A Tale of Two Bike Shops… and Amazon – Is Your Bike Shop Worthy of Your Business?

I’m no moralist when it comes to shopping for bike parts, and frankly I tire of forced moralism on consumers in general.  There is always someone who wants us to eat organic, drink fair trade, ‘support your LBS [local bike shop]’, boycott Wal-Mart and so on. We are set up for buyer’s remorse before we ever get to the check-out. Now to be fair, there are times we are right to feel guilty. If you go to the local shop to get fitted with a bike, or to test a component only to go out to your car and order it online from your iPhone, you should feel guilty. In fact, close your laptop, drive to your shop and give them a donation for serving as your personal showroom. On the flip side, if you find a great deal on something you need on Jenson or ChainReaction are you sinning against the mountain bike gods if you purchase through the online retailer? The question is fair, and it deserves at least a little attention.  How do we ethically navigate the market place in a way that serves our own financial needs and the needs of our mountain biking community?

Photo Credit: Scott Beale / Lauging Squid

Let me give an illustration of 3 experiences I have recently had while shopping for gear, and let’s see if they are helpful in navigating our vast buying options.

Experience #1 – Amazon

For my birthday Kristin said, “Get some mountain biking stuff that you want.”  How’s that for a wife? Unfortunately there were some serious financial strings attached to that offer. In the end I opened the Amazon app, read a number of reviews, found a Fox jersey and gloves and some off brand riding shorts. It was quick, cheap, and super easy. From the point when Kristin told me to buy something to the time it was ordered was an hour or less. A few days later the products were at my house, as described. Can the LBS beat that?

My Amazon Order – Thanks Kristin!

Experience #2 – Bike Shop #1:

I’ll choose not to name this shop. My experience was not good, but I can’t bring myself to give them a bad reputation on the internet. On December 31st of last year I broke a chain and went into “Bike Shop #1” to buy a replacement.  Earlier in the year I had converted to a 1×9 setup and had been itching to get a shorter caged derailleur. I figured I’d support my LBS and order the derailleur while I was there replacing the chain. In the end I paid $25 over the best online retailer price. Small price to pay for doing the right thing, right? I even paid up front so they could put the sale on their year-end books. My new derailleur arrived February 4th, 35 days later. I received a litany of reasons as to why it was delayed, but no apology and no attempt to make things right. Beyond this, the in shop experience was not fun. The people in the shop didn’t engage in any talk about riding, weather, or anything else for that matter. Bottom line, these guys are ‘all-in’ on road bikes and have catered well to road bikers, everything else is an afterthought and it shows. In their defense, catering to Mountain Biking in the plains of Northwest Ohio isn’t the obvious business plan.

Better late than never

Experience #3 – Bikeworks – Sylvania Ohio:

In mid-January I was visiting someone in a hospital which was near a bike shop I’d never been to. I decided to stop in and look for a new helmet. The employee quickly informed me that Cannondale helmets were on clearance and he was looking to move them out. Within a couple minutes I had one on my head and was ready to make a purchase. Before I even reached the counter he found out where I rode, where I am from, set me up with information on the people who maintain some trails a half hour north of my home, introduced me to other workers at the shop, and invited me to a local low key ‘just-for-the-fun-of-it’ time trial that the shop employees and some of their friends were having that weekend. I couldn’t have drawn the experience up any better.

$75 from the LBS, good price, outstanding service

From these three examples we can at the very least say that “support your LBS” is not a statement that should just be universally accepted, but also see there are times it should. Why should I pay a $20 premium for sub-par service from a shop that does nothing to advocate for the local MTB scene, is overpriced, and not much fun?

So how do we decide ethically decide whether or not to shop local? Let me offer this list.

#1 – Price. Is your LBS making an effort to be in the ballpark, or are they operating on the assumption that you are incapable of shopping on-line and gouging you. Don’t force your LBS to price match in order to get every sale, and if you are going to ‘haggle’ do it on the phone not in the shop with other customers around. Nonetheless at least try to give them the opportunity to get close, and reward them with the sale if they do. If they can’t, they can’t. So be it.

#2 – Advocacy. Does your local shop add anything to the riding scene that is a benefit to you? Do they organize rides, trail work, work with local authorities, and get new people involved in the sport? Trails don’t just appear and events don’t just happen. Usually behind every trail, every race, every promotion is a good bike shop. When you pay an extra $20 to a good local shop it isn’t wasted but adds value to your experience. How much is that worth to you?

#3 – Fun. The bike shop is, or at least should be a social hub for area riders. When you go in is it fun? Do you look forward to who you are going to run into there? Again, you are paying for them to heat and cool the place, keep it looking good, and stocked with what you need. If they are doing a good job it is worth it to pay a small premium to them on parts and service.

#4 – Time. Let’s face it, if you have a broken part that your shop doesn’t stock, and they aren’t going to place a bulk order until after your next big ride, you might be stuck ordering online and getting it in 2 days instead of a week and half or more. I waited 35 days for a part. It was because QBP (the shop’s supplier) didn’t have it, and then the timing of the next bulk order was later. Eventually they just shipped it in from another location (which they could have done 30 days earlier.) Nonetheless I understand their plight, they should understand mine. Don’t feel guilty if you need something in a pinch and you have to go elsewhere because the LBS can’t meet your needs.

Let’s close this ramble. If your bike shop is not addressing these four items, price, advocacy, fun, and time, and there is no shop in your area doing that, by all means order online. Don’t feel the least bit guilty about it. If a bike shop in your area is addressing all four of these things then at the very least you should occasionally throw them a bone to keep them going.  Now look, if Nashbar is clearing out frames and you get a GT Full Suspension frame like another author here did for $150, jump all over it. If your shop can’t get close the wholesaler’s price on some model year closeout you want, then buy it online and feel no remorse. At the same time, before your go out of your way to save $10, consider what your local bike shop is doing. You might find out that the added value to you is well worth a little more money spent.

Part of being a cheapskate is understanding value and always making value based decisions. A good bike shop adds value, so this cheapskate author will continue to shop at his LBS.

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