Movies, Music, Newspapers, and now the Bike Business

The music industry has been going through its own crisis for the last ten years and several years later, the movie industry joined them as they re-evaluated business models, fought piracy, and had middling results at both. Right now we're in the thick of it with regards to newspapers as they pause during a crisis to figure out how they can continue doing business going forward by either embracing or running away from the internet.

No industry is immune to the Internet breaking old business models, providing customers with tons of information, and providing a near-perfect marketplace for sales of goods and services. It should come as no surprise that the bicycle industry is going through the same crisis right now.

Molly Cameron reprints an open letter from the owner of River City Bicycles, one of the older and more popular shops in Portland, which sponsors tons of cycling events and is asking racers and supporters to shun the internet and stick with River City for all their needs (and Molly as bike business owner herself seems to agree).

I'm a cyclist, a bike racer, and someone that attends Portland events. I've shopped at River City a few times (most of the time I get the Jack Black High Fidelity elitist attitude from the staff, so I rarely go there), I shop at my local bike shop regularly, and I also buy lots of stuff online. Speaking as the perfect target of the open letter, I have to say David Guettler has it all wrong.

I see obvious parallels between Hollywood's creative industries and what the bike shop world is going through right now. I read the open letter and see someone asking customers to join him in putting his head in the sand in the hopes that if we ignore it, the Internet will magically go away. It reminds me of ABC's Charlie Gibson telling journalism students that their industry would be fine if everyone would stop reading online news for free and just buy more dead-tree newspapers.

I really wish we could talk about these things without having them be either/or propositions. I find it silly to think River City Bicycles can't do a healthy business online and see no upside to them running away from it and asking others to join them. I already see tons of shops selling either their own exclusive and/or local items (like River City's beautiful wood fenders that you can get nowhere else but for some reason they don't sell online) or their overstock they can't seem to sell locally (as eBay shows, someone, somewhere wants and needs something you may be selling). Local shops most definitely do not have to ignore the internet.

Here's how I usually operate as a cyclist and buyer of many bikes and parts: I frequently find out about new products by either searching online and doing research on my own or from online bike news sites and magazines. I see if my local shop carries it, and if they do not, I see if wider area Portland shops have it. Then I check eBay to see if someone is selling the part as overstock or used (yes, often at a discount). If I really have to have the product and I can get it nowhere else, I'll then order it online, but it's usually pretty rare, as almost anything is available from a nearby shop or eBay.

Local shops can only carry so much stock and only so many brands, but when I'm buying parts off eBay, I'm frequently (seems like more than half the time) buying directly from a local shop that had one too many bike stems ordered last summer, or a seat in a color no one in Wisconsin liked. There's nothing stopping them from selling that overstock online and at least getting a decent return (as opposed to heavily clearance pricing it locally until it is gone).

The Music industry has shown us over the last 12 years what happens when you first ignore the internet, then try to outlaw it, then sue your customers, then eventually embrace it, sell items in new formats that people want, and eventually figure out all sorts of new ways to capitalize on a medium that was previously treated with hostility.

I'd hate to see bike shops go the way of the 8-track tape, and I would like to see them take a more open approach to embracing all the capabilities of the internet, but it's gonna take some visionary bike shop owners that provide services you can't get online (like professional bike fitting), that sell products that are exclusive or local (partner with local tradesmen making local stuff people will never find online), and that use the internet to sell and even direct customers to in the event the local shop can't fill a customer's needs.

17 Comments

  • I used to make a lot of my purchases the way you do, scouring local shops and turning to the internet, which I thought of as “mail order,” as a last resort – until I got Amazon Prime. Somebody gave me a gift subscription (which has never run out – don’t tell Jeff Bezos), and since then I’m much more likely to buy from Amazon.com (or the iPhone app – one-click with Prime on the iPhone is a dangerous drug). I don’t have to go anywhere, I’m almost certain to be getting a good price, and it shows up faster than I can schedule a trip out to the store in the midst of my busy life.

  • jmcname@linfield.edu

    Why do you hate America?

  • This is the same story as it was a decade ago for books. The successes in cycling, as with every other vertical that’s endured this, will be those businesses willing to embrace the web and use it to their advantage.
    Take, for example, Strand Books in New York. The Strand was famous for its “eight miles of books” and its browse-all-day environment. When Amazon.com (and big-box bookstores) became a threat, the Strand doubled up: it reinforced its eclectic offerings and opened a top-quality website. Net result: the Strand now advertises 18 miles of books, and the flagship store is as iconic as ever.

  • I’ve done a fair amount of Internet shopping for bike gear, but the thing is, most of that buying has been from local bike stores—just not local to me. I’ve bought from the legendary Harris Cycles, and from Lickton’s in the Chicago area. These shops have excellent online information for browsing, and I can call them up and get friendly, informed advice that I might not get from my local shops.
    Amazon’s recommendation features could approximate that sort of thing, although there’s more chaff to sort through, and as a customer, I have more faith in a guy who I know has been wrenching bikes for ten years than J. Random Internet User. And a purchase of a bike part is a bigger commitment, in lots of ways—cash and even personal safety—than a book or a movie.

  • Exactly right. For a great example of a local bike shop doing it right, check out WebCyclery.com, a local shop in Bend, OR. They went the other direction, though, since they started out as catalog only, then online, and now they straddle the middle by having a strong online presence AND a local shop presence AND are heavily involved in the Bend scene.
    River City needs to wise up.

  • FWIW, there are at least 3 Portland cycling businesses that do most of their business over the Internet but still have a local pickup storefront.
    http://www.universalcycles.com/ Big parts vendor with competitive prices. Possibly Portland LBSs get their parts from them?
    http://www.bicyclinghub.com/ Tons of apparel
    http://www.biketiresdirect.com/ Haven’t used them personally because their warehouse caught fire just before I needed new tires.

  • They are in the service business. Since I can work on bikes myself, I order parts where ever I find them cheap. My LBS would never stock an ‘obsolete’ part like a square taper bottom bracket. It’s always ‘we can order it for you’ plus the ‘Jack Black High Fidelity elitist attitude’ that Matt noted.
    One local shop owner is a former indie newspaper reporter turned bike geek that loves to post long screeds on our bike club mailing list when we have the nerve to post a link to a three dollar tube on sale at Performance. He goes on about how he donates to our banquet, which is true.
    The model might be http://www.benscycle.net – Ben’s Cycle – which is a 100+ year old bricks and mortar bike shop that reinvented itself as an internet powerhouse. They jumped on the fixed gear bandwagon and are riding it to the bank.

  • Ha! I’ve ordered a bunch of stuff from Ben’s before and they’re great. There’s no where else to get some of those crazy Brooks and Nitto stuff.

  • I was recently faced with the dilemma of whether to buy a bike from my local shop or ebay. The frame i wanted was half the price on ebay but i wasn’t sure if it would actually fit. My local shop didn’t have my size in stock but they special ordered it for me and built it up so I could demo it. After I test rode the bike, I decided to buy it from my shop because I’d have felt guilty about buying it from ebay after they went through the trouble of getting it for me (even though I would have saved about $1000 on ebay). I don’t know if most consumers would do this or if they’d be able to afford to.
    I think bikes are different from books and movies and music. You kinda need to test them IRL. They require a mechanic to build them at the shop. Someone to help fit you on the bike and answer questions. If a shop got no return for this initial investment then I don’t see how most of them (aside from the large superstores) will be able to stay in business and still maintain a shopfront. I think the “local” shops who are trying to offload inventory on ebay probably aren’t making a lot of $$ on ebay sales. The bike shop where I demoed my bike would have probably had to do that with mine if I hadn’t purchased it since I’m an odd size that no one generally stocks (apparently there isn’t a big market for XXS full suspension high end race bikes).

  • I would like to shop at my local store as it is only a mile from my house. But there is something about the unborn fetus poster in the front window that keeps me from returning… Hmmm.

  • Matt – I wonder if you could talk a bit about your experience with competetive cyclist in this context? I’m a fan and my impression is that you are, too. I just wonder how you see them fitting into all of this.

  • I’m kind of a fan of them. They’re definitely doing the right thing on the internet and it’s cool they have a local presence as well. I’ve bought a bunch of stuff off them and they’re generally great. They’ve screwed up an order of mine and once when I emailed some direct questions I got no answer at all, which was a bummer.
    I love their blog sometimes (like when they are talking about the industry) but it turns me off other times (like the incessant mocking of the Garmin/Slipstream team). They’re definitely kicking ass in terms of what the future of bike shops should be and they’re great about sharing all the info and things they’ve learned. I guess I could do without the snippiness and snark on their blog.

  • I went to River City once to look for a basic rear rack. They wanted $45 for the cheapest one. I left, went online, and ordered a similar model for $20 with free shipping. Never went back there. If the owner wants to know why his business is in trouble, it’s because he’s selling stuff for more than 2x the cost of ordering online. Get real. I wouldn’t mind supporting an LBS by paying 10 or 15% more, but 225%? Forget it.

  • This is interesting, as a shop owner. Most customers are not as “bike savy” as those commenting here. Most shop owners hate the internet because, plain and simple, the internet customer usually does not get the best product for their needs. Whether it is a part or bike that doesn’t fit or work, or a used bike that is worn out often times in the end it costs them more. And sometimes the unspeakable happens… they don’t ride. Their bikes never work right or fit them very well. Who wants to ride something that doesn’t work or isn’t comfortable? And honestly, many times people don’t even KNOW that their stuff doesn’t work or fit right!
    We don’t chastise customers for buying off of the net, we just show them a better way. People come to us because they know what they are getting. We will fit them, carry most parts in stock, keep up on the cool new stuff, offer lifetime tuning, have a clean, well organized shop, greet all customers as soon as possible and with a smile, have group rides, build trails, lobby for bike lanes and bike racks… you get the point. We don’t have time for an internet store. The internet is not the enemy of the bike shop, the traditional “bike shop” is the enemy of the bike shop.

  • Or more apropos for Portland OR — Powells Books.

  • recumbents@gmail.com

    I left Portland around 1996, which is right around when River City opened. They had the Hi-Fidelity attitude even then. We lived down the street from the bike collective on Ankeny. What an awesome store, and cute bike hippy girls worked there, covered in grease and wearing coveralls. Be still my heart.

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