Rantcast #14 – The Myth of The Infallible LBS

Aug 15 2013

Well, had some people complain about censoring the profanity last time which is fine—since this edition of the Rantcast is probably going to piss the living shit out of everyone anyway it probably won’t matter. Last time around, my beef was what cycling commentators weren’t saying, this week it’s on what the industry won’t shut up about— idiotic myth of the infallibility local bike shop.

Ask rep or pro or insider bro or reviewer about a part and 98% of the time you’ll be told that “Oh yeah—just ask at your local bike shop.” “Your local shop will take care of you”.

I don’t even know where to begin. Actually, I do know where to begin—the fact that a lot of local shops are just lousy. Can we say that? Can we get that out there? It’s almost like an omerta—there are certain shops that you shouldn’t go to, that everyone knows about, but still people are like “Oh yeah, the local shop. Your local shop. Check out our nearest dealer” Not “Blah-blah-blah’s Cycles”. Not “Where do you live? Ok avoid So-and-So’s, but check out Shop X”.

Yeah, and, actually—I shouldn’t have complained about that, because by that same token, I have to talk by name about all the shops that…caused some trouble. Like the The Spoke, in Williamstown MA, that got seized by the State for nonpayment of taxes…with my bike inside! Or Paramount Cycles in Somerville, MA that “saved me some money” by re-using a section of brake housing over a shifter cable—like, bro, if I’d wanted a half-ass job, I would have done it myself.

Or Cambridge Cycles, that gave me the wrong sized track nut despite my very specific instructions or International Bicycle Center in Boston where the Trek Minion there liked to try and swap the parts I’d ordered for cheaper gear, and who vehemently objected to my team purchase of a Surly Cross-Check because it “wasn’t a race bike”—no big deal that I raced it to a Cat 3 Verge Series Top 10 4 years later, long after the Sora equipped XO he wanted me to buy would have shat the bed. Oh, and just last week, the closest bike shop to my location, Central Wheel in Farmington, CT told me that SRAM’s 1.1 cables were just regular cables with a teflon coating.

Of course, none of this is to say that these are “bad” shops, or that there aren’t good ones out there—Cambridge Cycle’s screw up lead me to Broadway Bicycle School and it’s most excellent filing system. Landry’s in Boston never made me feel like a heel when I stopped in to buy a cassette spacer, or ask for an insurance replacement quote after a crash, or any other menial little task that brought them essentially no income. And Cheshire Cycle in Hamden CT always took great care of me—though, unfortunately, they’re also 35 miles away from my house.

And really, distance is a big part of the user experience from my point of view. In Boston, I had my choice of shop, open late and at bikeable distance. But in Hartford (as I would be in much of the rest of the country) I’m fighting to get into a car and out of the city like all the other suburban drones, racing to somehow get from my late-closing office to an early closing bikeshop, burning dollars and a few kilograms of CO2 for the effort. And once I’m there, the shop’s limited supply—what sizes and brands they happen to have on the wall are my only option.

Let’s contrast this with The Internet—I have massive retailers like TreeFort, PricePoint, Nashbar and etc, ready for me to place orders or peruse their wares at anytime, from my home, or office, or even from my phone midway through a ride. And finding what I want is so easy—search by terms, sort by price, by wheel size, by brand. Navigate to a section to see what the have. Google Products search compares price across outlets, and ebay provides more or less real-time information on what an actual, open market price for a given gizmo is.  Oh, and did I mention the bevy of searchable forums covering tips, horror stories and clever compatibility tricks on everything from from fixed gear to freeride?

In a physical shop, I’m dealing with the collective knowledge of maybe five, six guys, each of whom has a financial incentive to goad me into spending as much as possible in return for as little as they can get away with giving. Chances are, if I ask a salesman highly-specific question, which I am known to do, two or three other people or going to have to weigh in, then there’s probably gonna be an upsell attempt, followed by a “well, let’s see what we can do on price”. Some people like to haggle; me, I find it exhausting, time-consuming, disingenuous, and a sure sign that I will almost certain get a better deal elsewhere.

There’s a train a of thought—and one that I don’t deny—that says the shop costs more because of all the value it adds. And for certain consumers—dentists, I believe is the industry term—the local LBS as it currently exists does provide a tremendous amount of value. Something breaks, needs to be tuned, its just kinda old and gross looking—no big deal. No need to get your hands dirty or struggle through a new skill. Just drop off the bike, the shop fixes it, the dentist saves time, gets some status bling, shop and suppliers get paid, everyone wins—no wonder dentists have been the industry’s sole focus for the past decade.

But the problem with the Dentist Model is that there aren’t that many dentists, those that are out there are getting older and/or more tech savvy, and the demographics where bike use is rising the fastest—young people and minorities—tend not to have the massive throwaway income to feed the LBS, which, at least in it’s current incarnation is allegedly infallible and should be the consumers only point of contact for anything to do with a bike.

And really, the cycling industry itself—I know, I know, a too massively amorphous and heterogeneous entity to collectively demonize—is at the heart of this mess. A few months ago, I broke a derailleur. I got it all sorted out eventually—a rant for another time—but during the

discussion a SRAM rep said the company never ships parts to customers. Ever.

Think about that—the company that makes parts for people’s bikes doesn’t ship them to people. it’s bizarre, right—”sorry, sir, I refuse your offer of monetary units for the product I produce. Please bring your monetary units to this third party instead”—and it’s because to SRAM, Trek, Lazer, and pretty much every other company in the industry, you aren’t the customer. The shop is. And to keep the shops buying their stuff, the industry needs consumer buy-in to the shop model. Thus the infallible shop myth.

Shops let industry brands sell a whole lot of their stuff all at once. Much, much easier to deal with dozens of customers instead of thousands. A lot easier to collect money and set budgets when there’s a big predictable, post-Interbike cash dump. And as stock merchandise, bicycles are really crummy. They take up a lot of space, the margins suck, there’s a non-trivial labor investment in each model after getting them in, and as I mentioned before, there’s an Internet full of outlets offering them at a better price.

And yet, the infallible shop myth lives. For the past decade and a half I’ve witnessed and endured all sorts of abuse from industry insiders for buying online and doing my own work. “Hey man, don’t you like riding? Why are you trying to hurt the thing you like?” “Oh, well, you didn’t go through the shop, you get what’s coming to you.” The latest villainy is so called “showrooming” where people research prices and find out as much as they can about a given part before making a final purchase, like, you know, an informed consumer would. Do it at a car dealership, or a computer store, or when you’re getting a loan—right on, man. Do it at a bike shop—you’re a schmuck.

I feel like this petty hypocrisy—we need to fleece consumers so we can keep making rad stuff, man—has kind of toxified the industry, and drawn thick battle lines along existing business relationships, lest the whole house of cards fall. Case in point: last week, a QBP guy who worked on the Lazer Helmets account complained vocally about CrossVegas’ registration system Twitter. Then CrossVegas got in touch to Lazer—a sponsor of the race—who made a call to QBP, which got said internet complainer fired.

Or maybe that isn’t how it happened. The Helmeteer_Chris Internet entity, who I don’t know, but who works for Lazer, and who generally surfaces pretty cool Internet bike stuff suggested there was more to it, but really, what could he possibly say? Confess his employer feel into a perfect storm of douchery between two of its business partners?  Factually and morally correct as that might actually be, he wouldn’t be very good at his job if he did that.  So, for all concerned, the message stands: don’t step out and challenge the system, even if the system sucks. It’s cool—industry bros made nice at the end. It’s the the people outside the system that fucked up. Now why does that sound so familiar?

There must be, there HAS to be, something in this status quo for the local shops—beyond, obviously, the joy of being presented as infallible. but for the LIFE of me, I cannot figure out what it is. It sure isn’t the money. The industry’s own numbers suggest an average dealer sees 25k in annual income—not exactly a retirement figure. It’s not the ease of the day-to-day work, either—I’ve seen massive urban shops, top 10 grossers for national brands, half a million into the red. I’ve seen small, efficient, brilliantly-run operations fail. Aside from the comfort of a familiar environment, I don’t really get why anyone would chose to run LBS under the model that currently exists.

So if this aura of infallibility shop sucks for the shop, and it sucks for the consumers. It would seem to me that time is ripe for a change. Despite everything I said back at the beginning of this, there are thing shops can offer consumers that the internet can’t. Quality tools, stands, a clean, well-ordered workspace. Skilled hands. In-the-moment advice when pressing a headset or trying to figure out which bottom bracket to buy. These are the things non-dentists need—real riders (actually, I’m stepping back from this a bit [see comment])—and they’re increasingly scarce at the among the salesmen and accessory racks in today’s shops.

There’s also an immediacy that shops can meet that the Internet will never be able to. Broken chains, snapped cables, cracked handlebars, stems to soothe an aching back—things that cannot wait for shipping. A bike shop should have components—tiny, easy to manage, low-overhead parts—in droves, in stock, compatible across as many brands and standards as possible, from newest models, and refurbed take-offs to be sold for a song. But in my experience, requests for this one meatspace service no online dealer could ever provide are met with the depressing response of, “sure, our QBP order arrives in on Thursday”.

Of course, this new, consumer-focused approach would require a certain openness on the part of an industry that as I said earlier, tends to be anything but. An admission that 2012 model is more or less as good as a 2013. An admission that ounces off a three pound frame underneath a hundred-fifty pound man will have an all but a negligible impact performance. An admission that 95% of repairs and installations can accomplished by anyone with patience and a $5 set of allen keys as easily as they can by a sixty-dollar-an-hour mechanic. An admission that things are cheaper somewhere else, and maybe you should

buy them there.

Is the industry even capable of this sort of openness? it once was. I certainly wouldn’t be here reading this if the late Sheldon Brown hadn’t codified online, in detail, and for free, every skill he’d acquired and opinion he’d developed in a lifetime of turning wrenches. Back 2001, my old Iron Horse hardtail would have stayed broken, and I never would have been able to restore a decades-old hunk of dented steel from the abandoned bike pile at campus security into a fast, reliable, and dirt cheap road machine.

The de facto state of affairs, with its infallible shops and Dentist ready approach has to change. The demographics of age and income demand it. The real question is how much damage those who profit from the current system are willing to incur upon their brands—and on the newbie retail consumers who, at the end of the day, are the only ones keeping the whole machine running. If the sticker price at your local shop is any indication, plenty of places out there are ready to double-down on the infallibility myth.

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