Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Adapt Or Die: The Battle Of Online vs. Local Bike Shops

With the announcement that Trek is opening an e-commerce operation, the internet once more exploded in a fury of comments about online bike dealers (OBDs), local bike shops (LBS) and how one is quickly replacing the other in the infinite battle for the almighty consumer dollar.

And I, of course, have an opinion on this.

As someone who has raced for multiple local shops (still do) but is employed by an online bike dealer, it's an interesting contrast to have between price and service. It is, ultimately, a choice that millions of bicycling consumers make many times over every year. But does it have to be?

I don't think so.

I truly believe that the claim of OBDs closing good LBS' is false. Why? Because if it's a good LBS, an online dealer cannot close it. So many studies inside of the industry (and out) have shown that an involved, decent bike shop is not only an economic boon for the community, but a sign of a healthy town. Good local bike shops do more than sponsor racers or change out junior's tire, however -- they provide valuable jobs, insight, programs and services to communities that might not necessarily have them. Here in Salt Lake, we even have community bike programs that save lives, teach independence and offer new opportunities to those who have little to go by. This sort of immense value cannot and will not be replaced by an online bike dealer. Why? Because they are irreplaceable.

However (of course there is a 'however'!), a bad or less than stellar bike shop can quickly damage a bike community and foster a sense of mistrust and devaluation. This is the sort of bike shop that is not long for the world, methinks. This type of shop is the one that is being replaced by online bicycle dealers and for good reason: they suck.

That may sound harsh, but let me put it to you another way: a bike shop that whines about not being able to compete with an online bike dealer has forgotten that they hold the most valuable card at the table in their hands: service. No matter how they try or what they do, online bike dealers will never be able to provide the kind of service to a customer that their local shop can. Regardless of how much an online bike dealer attempts to provide continued service and hand-holding, they simply cannot -- they're online! And while door-to-door bike service is still growing, online dealers can't compete with the impulsiveness of customers and the randomness with which bikes break; this is cycling, after all. It would take an army of tiny magical mice in the millions to service those online customers, and this ain't Cinderella, cowboy.

That's where a local shop makes their money.

Think about it: a mid-range mountain bike might cost $3000, but what good is that sale when the customer needs a new set of wheels because she's just destroyed hers and the warranty is going to take 8 weeks? What good are we when that fork needs to be serviced, when that bottom bracket needs to be repacked and that handlebar replaced? The onus (and opportunity) suddenly falls to that customer's welcoming, warm, smiling local shop. And therein lies the rub, my friends. Think about the local shops you know. How many of them would welcome you through the door with a conspiratorial grin? How many of them ask how your day is? If you have a shop that does that, GO THERE. Right now. Buy something. And thank them.

But if you don't have that strong local resource, think about the people who are like you. Maybe their shop closed when Wal-Mart came to town. Maybe their shop sucks. Maybe the owner of their local bike shop has refused to get social media, has refused to set up a website, has refused to train and hire skilled employees who have any customer service skills, so that owner just collects the scant amount of extra money that comes in each month, then wonders why the cash flow is so low. But maybe that local shop owner is simply that -- a shop owner who happens to think that money isn't coming in because of the OBD.

Let me tell you something. As a business owner, an athlete, a pariah and the usual mayhem and trouble maker, there is nothing I know better than work. If any of us want to make money, we have to work. It's that simple. And if we want to make money out of a bike shop, we have to work hard. It requires a willingness to invest in that shop, that brand, that community. And it's not easy. And there are politics and pressure and you may be barely scraping by, but if you're in this to be a millionaire, you may have chosen the most difficult road to get there. But it is WORTH IT.

Because this is the day and age of adaptation. The market has changed. And dealers must change with the market or risk extinction. All of us have to carefully and critically examine what we're doing as people, as companies, as an industry and decide whether or not our actions and words contribute to the sustainability of an entire sport. It's a big decision. It's a heavy call to make, to be that one person. But the kicker is this: if we don't make that call or choose to be better, someone else will. And they will shape our industry. They will be making those decisions, for better or for worse. And those decisions will make or break us, kill us or ignite us. We have a chance now to step up, provide some killer service, create a smarter, more efficient industry and sell some fucking bikes or... Not. Don't get me wrong. We can certainly continue on in this mediocre vein, infighting and battling over scant amounts of cash, but we will die.

Don't sit on that stool and tell me that OBDs are killing the local bike shop. Because if anything, they're helping the good shops, and those shops know it. Sure, the OBD might sell parts for a little less to the random price cruncher, but a good local shop has employees who do a damn fine job of putting those parts together. That owner cares so much about those customers that the owner charges them premium prices for that premium labor. And guess what? That customer pays. Why? Because it's worth it. Because, like a good car mechanic, that owner guarantees the work. Those mechanics make enough money to love what they do and they do a job worth being proud of. But paying paltry wages and screaming at employees and focusing on 'selling' rather than 'servicing' won't do that. And the good shops know this. The good online bike dealers do, too. And together, they're working towards an industry that is focused on making bikes (and bike parts and bike service) more accessible and more fun.

After all, isn't that what we're really looking to do here?