Back in the 1980s I worked in a record store. As a young person I loved working retail and working in a record store was a way to be around a passion of mine. I got to talk music with people all day long. But while I wanted to talk about great music—significant music—with my boss, all he cared about was whatever was going to turn units. He didn’t want a record review that said the record would be remembered for its contribution to world music, he wanted a crystal ball that would tell him if he should order 50 copies of the next Michael Jackson single—or 100.
One of my duties was to update a thing called the Phonolog. It was like a yellow pages of every record (there were no CDs yet) that was listed in the various record companies’ catalogs. It was enormous, nearly as thick as the Oxford English Dictionary, and each month I was responsible for adding new pages to it. The Phonolog was interesting because it told you about what existed—that is, what had actually been pressed to vinyl—but unless you dealt with the right distributor, you might never locate some of the records listed in the catalog.
For that reason, I was fascinated with visiting record stores any time I traveled. I never knew what I might find. There was no way to guess what gems might be lurking within those bins. And when CDs hit stores in the mid-1980s, my fervor for record stores only increased. Initially, CDs were in such short supply that there might be almost no overlap between one record store and another. For those first couple of years, CD products was largely confined to acts with a known following among audiophiles, which is why the first CD I ever saw was King Crimson’s “Discipline” and the first CD I purchased was Peter Gabriel’s “Security.”
Thirty-odd years later, record stores are dead, a cultural phenomenon as extinct as drive-in theaters. We have the iTunes store and we have Amazon. For convenience, iTunes wins, but the one enduring charm of Amazon is its long tail. If a recording has existed on CD and there’s any chance of it being available commercially, you’re more likely to find it on Amazon than anywhere else. It’s enabled me to find rare discs that I either never found before or damaged along the way and this was a chance to replace them. Still, the effectiveness of Amazon will never replace the charm of walking into Rare Records in Memphis to see what UPS had delivered that week.
When I got into cycling, my shopping experiences were much the same. Every bike shop was different, had its quirks, harbored some amount of funk that made it not just unique, but worthwhile. In my travels, I couldn’t help but purchase a souvenir. I’d leave with a cool T-shirt, a thermal jacket, a pair of bottles, a poster of Eddy Merckx.
But in those surprises were mountains of inconsistency. There was the place I walked into for a pump hose where half the lights were shut off, a TV sat on a cart in the middle of the showroom floor, in front of it an easy chair and next to it a TV table with a remote, an ashtray and in it a burning cigarette. The owner seemed annoyed that I was interrupting “Great Naval Battles” on the History Channel.
It’s a place that, honestly, deserved to go out of business.
I hate the sameness of the retail landscape, that in any 200-yard-long strip mall of big boxes, one of them is bound to be a Best Buy or Old Navy. I dislike the the creamy consistency of the Gap, and yet I must acknowledge how I love the reliability of Trader Joe’s; in a pinch, I can find snacks for my kids or the makings of a picnic, not to mention do a weeks’-worth of grocery shopping.
The rise of concept stores, which is little more than a 21st-century take on the old Schwinn Retailer model, has done much to elevate the perception of service at bike shops. However, there are plenty of shops and studios didn’t need the help; places like New York’s Signature Cycles, Wilmette’s Velosmith Bicycle Studio and Santa Monica’s Bike Effect have made their names as places that exist primarily as places of service, and they do a better job than even the best of the concept stores.
The decline of the recording industry, from record stores to the record companies themselves decimated thousands of careers. And while CDs may seem as antiquated as LPs (I wonder who among us remembers just what those initials stand for?), bikes aren’t going to go away, though the way we purchase them will change irrevocably. Were I to sum up the big question the industry faces in a single word, that word would be “omnichannel.” That is, how to balance the need to serve a dealer network, reach consumers via the web, deliver bicycles to interested consumers as painlessly and professionally as possible and still maintain price integrity.
Concept stores have been a way for the industry to respond to the changing retail landscape, maintaining the practices, services and habits of traditional retailers while offering most of the service found in high-end retailers like those I just mentioned. It’s a business model that is scalable and trainable, though it’s almost impossible to replicate the personality of one of those operations, so something is lost.
It’s a painful time for the industry. Evolution has been thrust upon it and not all of those changes are going over well. Yet I’m hopeful because I see the bike industry adapting and meeting this challenge.
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