The Venerable Bike Shop
A love of gear is an expansive love. And it’s not a love that blooms in isolation. It grows from our infatuation with an activity and the gear is nothing more than the physical manifestation of that activity.
I won’t say that cyclists love cycling more than runners love running, but the devotion seems different, and—naturally—to our eyes, more enjoyable.
It should be no surprise that our love for the bicycle itself extends to the stores that sell them. If the bicycle is a good time waiting to happen, then a shop is countless adventures yet to unfold. In each of those bicycles—even the ones we wouldn’t buy—we see our lives as we want them to be: The excitement of dressing for a five-hour ride with friends every day of the week.
And yet, we love bike shops not because of what they are, but in spite of what they are. Few of us have the sort of shop we dream of in our backyard. Even when our buying experience isn’t what we’d like, or as good as we believe it ought to be, we continue to love bike shops at least as a concept.
I’ve been in plenty of shops that were professional enough, but seemed empty of passion and that seems to be where I draw the line. Unless a shop is doing something to excite me about my sport and make me feel like my riding life is important to them, I won’t really go in for more than chains and cables.
I think that may be why operations like Mill Valley’s Above Category and Studio Velo engender such fanatical love. They are to cycling what Miracle-Gro is to roses. Ah, to live in Marin County. Slurp.
So why don’t we love the average bike shop the way we did back in the 1980s? My memory of shops back then was that they were cool the way Fonzie was cool to me when I was in second grade.
Once I take off the rose-colored glasses, I can see that a retailer had a much easier job in 1986 than they do today.
The number of bike categories they had to address was much less. The shop I dealt with had road bikes, a few mountain bikes and at Christmas they’d get a few kids’ bikes. One or two of the bikes were touring models and the rest were traditional road racers.
Replacement parts held in stock mostly amounted to freewheels, cables, brake shoes, a headset or two and five sizes of ball bearings. Aftermarket upgrades amounted to one or two groups, a few choices in pedals, a couple of rear derailleurs and a saddle or two.
In all honesty, the clothing selection was lousy.
I don’t recall anyone angling for a discount back then. Of course, the most expensive bike my shop carried didn’t cost 10% of the annual income of its more affluent customers, either. Even college students could come up with $1000 to purchase a Campy-equipped Torpado.
All of the decoration around the shop involved photos of PROs riding the bikes the shop carried.
Retailing is a much tougher business today. Online competitors and deal-shopping consumers squeeze profits like a kid with a ketchup bottle. The number of models a brand offers has in many cases tripled or quadrupled and retailers are rewarded better pricing based on just how much they stock. The array of replacement parts a shop is expected to stock has multiplied with the ferocity of cockroaches in a dirty kitchen. And while a frameset could hang on a wall for three or four years without losing its relevance or value, the same cannot be said today.
So who’s to blame? Well, this is one of those occasions, like the economy, where there’s plenty of blame to go around. Consumers (us) can be faulted for wanting deals that ultimately undermine the service we get when we visit a shop. As they shave their margins, they shave their ability to sit on large amounts of stock and their ability to pay livable wages to their staff, which hurts their ability to keep employees who talk like Competitive Cyclist copy.
The shops can be faulted for caving to every request for a deal. If they all held firm like unionized workers, we’d all be paying list prices. Some can also be faulted for running their shops like sidewalk lemonade stands and not really knowing basic statistics that are key indicator’s for their business’ health or how to connect with consumers on an emotional level.
Finally, the bike companies get a buffet-sized helping of blame for their ever-increasing number of SKUs. Let’s ask the question: How many price points do you really need to hit?
Speaking of connecting with consumers on an emotional—even visceral level—I’ve got to ask why none of the bike companies out there have resorted to enticing men with sex. You know, busty babes? I’m guessing that shots of Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie stand in for traditional hard bodies for most women (well, if not, it works for my wife), so why not use the Bay Watch approach to luring more men into the sport?
I don’t mean to trivialize the issue, but a great many very large, very successful multi-national corporations resort to sex as a means to short-circuit men into purchasing their widgets. Given how ubiquitous the approach is, isn’t it fair to point out that the approach continues to be used because, well, because it works? Wouldn’t photos of Heidi Klum astride a Specialized Amira bring some new consumers into the sport, riders who won’t expect Dura-Ace at 105 prices?
I don’t really think sex is the answer, but it is such an obvious tactic that if bike companies and retailers are missing this one, I can’t help but wonder what else they are missing.
And yet, like the faults we find in our best friends, we’ll never stop loving bike shops. Around every corner, in nooks and basements, they never fail in their ability to fascinate and excite.