Friday Group Ride #217

Friday Group Ride #217

We were talking about sub-$500 bikes, whether independent bike shops (IBDs) need more of them on their floors. How much business do IBDs lose to big box stores? Is that business they want? Is there even enough margin in bikes at those price points to make them worth flooring?

In many ways, it’s the perennial question of how to bring more people to cycling. Product managers, advocates and urban planners have all done better thinking about it than I ever will, but this question of just what the entry price point for IBD customers should be gets at the very heart of how we think about bikes in this country.

How many times have I had another parent at school drop off tell me they couldn’t believe how much bikes cost, that they remember when $100 got you a nice bike? I try to remind them that that was the ’70s. They ask me if the bikes at Walmart are any good. They ask me what to do.

The problem, I think, is a loss of context. All those teenagers of the ’70s haven’t even looked at cycling since the day they turned 16. Cigarettes were south of $2 a pack then. You could add a six-pack and still get change from a $5. In the meantime, the entire economy of cycling changed, roads have become more trafficked. Paint is, too often, what qualifies as infrastructure.

I tell people that big box bikes are dangerous, badly assembled, cheaply made, and that if they want to put themselves or their kids at risk, then go cheap. I tell them that everything has gotten more expensive, and that if they really intend to ride, just figure out what three months worth of gas runs them and spend that. That’ll get most folks I know onto an $800 bike, a starting point.

There is so much that goes into solving this “problem” that the sub-$500 bike only really serves as a canary in the mine, a retail hurdle at the end of a line of hurdles that would-be cyclists have to clear. The recent passing of James Oberstar won’t help. That’s why I think how I answer bike questions at school drop off is so important. Anywhere there’s a willingness to ride, good, simple answers to basic questions are required.

I think the industry needs to find a way to make cycling attractive for families rather than simply for individuals. We don’t need sub-$500 bikes that look like $2000 bikes. We don’t need to sell the carbon fiber dream to the aluminum budget. We just need to make cycling as a family palatable, practical and even cool. This is a big ask from a marketing sector that leads with racers from the pro peloton. Grant Peterson has some thoughts on this. I’m sure you do, too.

This week’s Group Ride asks what the attractive, budget bike looks like and is it enough to draw in the millions who could, would or should benefit from having a bike in their lives? How do you answer these questions when people ask? And do IBDs need cheaper bikes?

Image: Matt O’Keefe

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  1. Mike the Bike PT

    One of the more popular bike shops in my area is one that can best be understood by what it is not…glitzy, modern, spacious, clean and overly-friendly. The people working there wear normal clothes and act like normal people. They are there to help but don’t fawn over you to get a sale. When I’m there, I will likely see someone with a road bike, a XC bike, a fat bike, a BMX bike, a cruiser, a commuter, a touring bike, and every type of mountain bike imaginable (the category has so many niches I can’t keep track anymore). They are there to serve every type of cyclist from the uber-casual to the frenetically-dedicated. Their inventory of everything is much broader than anyone else in town. They carry more brands than anyone in town. You can find what you are looking for there.

    More shops like this one are just part of the puzzle, but it’s a pretty big part.

    1. Kyle V.

      I think that is the draw of Performance Bicycles for most new cyclist. They want something that works, they want to see their options, and they aren’t ready to be categorized into some sort of box (ex. Road, MTB, etc…).

  2. Kyle V.

    Yeah I always kinda flinch when some one asks me about how much a new bike should cost. You and I know it’s worth it to avoid the big box stores and people eventually understand when I tell them the components on the bikes sold at the big boxes won’t last, but I’ve found that many end up not buying any bike because of the sticker shock. Which is why I’ve started telling people that they can get a decent bike at a bike shop for between $500 and $700ish, or they can check craigslist and pay about 1/2. The risk with craigslist is there isn’t really anybody there to help make sure that the bike they buy is sized appropriately and new cyclist are usually terrible at estimating what size bike they should ride.

    It would be nice if there were more used starter bikes out there, Tucson has a great organization called BICAS which refurbishes donated bikes (and provides other services) but not all cities have such non-profit organizations. I bought my first adult bike from BICAS, a steel bike with down tube shifters, for ~$150 in 2010 and was quickly hooked, I spent ~$1800 on my next bike a year later. We just need to get people onto bikes that work, people quickly give up on the idea of cycling when they spend as much time adjusting/repairing it as they do riding it.

  3. Nate

    I work at a IBD in a small rural town in NW Iowa. Our nearest competing bike shop is 20 miles away, but we do have a Wal-Mart in town. While it’s pretty easy to talk a person into the value of a entry level (400-500) bike for an adult, convincing a parent that a $200 kids bike is worthwhile when a $90 dollar bike can be had down the road is tough. For that reason, I know that our market share of the under-13 crowd is dismal.

    In my town, a bike is seen only as a form of recreation, rarely as daily transport. So much so that the local paper ran a front page story on two guys who were bike commuting right through the winter. If more people who live and work in my town saw a bike as a car replacement, I think some of the pushback against the higher prices at my shop would drop away.

    What can also make my job hard is the perceived value of a given bike. People really like getting a comfort hybrid with a suspension fork, suspension seatpost and 21 gears for $450. That’s a lot of stuff, right? It is, a lot of STUFF. Mostly, what their needs dictate would be a internally geared city bike with fenders for $500. It is incredibly tough to pivot a person away from the attraction of getting “more.”

    In the meantime, what I can do is make sure that my shop is an open, relaxed, place that anyone, be they a hardcore roadie or a little old lady, can find a bike to suit their needs.

  4. Ransom

    The shop I used to work at had a trade-in arrangement, and kept a small stock of used bikes. They were always sound and usually quite cheap. Rarely anything fancy; I don’t recall much of anything in the way of drool-worthy bikes, more just workable machines for those who wanted something to get around on. To this day I don’t know whether the bottom line on that one was shrewd business or community service.

    It’s not intuitive to a non-cyclist how low-end components can be *that* much worse than more expensive parts with the same feature names or numbers of gears. Perhaps more damagingly, it may still not be obvious how more expensive parts might have been better while tripping over Junior’s dysfunctional $100 Special with the shifting that only indexes to between gears and dysfunctional brakes. Until the relationship with cycling is established, spending $100 on a bike which barely works briefly and ceases working entirely thereafter does not make a compelling case for trying the $500 one to see whether it provides better value.

  5. Souleur

    having thought about this, here is my 2cent

    The independent bike shop strikes a special place in our hearts velodrome when its cool, when it offers items that intrigue and the people offer conversation that inspire us to think and ponder…what more we ‘need’ no matter what level we are on. The $500 market may be something to think about, and i will say, the best shops I have seen across the country have offered this heavily in a small house brand/local singlespeed utilty bikes for commuting and such with a splattering of very little high end stuff and just perhaps the owners bike in the back or something of the like that catches your eye. I find shops that i have seen fail keep inventory of things nobody buys, or more heavy on high end stuff that sticks them in the end of the year. So to that end, the independent should cater to newer riders, yet strike a balance with knowing the creme’ of the business is also the weekend warrior who thinks he is P-R-O, and dumps money in the habit like its an addiction.

    now, another conundrum is the competition on the internet for these consumers, and that is and has been a perpetual issue not easily solved any time soon. The Di2 and high end components and drive train has gone bonkers in price, not to mention mtn bike goods, and that really does make it difficult to compete for the LBS in comparison to the big box stores on the internet

  6. Quentin

    I have a friend who saw the need for spending a bit of money on a proper bike when he took his big box store bike on a big ride and came home with one brake and one shifter not working. He got a perfectly usable bike for about $600, but it’s hard to convince a lot of buyers they need to spend the extra $400 until they’ve learned the hard way.

    I have a co-worker who wanted a road bike and I almost got him to spend $1000 when another friend convinced him to buy a $400 bike with an Italian-sounding name from Amazon. It’s actually a better bike than I expected for the price, but small bike shops would have a hard time trying to sell bikes like that and make any money at it.

    I usually recommend people buy used. We just sold my wife’s 10 year old aluminum road bike for $250 and I think the buyer got a great deal.

  7. Adam

    I think Ransom has summed it up pretty well. It might not seem like great business sense to run a selection of ‘cheap’ bikes with no profit margins or even a selection of second hand bikes but the community service this provide may lead to more business after getting people into cycling & staying in cycling after a good initial experience.
    I would love to know what proportions of big box shop bikes are in use after a year & how many end up tossed in the rubbish, dumped somewhere or left in the shed for the spiders.

  8. Pat O'Brien

    When you use price as your only criteria for a purchase, you deserve to get cheated. Value and quality used to matter, and should still. But when someone says to me “I can get a bike at the big box for $100” I tell them if they like taking big risks, go for it. The neighborhood kid brought a bike over to see if I could help him fix it. I had previously told him to shop for used bikes at the two local bike shops. He didn’t listen, and I told him I couldn’t and wouldn’t fix his one year old wally world special because it was not safe to ride. It was junk, plain and simple, dangerous, and the fork was falling apart.

  9. Aar

    To me, the key to any bike purchase at any price point is Percieved Value. All LBS employees have to do a better, faster job than the internet and big boxes of educating all prospects on the value of their products. That’s a sales training issue and I suspect average LBSes are deficient in that area. Specialty shop brands need to including features that outperform their internet and big box competitors in performance, durability and are easily perceived to do so. I suspect they succeed at performance and durability but have opportunities for perception improvement.

    Those are my 10,000 foot observations. For practical purposes, I don’t believe I can get more on point than Ransom.

    Personally, I’d like to see affordable internally geared hubs, belt drive and practical bikes, like those popular in Belgium and the Netherlands, take off in the US. Specialty shop brands could at least get a temporary leg up on the internet and big box brands by introducing them to the US market because they are easily marketable differentiators and they may hit the $300-500 price point but not much lower.

  10. SusanJane

    O.k. I’m not a any kind of bike shop person. That said I think the shift is more about how much gas costs or a motorcycle or a used car. Most people don’t steal gas or buy a crap hardly working vehicle. Why buy a bike that is not only poorly made but dangerous because of it? If my kid were out riding I wouldn’t want this or that falling apart. Or worse sitting in the garage because it was broken _again_. Instead it’s about throwing hundreds of dollars away. A Walmart bike goes to the dump. A good solid bike can be resold. Think car not trash.

    Going along the same lines why do bikes need to be paid all at once? Instant gratification? Installment plans, folks. That monetary and psych commitment is good for kids and adults. Is this a toss of whim? Am I looking forward to riding? Am I willing to wait? The impulse bike does not get more people riding and loving it.

    Besides most of us have to save and take out loans to buy a car. After all that I don’t want the clutch to go out or the tires to fall off. Car pride. Bike pride. Not bike trash.

    1. SusanJane

      Another comment. In my town growing up our schools have miles and miles of bike racks. Not a single parent drove their kids to school unless they were late or had a doctor’s appointment. My sister rode to school while she had a cast on her arm. Not a single one of those were cheap death trap bikes. Heavy, simple, often too big or small, goat head thorns didn’t stop us (much). We had serious bike pride for banana seats and handle bar streamers. We rode far too fast down hills. Not a single fat kid in school. We loved to ride. I had to wait an eternity to get enough green stamps. I would do things for neighbors and get paid in stamps.

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  12. wayno

    To answer the question: IBD’s don’t need cheaper bikes or better suited bikes, most shops have and sell a ton of sub five hundred dollar bikes that do the trick for the entire family and genre. The bike industry is amazing at marketing – ti waterbottle bolts for 20 bucks anyone? Why can’t it market without getting all road racerboy/MAMIL and redbull enduro on new cyclists?

    Other than marketing, there are two age old problems the industry bitches about: shop employees and safe places to ride for new cyclists. It has been well documented that new cyclists, especially females, walk into shops and either don’t get helped, get the attitude or get up sold like they were on a used car lot. And yes, I know the shop you go to isn’t like that…but this does drive people to the bigbox, an easy, cheap transaction with no pressure.

    If they get through this mess, where do they ride and feel comfortable? Roads are inhospitable to new and experienced cyclists (paint is not infrastucture), and most mountain bike trails that get built are full of rock gardens, switchbacks and drop offs suited to sweet dual suspesion rigs.

    We have the bikes, we need a fundamental shift on how cycling is viewed and that begins with all of us – brands, shops, employees, advocates, infrastructure and trail builders and us, as riders to be more welcoming.

  13. stevo

    1. Buy high quality 10 year old bike for 500 on ebay

    2. Try it out for 1 year

    3. If you still want a nice bike, sell old bike on ebay for the same price you paid and buy a new bike. If you didn’t ride much, sell it back for the same price you paid and pick another hobby. If you like it, keep it.

  14. Larry T.

    This question hits at what’s wrong with the bike biz in general. The good $100 new bike went the way of the good $2000 new car – end of story. The problem is the industry, who creates and buys all the advertising fails to make any effort to convince the shopper at Sprawl-Mart that a $500 bike is any good. Add in the ridiculous markup the importer/distributor gets to the dealer’s margin and a bike that can be had direct from an online retailer for $400 ends up being $800 at your LBS. Then add the usually dismal service experience provided by most LBS’ who employ kids at minimum wage + all they can steal and Joe Sixpack might as well buy a Sprawl-Mart bike since it’ll just collect dust in the garage anyway. A major overhaul of the supply chain is needed to fix any of this…but meanwhile the industry will hack away at the LBS’ margin, thinking knocking a bike from $500 to $450 will solve the problem.

  15. Jame

    I am a newbie cyclists who got back on a bike after winning one in a raffle. My bike cost about $650, and I have spent about $300 on accessories over the past few months. My bike is one of those new school dutch city bikes, which happens to be the perfect type for me.

    The problem is, about buying a bike, is that even newbies realize there is a huge list of extra stuff you need to get to get out there and ride: lock, lights, helmet, rack…..

    Some of us don’t have the time or inclination to get a used bike, and deal with getting the maintenance it needs to fit properly or get a tune-up.

    It would be great if a reasonably priced bike came with all of the key accessories based on rider type. Or had packages of the key stuff you want like cars. In the process, you feel both ill-informed, disrespected and ripped off. Going to a big box sounds a whole lot easier.

    1. Padraig

      Jame: The challenges you describe for a new cyclist often come down to the quality of the staff at the retailer you visit. Some shops do a better job than others to help new riders walk out with everything they need. Unfortunately, not all buyers really want all the same things, which is why a one-size-fits-all approach to a starter kit is rarely workable. That doesn’t mean the bike industry shouldn’t try to do a better job of accommodating new riders. Thanks for reading and enjoy your riding.

  16. Steve

    My LBS used to sell these bumper stickers that said ” If Huffy made an airplane would you fly on it”. For a while it was my stock response to anyone who thought I spent to much money on my bike….

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