the levels of stress when a local store is your livelihood and your life, when you’re waiting for that next announcement of a shutdown or a change, compiled with the general anxiety amongst staff and customers about what COVID-19 is doing to the business, the community, and the world. The upside of lockdowns If there is an upside to the full lockdowns of Spring 2021, it is that the business has learned to evolve. The constant pace of change has become the “new normal” for Cyclesmith. However, knowing the stress his staff is under with role changes, fear of COVID-19 and long hours, Feenstra does little things to boost morale. He buys them treats, such as candy boxes from another local business, chocolate, and pepperoni pizzas. And if staff hours are reduced or staff are sent home, he pays them their full hours. Lifelong learning prepared Feenstra For Feenstra, who completed a Bachelor of Commerce at Saint Mary’s University in 1995, his lifelong interest and passion for learning has been good preparation. Long before the pandemic, he was making changes to the business and expanding it to an online model in addition to in-store service. Feenstra was also reading up on retail, service and leadership. Bikes are his business, but he looked beyond his specific industry to learn about other best practices in retail. “Be prepared and the score will take care of itself,” he offers. “Take note of the great shopping/retail/online experiences you have and try to adapt them to your business. No need to reinvent the wheel, just make it better.” Feenstra says he does not just want to be the best bike shop in town, he wants to be the best retailer in town. You need to find the “Wow” factor, in retail. That is the magic.”

Photos: threesixfive

Homing Instinct

By Alec Bruce

Faculty member Dr. Evangelia Tastsoglou

How did Dr. Evangelia Tastsoglou of SMU’s Sociology department become an international expert on refugees? Apart from stellar work, it runs in the family. Tastsoglou, Professor of Sociology and International Development Studies at Saint Mary’s University and recent recipient of the prestigious 2020 President’s Award for Excellence in Research, is surrounded by books she has collected on her travels around the world. She speaks emphatically about being the only child of a shopkeeper in a family of refugees in 1960s Piraeus, when she halts in mid-sentence. “Stop me if you’ve heard this before,” she says, smiling wryly. “My father and his family were among the one million or more ethnic Greeks who had to leave the former Ottoman Empire after the 1922 treaty with Turkey. They spoke very little Greek, and when they learned the language, they spoke it with an accent.” Tastsoglou says that her mother came from a small village in the Eastern Peloponnese called Kranidi, products of their time and circumstances. “They weren’t well educated. They never had much money. But they always supported whatever I wanted to do.” Her point: “I want to know how people make homes, because it is very meaningful to me.”

In fact, it is a point that resonates for millions across the planet. According to a 2019 United Nations Refugee Agency study, the number of “forcibly displaced people” rose to 70.8 million in 2018, from 43.3 million in 2009. Last year, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated: “Waves of COVID-19 hitting many countries has increased the risk of exploitation of women, children, migrants and other vulnerable people stranded with no way home and no social benefits where they are.”

Tastsoglou, one of the world’s leading thinkers on global migration, is working on a book about the causes and impacts of violence against women migrants and refugees for Palgrave Macmillan Publishing.

Meanwhile, the first round of results from an international team she leads investigating “Gendering Violence and Precarity in Forced Migration: Asylum-Seeking Women in the Eastern Mediterranean”, will appear shortly in Refugees and Conflict, Frontiers in Human Dynamics (Open Access). And she is investigating with partners in industry, and at Dalhousie’s Faculty of Computer Science and Department of Psychiatry, the impact of the pandemic on Canadians’ mental health. “Interdisciplinary approaches have always been vital to my research,” she says. “But this is further expanding those horizons.”

Expanding horizons has come naturally to Tastsoglou, since she was a child in Athens. Growing up, she had good teachers as close as the dinner table. “My father was oldest in a family of three boys, and he had to work,” she says. “But he always dreamed of education, and he always read. Working near the port of Piraeus, he picked up all kinds of languages.” She also learned from her mother. “She didn’t have the opportunity to pursue her education, but she had two sisters, one of whom was a schoolteacher who gave me all kinds of books,” she says. “In a sense, I had four parents.” After completing a degree in Law at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in 1981, she pursued graduate studies in Sociology at Boston University in the United States. “I came to Sociology out of a search for moving beyond the technicalities of law toward understanding the social world, and the place of law in it,” she told the journal, Current Sociology.

“[I was] in contact with a community of remarkable teachers, critical social thinkers, researchers and practitioners of Sociology from whom I learned the differences of a sociological perspective from a legal mindset. I was deeply inspired in particular by my feminist professors and extraordinary role models.”

Dr. Tastsoglou (center) pictured with Kathryn Bates-Khan, manager of the Gender-Based Violence Prevention Program at the YMCA Centre for Immigrant Programs and Chantelle Falconer, former post-doctoral student with Dr. Tastsoglou

Tastsoglou earned her PhD in 1990, did a post-doc at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto, and taught Sociology under a Limited Term Appointment (LTA) at Ryerson University between 1990 and 1993. Then came the meeting that changed the course of her career. “I came to Halifax,” she recalls, “a city that I knew from reading, for an interview in the Department of Sociology. It was 1993, June, bright sunshine, and they put me in a suite facing the ocean at the Westin Hotel.” It was in the middle of a recession, “and, being a multiple outsider, there were no jobs I could compete for in Toronto.” The interview for the Department of Sociology was her first. She was the last candidate. “I come from a port city, not unlike Halifax. The cranes and everything else that my colleagues took me around the see reminded me of similar images of my childhood. The sea always played a big role in my life. That fact about Halifax was important to me.” Tastsoglou got the job and began the work that has consumed her since: teaching, researching, administering, learning – expanding her horizons. She became chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Saint Mary’s in 2006 and remained until 2012. Between 2014 and 2017, she completed a master’s in law (at Dalhousie, with a special focus on international human rights, migrants, and refugees), and was cross-appointed to International Development Studies at SMU in 2017 where she is the Coordinator of the International Development Studies Program.

Outside of Saint Mary’s, she has been president of the Research Committee of Women in Society, International Sociological Association (ISA, 2010-2014), and elected member of the ISA Research Council and Executive Committee (2014-2018). Currently, she is president of the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association. “My main allies and support network have come from international professional networks, such as the International Sociological Association – especially its feminist network – but also European, Greek, and Greek global diaspora academic communities,” she says. “There are academics in Canada, many of immigrant and racialized origins, and many colleagues in my career at Saint Mary’s University. I could name a good number of individuals with specific influences at different times in my life.”

Her list of published works is as long as it is distinguished, and include: Women, Migration and Citizenship: Making Local, National and Transnational Connections (Ashgate, 2006); Women, Gender and Diasporic Lives: Labor, Community and Identity in Greek Migrations (Lexington Books, 2009); Contours of Citizenship: Women, Diversity and the Practice of Citizenship (Ashgate, 2010); Immigrant Women in Atlantic Canada: Challenges, Negotiations, Re-Constructions (Canadian Scholars' Press/Women's Press, 2011); The Warmth of the Welcome: Is Atlantic Canada a Home away from Home for Immigrants? (Cape Breton University Press, 2015); and, Interrogating Gender, Violence, and the State in National and Transnational Contexts (Current Sociology Monograph Series, 2016).

And she is not done yet making friends and influencing people. On the new research that interests Palgrave Macmillan Publishing, she says: “This is a major international program with a view to shaping effective policy to address the causes and impacts of violence against women migrants and refugees. Our Canadian team of scholars at four institutions is supported by funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and employs a three-year full-time post-doctoral fellow and numerous student research assistants.” The program was developed in response to a call from GENDER-NET Plus, a consortium of 16 organizations from 13 countries, aiming to strengthen transnational research while promoting gender equality through institutional change. Similarly, she says, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded “Gendering Violence and Precarity in Forced Migration” project “seeks to understand the journeys of asylum-seeking women toward the EU through what is known as the Eastern Mediterranean route, in the tumultuous, second decade of the 21st century. Our findings locate five points in this forced migration journey where precarity interweaves with violence, reinforcing one another, as well as show their gendered forms: border crossing, the asylum determination process, living conditions, services, and state response.” About the COVID-19 project, Tastsoglou says, “This is a truly rewarding collaboration, not only in terms of building substantive knowledge but also in pioneering interdisciplinary methodology that combines, with sociological input, machine learning methods applied to text mining, followed by qualitative analysis. Team members learn how to negotiate a common ‘language’ across very different disciplines.” Ultimately, it may be features from Tastsoglou’s own life that resonate most deeply in her work of four decades. She is married to Dr. Evangelos Milios, who teaches Computer Science at Dalhousie University. The couple has two children: Athena, who has just finished her first year of a Doctor of Pharmacy degree; and Aristides, who is about to start his master’s in computer science. That is how some people, Tastsoglou might agree, make homes that are very, very meaningful to them.

Innovative New Lab Tackles the

World’s Most ‘Wicked’ Problems

By Margaret Page

Everywhere we turn, issues are affecting our world such as climate change, poverty, food security, equality and the response to COVID-19. Deemed ‘wicked’ problems, these challenges are so complex, multifaceted and interdependent that they are difficult to solve. Tackling wicked problems requires a unique and interdisciplinary approach, which is exactly what Saint Mary’s is doing through its Wicked Problems Lab. “We created the lab specifically to pull together Saint Mary’s expertise and resources to address wicked problems,” explains Dr. Adam Sarty, Dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research. “The lab serves as a hub where faculty and students collaborate on solving these issues using research techniques, methodologies, various geospatial software and other tools.” Launched virtually last summer, and made possible by gifts from the Windsor Foundation, the Hewitt Foundation, and Dr. Daniel McCarthy BComm’76 DComm’11, the Wicked Problems Lab joins faculty and student researchers together in an environment of collaborative teaching, learning and research that centres big data, software, analytic techniques and resources to solve wicked problems. “In the Wicked Problems Lab, we are helping solve wicked problems both locally and around the world,” explains Dr. Mathew Novak, Director of the Wicked Problems Lab. “Across Nova Scotia, we are helping track the COVID-19 pandemic and working with Feed Nova Scotia to provide better access for their existing clients and identifying areas where more services are needed. The training we offer students will allow them to go out and tackle many other problems in the years to come.” Wicked Problem-solvers Located on the second floor of the Atrium at Saint Mary’s, the Wicked Problems Lab is a cutting-edge teaching, learning and research facility that involves students in every aspect. The resources available in the lab help students in every discipline. Through workshops, training and research assistance, the lab helps students with the skills, tools and support they need to navigate the massive amount of data available, and to look at it in new ways to discover insights.

Dr. Mathew Novak

“Students are our future leaders, scientists and community builders”

“Students are our future leaders, scientists and community builders,” says Dr. Kahn Rahaman, Research Analyst at the Wicked Problems Lab. “They must prepare themselves to contribute their acquired knowledge from university to immediately deliver once they land in their professional jobs. Since students are aware of the up-to-date techniques from their study programs, they will be able to respond to wicked problems quickly.” Geography undergrad Mark Funnell is just one of the many students who are leveraging the lab’s resources to inform their projects. “I have been lucky enough to attend both of the Wicked Problem’s Lab workshops to date,” says Funnell. “The first, focused on learning and utilisation of geographic information system methods. The second, focused on the availability and usability of data from Statistics Canada and past censuses.” Funnell says that the skills gained from these workshops have helped create and illustrate points in other works. Since completing the workshops, Funnell has become an undergraduate summer research assistant with the Wicked Problems Lab. Currently, he is conducting research to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m developing skills with qualitative data analysis software in order to understand the impact of the pandemic on local urban governance,” explains Funnell. “Through the workshops and the research position, I have developed usable skills for my university career and beyond.”

Understanding the “Hidden Hungry” One of the most pressing wicked problems is food access and security. This has been a global issue since the 1930s and continues to be one of the most complex problems involving interconnected cultural, socioeconomic and political aspects. In September, the Wicked Problems Lab partnered with Feed Nova Scotia and launched a geographic information system project to understand food accessibility and security in the province. “We examined current services provided along with where clients are residing, and then identified gaps by looking at predicted demand for services based on socioeconomic data contained in the census in order to efficiently allocate resources,” explains Dr. Novak. “Large grocery store chains such as Sobeys and Loblaws do such analysis all the time when looking to examine their current operations and locate new stores; however, non-profits such as food banks typically have limited access to such analytics.”  As a result of the project, the Wicked Problems Lab identified areas of underservicing and made recommendations for better utilization of Feed Nova Scotia’s resources. “Understanding the “hidden hungry” has long been a challenge,” says Nick Jennery, Feed Nova Scotia’s Executive Director. “Thanks to the great work of the Wicked Problems Lab and their layered heat maps, we have a much better fix on the problem and what it will take to improve food security in Nova Scotia.” Building Community-based Research Capacity The Wicked Problems Lab continues to foster collaboration and build community-based research capacity at Saint Mary’s, supporting local communities in “building their capacities to understand the issues and how to respond scientifically,” says Dr. Rahaman. The Feed Nova Scotia project has room to expand, including bringing in other non-profit and social welfare organizations. This Spring, the Wicked Problems Lab began data collection for its climate modeling and pandemic research projects. The lab has also developed two new research streams, which will grow over the next 1-2 years. This includes a research stream on climate modeling, lead by Dr. Rahaman’s expertise, and another on Dr. Novak’s urban planning interests to document the ways COVID-19 has impacted municipal governance and policy. The Wicked Problems Lab will also be involved in the new interdisciplinary course offered to Masters students across Saint Mary’s with the lab offering technical expertise as students address real-world issues. “More and more, the ideas incubated on campus are applied to tackling real-world issues,” says Dr. Novak. “We hope to make the Saint Mary’s community more aware of the new tools available to address problems from the minor to the major, from close to home or far away.”