CyclingTips Podcast, Episode 41: How bike shops can survive in an Amazon world

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It has never been a more challenging time to run a brick-and-mortar bicycle shop. Decreasing profit margins, a more knowledgeable and demanding clientele, and trying to compete head-to-head with gargantuan online retailers who not only have everything in stock, but also sell it cheaper, have all contributed to challenging times for your local bike shop.

Adding yet another layer is the rise of mobile repair operations such as Velofix and Beeline, both of which promise top-notch levels of service with unmatchable levels of convenience — instead of you taking your bike to the shop, the shop comes to you.

Does this all mean that bicycle shops should just give up and shut their doors? While it’s true that shops are going out of business at alarming rates (at least in the United States), the savvier outfits have figured out how to not only survive, but thrive.

In this CyclingTips podcast, U.S. tech editor James Huang speaks with James Stanfill, president of the Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association and Elorie Slater, co-owner of Sports Garage, a specialty shop that primarily caters to higher-end mountain bike and gravel customers.

As one might expect given his position, Stanfill’s take is that shops need to embrace service as a pillar of their operation.

Online retailers may have thoroughly squashed the idea that shops can make money solely by being the middleman for bicycles and gear, but the one thing that still can’t be sent through a computer is the knowledge and experience of a well-worn mechanic.

“The big and successful ones have already done that,” he said. “They’ve opened up or expanded their service departments, or they’ve added other options under the service umbrella that cater to their clientele.”

The Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association advocates that shops should emphasize their service departments and staff, as it’s one of the only bicycle-related things you can’t get online. Photo: PBMA.

Slater, meanwhile, doesn’t discount Stanfill’s opinion, but feels it’s only one aspect of what shops need to investigate if they are to remain viable.

Now in its 23rd year of operation, Sports Garage, in Boulder, Colorado, actually started as a service-only establishment in the 1990s before transitioning to a more traditional business model that includes sales of complete bikes, parts, and accessories.

In Slater’s opinion, it’s not just service that will guarantee the survival of local bike shops, but the quality of its staff in general, along with a commitment to being experts in a selected segment of the market — not just a department store that provides so-so service to everyone.

Economic pressure forces one of two things when it comes to local bike shops: extinction or evolution.

“People and experience: those are still two themes that the Internet has not been able to solve,” she said. “Differentiation is what’s going to lead bike shops to have the people and experiences that value-driven consumers will still be drawn to. To me, Amazonification is just commoditization; you’re just competing on price. But if you’re a value-driven consumer — and bicycle purchases are typically value-driven — there’s something more.

“In an environment where you have so many options, it’s hard for consumers to say, ‘Who do I trust?’ You trust the guy who’s a specialist. The reason why Sports Garage has actually been able to thrive is because we’ve giving a cue to the marketplace that we have an area of expertise that’s worth trusting. On the Internet, everyone is an expert. That’s what consumers need in an environment where there are so many voices.”

Are brick-and-mortar bike shops doomed to extinction? Few will deny that the statistics aren’t encouraging, what with the number of shops in the United States alone shrinking in recent years from over 6000 to around 4000.

But then again, the ones that survive the cull are invariably the ones better equipped to serve their clientele, and more adaptable to this rapidly changing retail environment — which is a good thing, since every cyclist will need the help of a good bike shop sooner or later.

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