An Equal Opportunity Offender


Friday, January 6, 2012

This bike shop is fucked!

A couple months back I found myself sitting around a tall table in a sports bar sharing beers with other bike shop owner/managers. I was in California at a retail management course specially tailored to the needs of bike shops. We were out after a full eight hour day of classes. No riding, not much moving around, lots of book work. We needed to unwind and let things air out. If you know what I mean.

As it goes with these types of events, there was a lot of shop talk. The bull shit was getting so deep our server had to put on rubber boots to make it to the table. Most of the evening consisted of what do you do about this? and how are you doing with X brand? Stuff that would bore even the most passionate industry insider. However, there was one guy at the table that had a pattern to his stories.

One story would be about how hard it is to make any money owning a bike shop and how he was struggling just to make ends meet. Then he would tell stories about "dumb" customers who he had to throw out or just didn't get that he was trying to "help" them.

One of the latter stories was about a customer who had brought in a wheel he wanted trued. Instead of doing the labor and collecting the payment, he told the customer the wheel wasn't worth fixing and that he should bring his whole bike in so he could make sure it got fixed right. The customer (only God knows why) returned with the bike and the wheel and asked him for an estimate on what was needed and how much it would cost. The owner then proceeded to tell the customer that his bike wasn't worth fixing and he should save the money and buy a new bike.

The customer told him he wasn't interested in a new bike and that he would like to fix this one. Somehow this exchange exploded into the customer being thrown out of the shop and no money be transferred.

These stories plague the bike industry, but let's analyze what just happened.

1. Customer came into the shop. This is a good thing. It means that either your marketing is working, your location is good or just sheer luck. Any way you look at it, customers coming into the shop is a good thing.

2. The customer wanted to spend money. The only thing better than a customer walking in your front door is one that is ready and willing to spend money.

3. The shop offers the service that the customer wanted. Again a good thing, you don't have to order, stock or do anything out of the ordinary, just do what you do and what the customer wants.

This is where things go horribly wrong. Instead of taking the wheel, truing it up and taking the customers money who would be happy to pay you...

4. Shop tells customer wheel is not worth fixing. So what you are telling the customer is that even though they have the money to pay what you charge to fix what they want fixed, you won't fix it?

5. Shop tells customer to bring entire bike back for an estimate. Now at this point I am blown away that the customer returned, but it goes to show how stacked the deck is in favor of bike shop service.

6. Customer returns. See numbers 1 and 2.

7. Once again shop tells customer to blow off and either buy a new "real" bike or get lost. Customer is then thrown out of the shop.

Now I am leaving out some details. The wheel wasn't destroyed, just cheap. The bike was a department store bike that needed some work, but again the customer was willing to pay to have the bike fixed.

What really struck me about this story was its juxtaposition to the other stories coming out of this guy's mouth. I'm broke. I can't make any money doing this. I throw paying customers out of my shop. Boo Hoo.

Would you like to know why you are broke? You throw customers out of your shop.

There is this huge misnomer in the biking industry that there are "real" bikes and then shit. Shit of course, not being worth fixing and we are doing the customer a favor by refusing to fix it. Look at that from the customer's view. I have a bike. I want it fixed. I am willing to pay to have it fixed. Why won't you fix my bike?

Why do bike shop employees think they are financial advisers to the world?

My policy, Shop employees are not financial advisers. They are not allowed to tell a customer that the bike is not worth fixing unless the customer specifically asks their opinion. And when that happens, they can specify the pros and cons of having service done or not having it done. This isn't originally my idea. I stole it from Brett Flemming who has been preaching it for years. I still struggle with it in my shop on occasion but we do what the customer wants, as long as that is possible.

I can't count the amount of times we have taken a piece of shit bike and made it work as good as it possibly could. The customer paid us for our time and happily rode their bike. They then returned and being stoked on cycling because they had been riding their POS, had lost 25 pounds and now wanted to take it to the next level, bought a bike from us and continued on their happy, cycling trail.

Remember kids, 80% of all bikes sold are not sold through independent bike shops. Rather they come from big box stores. If you chose to berate customers about their buying choices you are refusing to service 80% of all bikes out there.

That is a market I am not willing to turn my back on.

This rant was partially inspired by this


  1. Serious nodding along to this post.

    What is wrong with wanting to fix something instead of tossing it and getting a whole new one? It's such a wasteful mindset to just dispose of a whole bike because it isn't up to par with what one thinks is the minimum standard of quality.

    Get them out on their bike, running well and safely, regardless of what the downtube says and how much it cost them initially. If something is genuinely not able to be fixed in a realistically cost-effective way, then take the time to properly explain the situation to them rather than just shrugging them off. The job isn't just being able to fix it, but also being able to communicate what needs to be fixed, how urgent it is, and why. This gets overlooked a lot, and I think that's totally unacceptable.

    I find that there are two major issues that drive a lot of the poor behaviour from shop folks like the one you've described:

    1) Benefit of the doubt: They're doing this because they're bike people, not business people or customer service people. This means that while they may be great at bike-related stuff, they haven't a clue how to deal with customers or run their business, and sometimes they don't even appear to have the basic level of common sense required to notice when they're about to shoot themselves in the foot with a bazooka. I feel bad for these folks. They have one thing that they're SUPER INTO and they don't seem to be able to cope with any other part of the world. That must suck.

    2) Less benefit of the doubt: They're in the bike industry because they're super into bikes, but when they signed up for this stuff they failed to realize that working at a bike shop wouldn't just mean sitting around talking about awesome bike stuff with other super-enthusiasts. Now they're grumpy because most of their time is spent dealing with entry-level 80s/90s MTBs and selling hybrids to once-in-a-while riders. They have short tolerance for customers that don't meet up to their idealized view of bike shop life, and perpetuate the unfortunate reputation of bike shops being generally staffed by rude, elitist jerks. These people should have recognized the realities of turning a hobby into a career.

  2. Thanks for this post. I'm a new rider - thanks to falling for a long term committed advocate of MTB who is teaching me to love the sport. As a newbie, I'm completely intimidated by local bike shops. Even when shopping for gifts for my guy, I feel talked down to at best, and dismissed a lot of the time.

    The chances of my buying my first MTB at one of these shops is minimal precisely because a) I'm not going to lay out thousands of dollars for what they say I 'need' and B) as a newbie and a woman I'm not made to feel welcome or valued as a customer.

    It's too bad - I generally try to shop local. But not when I'm left to feel inferior in the process.

  3. SCW, your feelings are not unique. There are many new riders and/or female riders that feel this way. I wrenched for a Downhill racer for a couple of years, he won Expert Nationals last year and during the time I wrenched for him I got to know him pretty well. I was blown away by his recollection of his first time into a bike shop (which was only a few years ago). After his first trip he felt like he had to do homework before he went in so he wouldn't feel like an idiot.

    I think the best thing for you to do is to try and find a shop that doesn't make you feel that way and then reward them with your business. And if you can't find one, let them know they are turning you off of cycling. That should give 'em an attitude adjustment something fierce.

  4. interesting post. at the shop where I work, we have enough work to do on high-end bikes that fixing department store bikes is a waste of our time. it takes longer (sometimes much longer) to true a steel rim laced with rusted spokes for a customer who is going to pay us $10 than it does for the $10K a year tri guy who is going to get new tubulars glued on, new bar tape, and a new bottom bracket, chain, and cassette, and swap the brake pads to go with the new Zipp wheels he just bought for all three of his bikes. I think that failing bike shops need to take whatever they can get, but in all honesty, turning a customer with a crappy bike away is as much for our scheduling convenience, and that of customers who are waiting for their bikes to get back to competition and training, as it is for the customer's interest in not wasting money. if you want your clapped out pile of rust fixed, take it to a bike co-op. does that make sense?

    however, it's important to be gentle when breaking the news, "your bike is a pile of junk and you should not waste money on it." if your bike shop can afford to turn the occasional customer away, be sure not to alienate them in the process. my experience is also that many, not all, but many, of the people who really want to fix up crappy bikes are very stubborn people whose insistence to fit square pegs into round holes is problematic in the long run. it's safer to send those people on their way then to have them coming back twice a week to fix the unfixable because most (not all) of them are going to cost you more in your labor hours than you invest in them.

    1. That totally makes sense, and I like that you are straightforward about what kind of customers you serve. It's good to have a clear and focused business model. Just please, for the sake of the entire sport, refer rather than condescend. I know my reality is skewed a bit because I live in Portland, but there are shops here who would sneer at a triathlete but go out their way digging through their used parts bin to get any bike that comes under their nose in tip top shape. There are also shops like yours and everything in between. Just have a list of shops where you can send newbies, cheapskates, and hipsters. Knowingly touch the bike they brought in, spin the wheels or something, look thoughtful, and then say in your most clinical sounding expert voice "We're not really set up to service this type of bike here, let me give the folks over at Dirty Hippie Bike Recyclers a call..."

      I know you're busy, but take the time to chat them up and make them feel good for trying to get back into biking, because lord knows we need more people riding bikes, any bikes, whatever bikes put a smile on their face.

      Be nice and enthusiastically encourage everyone who has gone to the trouble of hauling a bike in to any shop. It may require a bit of acting to pull it off, but you'll be doing the entire biking community a huge favor just by being helpful in even the smallest ways. You know, like "Finally managed to dig the ol' trusty steed out of the garage for a ride? Sweet! Let me call these guys who can help you out! Have a great day!"