Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Musings: The Relationship between the LBS and the Online Shopper... can we coexist?

(read the whole post first and then call me a hypocrite)

That's the message. It's an important message. The local bike shop (or LBS) is an important place for the cyclist. More than just a shop, it's often more akin to Cheers bar than just a retailer. However, in the last 10 or so years the LBS has come under serious duress. The cause... Al Gore's internet.

There are many articles, much better written than this one, which detail this battle much better than I can do. However, not many of these articles are from the demographic that I can draw firsthand experience from... so I thought I would add my own two cent.  Let me preface by saying I don't and never have owned nor worked at a bike shop, and as things stand currently, I can't imagine how difficult and stressful it must be to run one. For what it's worth, any of you guys that do own/run a shop, my hat is off to you, I truly wish you all the best. My wife has, and many of my friends as well... but personally, I can only speak from the other side of the river.  This post was brought on mainly because of a conversation I had with some friends over the weekend, where I really had to go through the different emotions I had towards one particular LBS (what I did for many years, and part of me will always, consider my "home" shop) I have unfortunately had to cut all ties with. So here are some of my random thoughts (and maybe some advice from and for people like me) to think on or dismiss as you will. For what it's worth I don't harbor any ill will with this post, nor is this a message to one shop, but to shop's in general. I think East Tennessee is lucky to have as diverse a range of shops as we do, all of which I think are a cut above shops I've visited in other parts of the USA.

First, who am I? It's important to identify *me* so that some perspective can be achieved to what I'm saying.  I'm a fairly rare individual in the grand scheme of consumers you'll come across. I'm a pretty good mechanic, with a full workshop full of tools. To go with the equipment, I also have the knowledge to completely assemble a bike... build a set of wheels, glue a tubular... I'd say there are probably only a handful of people in the surrounding area that can build a fully integrated TT bike as fast or as competently as I can. I am also a good enough fitter to get by, and am a pretty big nerd that knows enough about abbreviations like CdA and Crr to make heads spin. I keep up with fast tires, drivetrain friction, aerodynamic helmets, white papers and hour records.
I also buy almost all the auto parts I need (I run a used car dealership) from ebay. Why? Do I not have a business account (which includes a fairly deep discount and no tax.) with my local parts stores? Sure I do... but they still can't compete. I bought a head kit last week (including the bolts) for $90. The parts store quoted me nearly $300. For the same thing. Shipped straight to my door, tax free, free shipping.

The same thing is true of basically everything, if you are willing to put the time in to look... I'm not blowing any minds here... this is pretty common knowledge.  And so a person like me is torn.

On the one hand, I want my LBS to exist. I want them to thrive. I want them to make money. However, I don't want to pay $60 for a Grand Prix 2000sII at my LBS when I can buy a twin pack from Probikekit for $66.99.  I don't want to pay $10 for an inner tube or $50 for a chain.

A lot of this is not the LBS' fault. They have bills to pay... employees, lights, water, rent, etc. Things a lot of these online retailers don't have. However, it's not my fault that I was forced to take a high school economics class and of all the things I forgot in school, somehow "pay less same thing gud" stuck with me.

There are many, many other classifications of people out there as well, and I'm purposefully mitigating their part in this because I don't have much experience from their shoes. Those like me are certainly the minority. Most consumers don't want to work on their own bike, let alone build it. Nearly once a month when I am out on the greenway I end up helping someone unstick a chain or change a flat tire... they don't want to know, they just want it to work. This isn't just cruisers or "casuals" this also applies to folks buying $10k superbikes... maybe more so as they generally have the disposable income to allow them to "not care." To them, the LBS is truly essential. The first step from a Target bike to a real bike. It's fortunate that they make up a large portion of the consumer still.

The other type is something of a hybrid. They know they can get a better deal online, but they aren't "self sufficient" enough to go through with everything on their own. These are the people I see articles written by LBS owners/employees really dislike. They are the ones who come in, try out every shoe in the shop, then leave and order them online after finding the right fit... or show up with a new bike half assembled that they bought over the internet and expect to have it assembled at the LBS.

There is, in my mind at least, a big difference between me ordering my parts online and working on them in my garage, and me ordering parts online, then bringing it in to let the guys selling the same thing work on it.

My suggestion, to them, to you, to the owners, to everybody in general is the same...

Don't be a Dick.

Think about it before you do something dumb. Weigh the options. If you can't work on your bike, you don't need to annoy/hurt the people you are depending on to keep you on the road. You've got two choices in my opinion... support the people supporting you, or learn to do it yourself and be self sufficient.

Anyways... end the aside on the other folks.  Back to me.
So, you might think, Chris (and guys/gals like me) is pretty much pointless to deal with in any way when he's going to buy online anyways.
You might be wrong.

How you say? Word of mouth. Loyalty. Loyalty you say? How can you buy online and talk about loyalty. Well, easily.  People know I like bikes... people know I like talking about bikes, working on bikes, playing with bikes, riding bikes. So I get asked, pretty often, where somebody should go to buy a bike, or to have their bike that's been sitting in the garage for years serviced. These are people in the upper middle class, with disposable income. They can buy from Dick's Sporting Goods, or they can buy from the local Trek/Specialized/Giant dealer... they don't really know the difference, so they ask for advice. So if you have a bad relationship with somebody like me, I'm not going to send people your way. It's just the way it goes. If we're on friendly terms, we scratch each other's backs and you indirectly make a sale because of word of mouth. And really, I'm pretty low maintenance, right?

But there is more.

Despite what I've said above, you can actually sell to me. How? Two words... Instant gratification.
Sure, I want to be frugal, but like everybody, I don't always have the foresight to know I'm going to need a new derailleur, chain, cogset, c02 cartridge, etc at a moments notice. So often you can make the sale to me at a price much higher than I'd normally pay, because I want it now. There are two killer's to this however... 1.) You've got the full on price gouge on. I might be willing to pay retail to have it now, but hit me with over retail and either I'm gone, or I'm going to remember it and plan to not be in that situation again. 2.) You don't have what I need. The killer of any deal is "we can order it." Sure... so can I, cheaper and probably have it delivered faster.
How do you prepare for that as a shop.
- Keep mid grade disposables in stock. I'm talking 105, Chorus, Rival type stuff. The price is cheaper and the quality is race worthy, so I'm not going to get hit with sticker shock and walk out when all you keep in stock is a $100 Super Record chain.
- Keep all the random necessities stocked up. Tubes, tires, cables, housing, random small parts. These are things everyone will eventually need, including me.
- Apparel/stickers/kit/etc - Look, I need bibs, jerseys, socks and other apparel to ride in. Have some nice kit in a variety of sizes, don't be a dick, and you'll probably see me in your apparel. Hey, free advertising (actually better than free, as I bought it) same thing with T-shirts, hats, bottle openers, coffee mugs, stickers, magnets, etc. $3 - $10 trinkets are things I look at as I'm walking out and think... that's cool. Impulse.

Another thought for the future of the LBS. Adapt. Most of all... be involved! How can you be a local bike shop if you aren't involved in the local scene. Be at races, hell, try to host races. Talk to the local teams and racers, Offer a service other than just selling bikes and parts. There are guys out there that are worth your time... and worth being paid well. We know nobody is going to get rich at the bike shop, but it's a job a lot of people love and would take less pay so long as they don't feel like they were better off going to McDonald's.

- The Mechanic
The mechanic is essential, and a trustworthy mechanic that has a range of knowledge that spans most things on two wheels is almost legendary, and nearly as scarce. With good wrench work you will keep your customers coming in and almost certainly start drawing in more business when the skills of your shop man are spread. Ideally you'd have a mechanic that can kind of "do it all," build/true wheels, work on integrated bikes, mountain bikes and cruiser bikes... diagnose on the spot and, dare I say, have enough sales sense to open the door to the "up-sale" and the wisdom to see those times. A solid wrench WILL make or break a shop and draw or repel new business.

- The Fitter
 Even rarer than the mechanic, a proper fitter can draw people from other states to the shop. In this day and age, we all (should) know some things... fit is very important, bike sizes vary wildly from brand to brand (look at say a 52 Ridley and a 52 Cervelo) and, most importantly, a good fit is VERY, VERY difficult to find. (Just look at your local race pictures) Again, if he (or she) is a good salesman to go with it (hey this stem would work great on your bike! Let's just try it out!) then you've got a real investment. The day's of the "Standover" bike fit are over.  There are many expensive and excellent fit tools available today, but a true master doesn't need a whole lot more than a his eyes and ears, and a little confidence, to work his craft.

- The Salesman
In my experience, the salesman gets the short end of the stick. Often just a second thought, hired high school/college kid, family, etc... a real salesman in a bike shop is a rider, preferably a couple of riders who enjoy different kinds of riding, and are knowledgeable (and interested) in what they are selling. If a customer asks about road tires, you need somebody who knows (and can sell) the differences between a Gatorskin and a SuperSonic.  There's nothing more disheartening to a consumer than to ask important (whether important in general or just important to them) questions only to get the "university" response, or worse, a blank look followed by BS. If you don't know something, it's fine, but if you don't know anything about what you're selling...well it's going to be tough to instill confidence in the customer.

For all I've rambled on about, I honestly don't think the sky is falling for the Local Bike Shop. They have had to (and continue to) adapt to compete in some ways with online retailers, but the LBS has something very, very important that you can't get online... that sense of wonder and companionship. Putting hands on the new kit, bike or whatever is still reminiscent of when we were kids in the toy store with our parents. Talking shop with fellow riders, just hanging out being "shop rats" has a huge appeal of community and fellowship that can't be emulated with a drop to cart web page.

So, will I continue to support my local bike shop... yes, unless they alienate me, I'll be singing their praises, buying their kit, and using them when I can. Will I still buy online. Yes, it's one of the benefits to being self sufficient. Can we all get along? I think so... although some others do not.

I'd love to hear your opinions and thoughts, especially if you are in the business. Let's make an attempt to keep it civil, but certainly let's hear your opinion.

Until next time, thanks so much for reading!

- Christopher Morelock

1 comment:

  1. I'm in the "could work on my own bike but really don't" category. No place to put the tools. It's enjoyable to work...but I don't have a space and fall a little towards "just want it to work" who enjoys riding more than wrenching.

    That said, I think LBS have bigger problems than just price. They often make no effort to get to know me, please me, earn my dollars. It's not just this store or that one...I can think of *multiple* stores in the Chicago area who are friendly but not...welcoming? Cycling is tough because we have so many flavors of rider. You can't please everybody. If you cater to racers you deter the commuters, etc..

    My two cents is I'd just like a store where they know I'm going to shop online, but work WITH me to do the stuff they can. Heck, maybe I'll buy the more expensive part if they develop the relationship. I don't need to be worshipped for walking in the door. But I do need some customer service. "Hey, we sold you that bike 2 years ago, any problems with it?" I'd love a discount coupon to remind me to come in for a tune up on that old hybrid I didn't buy from you but have serviced occasionally. Maybe a standing offer that if you buy parts online you can come in and get things installed as a courtesy.