The Department of Goods

Back in the early ’90s I ran across a catalog for a Utah operation called Sierra Trading Post. It was the very first mail-order retailer I had run across selling closeout products from high-end outdoor manufacturers. The market has changed a great deal since then, with a great many new retailers entering the market and the paper catalogs giving way to Internet sites.

However one thing remains constant: Everyone loves closeout pricing.

New sites have proliferated at a rate roughly equal to political sex scandals. Of those, the site formerly known as Backcountry.com has relaunched as a site with more broad-based appeal, hence the name Department of Goods.

Nevermind the fact that in five years the logo is going to look more dated than an episode of the Brady Bunch, the relaunched site not only has great brands (Time, De Rosa Santa Cruz, Patagonia, North Face and Salomon, among others) but has products from these companies that you have likely lusted after. One of the issues I had with Sierra Trading Post back in the day was the fact that if they had my size, it was a color I didn’t want, or vice versa.

With the economy hitting incomes and more, rather than review another premium product that you may or may no accept at its given price point, when I ran across the Department of Goods I thought a heads-up might be in order.

The site is easy to navigate and the discounts real. Most stuff is at least 30 percent off, but deals of 45 percent off or more are there. I’m a big believer in brick-and-mortar retailers, but I’m a bigger believer in spending responsibly so you can afford your lifestyle.

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20 comments

  1. Naz Hamid

    I was pretty surprised that they had renamed themselves into something completely different and with a new brand that was both longer in name and as you said, “dated.” I’m not really sure why the logomark is a sewing machine.

    A bit confounding.

    However, the website is a bit more cleaned up and has a better browsing experience and if they continue with their top notch service (I’ve been a long-time customer), I won’t complain.

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  3. randomactsofcycling

    I am good friends with the guy that owns my LBS. His is a shop that is pitched at the top end of the market and the local area has an average income to support him. Unfortunately I do not! But I do make every effort to buy from him when I can and if it’s a frame or a groupset…something substantial, I like the peace of mind that I can drop into the LBS, take my bike and he’ll take a look at that creaky bottom bracket or bent derailleur cage free of charge. I have however become quite adept at my own repairs and extremely frugal with consumables like tubes/tyres/CO2/bar tape. I also work in retail so I know what the mark-ups can be.
    I’d love to save a bundle and order on-line, but I just couldn’t look him in the eye again of I did.

  4. Aaron Hawkins

    As a long-time shopper/mechanic at my home shop, I struggle to understand how customers revert to mail/web order time after time. The service that an actual person can give in a time of need is simply invaluable. Most serious LBS employees are there for a reason; they love bicycles. They love to see customers happy, riding, and getting what the want/need. They are also the ones that go to great lengths to make that happen. They are the ones that stay 5 hours after the shop has closed to get the repairs done that were promised for the next day. They are also the people that staff race support tents, arrange/staff demo days in the pouring rain, and the ones that will change a flat with you on the side of the road.

    As a young consumer (25), it seems more and more like I am an anomaly, because I simply don’t shop online. I can think of three purchases that I have made in the past year, and one was a T-shirt from RKP.

    As people demand cheaper and cheaper goods, the corresponding service will also go down. See if your Performance Bike CSR can tell you what size allen key you need for Campy Delta brakes, or what the torque specs are for that new crank that they saved $12 on.

    Supporting local and small businesses is crucial to a healthy economy, and I will continue to do so. If I want something, I will visit a local establishment, gather information from them, and then purchase it from them. I will not sit at my computer, go into a local business, question them, haggle on their price, and then go home and order the wrong thing online.

    Big rant over, but this just sets a precedent for consumers that they can get a “deal” on anything. Just spend your money wisely and don’t buy what you can’t afford.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I’m a big supporter of good retailers, but I’ve long since stopped romanticizing bike shops as bastions of ancient knowledge. So many shops pay their staff so poorly they really aren’t much more knowledgeable than what I run into at Starbucks. I’ve been in lots of shops with no torque wrench in sight and it’s a rare shop that has the 3.5mm Allen key for Campy Delta brakes—which should all be retired for safety’s sake.

      I really don’t advocate using the knowledge of your local retailer to the purchase online. Frankly, I think there’s more insight to be had on most products on the Competitive Cyclist site than I get at most bike shops.

      As to torque specs, I can’t say I’d trust shop staff to give me those correctly; I ALWAYS go to the manufacturer’s site if I can’t find the spec on the side of the component.

      I can’t even tell you how many times a shop told me they’d order something for me and the call to announce its arrival never came.

      My personal belief is that online retailers are rather like lions culling the herd. If I walk in a bike shop and don’t see a fitting bay, I don’t hold my breath that they’ll have what I need. If I see a fitting bay, I get excited about making new friends.

      In the grand scheme, online retailers keep competition high. Smart retailers will figure out ways to compete against them. Their best shot is by offering terrific service and enriching the local riding scene so that they engender loyalty. But loyalty like that needs to be earned. I’m constantly on the lookout for those shops; unfortunately, most of my favorites are in a different area code.

  5. Lachlan

    I am also a huge fan of building a relationship with a shop (all the more at the moment where small kids+crazy work means I hardly have time to ride, never mind do all my own work / tub gluing etc)

    HOWEVER – I also buy a lot online. Why?

    - Few shops carry enough of the stuff I want to buy, and they are terrible, really terrible at ordering it. And their distributors tell them nonsense about availability that you can prove is not true in 2 seconds online.
    - Especially on new stuff you can wait 6months or more to get it in a LBS or you can have it tomorrow by FedEx.
    - I know more about the kit and the specs that 99.9% of the staff in LBSs. Sometimes if you don’t get hold of the owner or the top guy, you might as well be at Halfords (or Target if you prefer ; – )) even in some of the better stores.
    - I’m picky : – ) and most LBSs are too small so they carry some of the stuff I want but not all. Sometimes on basic basic level… ie no cinelli cork in white in stock? Fine, I’ll get it online, not run Blue thank you very much.
    - When my LBS is open, I’m at work, or the one day I’m not, then I’m riding.

    So I do my best to buy local, but I’m not going to buy something that’s my 3rd choice, or wait 8 months to do so.

  6. Matt

    FYI – http://www.backcountry.com/ is still around and is just the full retail price operation.

    departmentofgoods is their closeout shop.

    And they also have these one by one deal sites that truly are amazing deals (bonktown.com for example for road bike gear). Check ‘em out.

    As for the LBS / Online retailer converstaion – I’ve had great service from some in both categories and terrible service from some in both categories. The key is human to human contact and getting to somebody you trust.

    If I’m buying tubes or chains or bartape or some other consumable, i’m all about price….

    For a new frame, I’ll probably go to a shop and ride some bikes…

    Remember, both local shops and online retailers have agendas. Anybody ever been to a local shop Trek shop to try to buy wheels and been told the bontragers were the best thing out there? I bet you have.

  7. adam

    I think loyalty is a funny thing. While I do have some degree of loyalty towards my local shops, it’s really for no other reason than that they’re local. The service is average and while stock is impressive there’s very little nudging me over the line to buy it.
    I agree with you, Padraig, Competitive Cyclist is the most informative site around, thier blog is excellent, product reviews frank. From all that I get a sense of passion, so even while they are in AR and on-line, there’s shared passion going on and that fosters loyalty.
    In my view, a lot of LBSs need to pick up their game if they want to survive.

  8. G

    as a manager at a local shop we do our best to keep up to date on the latest and greatest and while trying not to sink our own ship. in the last few years the proliferation of internet based sales has turned most of my employees into walking versions of a competitive cyclist that tend to answer 101 questions about every product in our store for roughly 15-20% of our walk in traffic to turn right around and buy it online for a buck cheaper. its amazing how much people want to come into retail bicycle stores and treat us like we are used car lots! what sets us apart is that personal approach and attention to personal needs that the world wide web just cant offer. while even i sometimes buy online, its typically only for that “unobtanium” item that we can’t get here in the states. otherwise, support your local lbs and let’s all try to keep our economy from crumbling faster than it is anyway…

  9. SinglespeedJarv

    Seeing as this has moved on to a generalisation about LBS vs web/mail I’ll stick my oar in (again…)

    As a kid I was brought up going to the local shop to get my bikes and when I started getting into the sport side of things I went there all the time. But, I don’t any more. When I moved to my present location I found a problem with the usual getting to know the LBS routine. The LBS here doesn’t stock what I want. Now that never was a problem, but I’ve become more fussy as I’ve got older. Also I’ve learnt more about bikes and manufacturers and I don’t rate most of the brands stocked by the LBS. The second problem is that the LBS is one of only 5 bikes shops in a 50mile radius of where I live and the next two nearest shops are also owned by the owner of the LBS. This is hardly a competitive atmosphere and so prices are high, SRP high. The third problem is that they aren’t particularly inclusive. So what, you might ask. So what, indeed. But in an area where there aren’t many cyclists, you’d think those that are there would want to build up a good core of riders. I get on alright with some of the LBS staff, but they keep themselves to themselves, there’s no shop rides, or rides meeting at the shop. So if the LBS doesn’t really try to help the local cyclists, should I put all/some of my trade through them?

    But this doesn’t mean that I shop entirely on-line. I try to put most of my business, including any work I need on the bike that I can’t do, through a shop in Cardiff, two and a half hours drive away. I lived in that city for seven years and the owners were some of the first people I got to know, through the usual, “get to know the LBS routine”. They are some of my best friends and as so I will always put my loyalty to them over any other shop or retailer, but there are times that I want something specific, or something I’m not certain on and online retailers returns policies are very useful. Mostly I’ll get together a shopping list, put a phonecall in and a few days later take a day trip to the LBS

  10. todd k

    Agreed, the game has changed for the brick and mortar part of the industry. Those that continue to survive will do so in large part because they play up services as much as they play up selling goods.

    I am loyal for services. That said, the folks I most trust my bike to for those services, generally have nothing in their shop I wish to purchase. Given that I generally know exactly what I want, and am picky, picky, picky, I just can’t let loyalty trump a general lack of inventory. But my guess is they are getting better margins from me for those services I purchase from them.

  11. Touriste-Routier

    The on-line/catalog vs LBS issue is really a matter of commoditization of items, the generally high standard of quality across manufacturers, and one of over-distribution by the manufacturers.

    It is really hard to buy a bad bike, part, or item of clothing these days. Since most shops carry more or less the same stuff (even if the brands aren’t identical) there isn’t much room for differentiation, so one can only compete on price or added value. E-Commerce has enabled the LBS to service the global market, so exclusive territories don’t mean much, unless on-line/catalog sales are prohibited by the manufacturer.

    One of the best things that has happened to some neighborhood hardware stores is the opening of a Home Depot or Lowes nearby. The weaker stores may close, but the better ones raise their game, and provide service that the mega stores can’t/won’t. Essentially that is what the LBS must do.

    Keep in mind that some of the on-line retailers also have brick & mortar locations, and your LBS can also have an on-line/e-commerce presence, so other than locale, there may not be much difference.

    In order to be competitive an LBS must add significant value, otherwise consumers will tend to purchase on price alone. This may mean the best mechanics, the most experienced fitters, etc. It might also mean better management of your inventory, so you have what you need, when you need it (easier said than done). But what they need most is true sales people (with a passion for their brands & services) as opposed to bike geeks & shop rats (meant in an endearing way); often you need to sell yourself/your value in order to justify a higher price on a commodity.

    Competition is everywhere, the LBS needs to rise above it, whether it is from another shop down the road or an e-tailer in a land far far away.

  12. James

    I have been on both sides of this divide. Years ago I owned a small bike shop in a small town in Wisconsin. It used to drive me nuts when a few customers would come in, try on articles and ask millions of questions only to come back the next week with those same items purchased from Performance or Nashbar. I used to get even by charging double or triple our usual charge to fix what they bought elsewhere. Small satisfaction but big on making a point.
    Today I’m a consumer. I try to use my LBS’s but like many of you find the employees either unconcerned, aloof or ignorant as hell! Inventories are usually rather limited or you have to wait a few days for stuff to be brought over from another store, etc.
    I just don’t have reasons to be loyal. When I had a shop I didn’t care if you were a CAT I racer or a paper boy I treated everyone with respect and did everything I could for my customers (except for the aforementioned A-holes mentioned above).
    I guess my point is, if you have a good LBS and you like it stay loyal if not don’t sweat it!

  13. wvcycling

    I’m still waiting for one of the three or four big brick and mortar retailers to start selling bikes online (Trek/Specialized/Giant/Cannondale).

    I’m betting that once one of them does this, others will follow to cut out the middleman (brick and mortar) that grew their businesses in the first place.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      WVCycling: You’ll be waiting a long time to see that. The big guys have all made some missteps in the online retailing arena and it seems they have learned their lessons. The black eye you can get with product problems such as improper assembly is tough to overcome. If you look at each of the retailers you mentioned, they are actually stepping up their games to provide more training to their retailers in order to help them provide better service. Better service results in a better experience for the rider, and they are more likely to stay in the sport. The thing we are seeing now is that more and more mid-level lines are being sold online because they are being squeezed out of retailers who are getting cozier with Trek/Specialized/Giant/Cannondale.

  14. dave

    My main complaint about all the LBS is customer service or lack there of. They forget to call you when there is an issue, when it comes in or one time I was called to come pick up a $300 dollar IF fork only to have them misplace it (in the shop) for 2 days. It also seems like local shops are more interested in selling bikes rather than the bits that keep bikes running which seems strange as my understanding is that they have a higher markup on the bits and much of their GNP comes from fixes. And my one last generalization, they piss off my girlfriend every time with the assumption that she doesn’t know what she wants/needs despite having a specific request. Now all of this this is not always true and their are great folks in every shop but they generally shoot themselves in the foot.

  15. Ron

    A lot of really solid comments on this. I agree with many of them.

    For me, I try to and do use my LBS. I actually live in two different places, in two different states, so I have two of them. At one the shop is rather small, caters mainly to weekend fun/family/cruising type folks. They do have a great selection of older parts in bins, which can be great. However, they don’t have much new, high-end stuff and if they do, say Continental GP 4000s, they are nearly twice what I’ll pay online. Also, both employees are really moody; some days they are kind and talkative, some days short and unhelpful. I really can’t be bothered going in some days, I must admit.

    My other LBS has higher-end stuff, but their mechanics can be cranky and moody as hell. And, I’m friends with and ride with them. One of them offered to rebuild me a wheel after shop hours, for some beer. Cool. BUT, he did a really poor job and the spokes were wiggle-loose in a week. I’d rather have just paid for it, you know? They too might have tires I need, but $20 off what I will pay online.

    I feel a bit caught like some of you as well – I’d like to support them, but sometimes don’t have what I need, or it is far too expensive.

    Lachlan – LOTS of great points. Yeah, can be hard to make shop hours. YEP, a lot of us know more than the average shop employee these days. YES, a lot of us are picky, know what we want, and spend time researching it. This is where the internet and bike forums helps the consumer and can hurt or negate the need of the LBS. I’m not saying I hope they close, but many LBS’s just don’t have what an avid road cyclist needs. Unless you are in CA or CO, I think the shops are a lot different and I think the weekend riders will keep them in business just fine. Just think about how many people go in and drop a few thousand – Trek hybrid, clothes, shoes, rack for car, helmet, tools, etc.

    Another way to think about it is to consider the time & energy many of us spend on researching our own parts and goods. Time is money, right? Maybe those $30 tires we got online jump to $45 considering we spent an hour reading up on tires;) If you make a lot each hour at your job, that hour might cost more.

    As others have commented, yeah, the special order from shops can take weeks or longer. Why not just buy it yourself? And also, yes, there are plenty of shops where you can’t trust the staff to know, to do quality work, etc. Many of us are very particular about our bikes and sometimes LBS workers just don’t show the care they deserve or, maybe, know enough about them to work on them properly.

    Definitely a tough situation at times – LBS v. online, but I use both because I really need to, both in terms of saving money and getting things just how I want.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Spokejunky: Quote away.

      I love bike shops, but I love them even more when they do a good job. Just once I’d like to see a shop run by a former Nordstrom manager. Now that would be service.

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