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One of the many things I appreciate about my favorite local bike shop, Absolute Bikes, is that I can walk in and walk out minutes later with the exact product I need, no matter what it is.

Editor’s Note: “Over a Beer” is a regular column written by Greg Heil. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, any opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

As bike shops around the nation continue to close and the bike industry overall posts dismal sales numbers and a drop off in income, the siren cry of avid riders only gets louder: “Support your local bike shop! Buy local! Don’t buy online!”

And honestly, I’m all for local bike shops and injecting money back into my local community, instead of sending it off to some faceless corporation named “Amazon.” But bike shops, if you want to get my hard-earned dollars, you need to have products to sell me–and you need to have them in stock.

“Let me order that for you.”

Nothing jerks my chain more than when I walk into a bike shop, looking to plunk down my precious pennies for a part or accessory I need, and the shop doesn’t have it in stock. Some shops I’ve encountered seem to have nothing in stock, aside from a few inner tubes–and sometimes, not even the right sizes of those!

At that moment, offering to order me a part is the best thing you can do. Instead of just saying, “no, we don’t carry that,” offering to find a solution to my problem is the only way you can respond in that moment that promotes good customer service and looking out for my well being. I get that.

But answer me this: if I’m walking into the shop looking for a bottle of chain lube, Chamois Butt’r, a replacement tire, or a specific type of helmet, why do you think I would have you order that lube/tire/helmet for me? Because you know what? I can order it myself. I can go online, pay less money than you’ll charge me, and have it shipped to my doorstep for free in two days, thanks to Amazon Prime.

Why I’m there in the first place.

A wider range of available options at Absolute Bikes

A wide range of available options at Absolute Bikes

If I’m walking into your shop to buy a product in the first place, I know that I may end up spending a couple extra bucks. I get that. But I’m willing to spend a little extra in order to walk in, and then walk out 5 minutes later with the new tire I need, because I just slashed the side wall on my old one.

I’m willing to pay a couple extra bucks to try the helmet on first, to make sure that it fits my head.

I’m willing to pay for the convenience and accessibility to products that your shop provides.

But if instead of having that product there for me to try, there for me to purchase in that moment and walk out the door with, if you in fact have nothing available, guess what? I’m not going to be buying from you.

The benefit of the brick-and-mortar shop when it comes to retail sales is always going to be the convenience and accessibility factors. But with the advent of Amazon Prime, in order for a bike shop to be more convenient than ordering online, you really have to work hard. You have to provide services to the customer, like the opportunity to dial in the right sizing, get hands-on with a product to see whether or not it lives up to the customer’s expectation, and of course, be able to sell the product to that customer the same day.

We live in an age of instant gratification, but we also live in an age that expects many employees to spend 50, 60, or even more hours per week at work, because they’re “full time” and they have “responsibilities” and “work to be done.” And heck, the hours posted on the front doors of many bike shops are minimal and often sporadic. Even if the bike shop does have the helmet that the customer wants in stock, it could still be more convenient for them to order it off of Amazon and have it show up on their doorstep in two days, instead of taking the time out of their already overtaxed schedule to get away from work, make it down to the bike shop, only to find that actually, the shop doesn’t even carry the product they need.

Heck, Amazon Prime is so convenient that there’ve been times I’ve ordered products off of Amazon in order to save me the 40-minute round-trip drive to Walmart. And if Walmart is having a hard time competing with the convenience of Prime, where do you think bike shops rank?

Caveats

Of course, there are no end of caveats associated with this position:

Caveat #1: If you can’t install the part yourself, don’t buy it off the internet.

I do very little of my own bike maintenance because, when it comes to tasks more advanced than tweaking the barrel adjusters on my derailleurs, I’ve realized that the pro mechanics who’ve been doing it for 30 years are way faster and more precise than I’ll ever be. But if you’re like me and you won’t be installing your new brake set yourself, don’t go buying it off the internet and then taking it to the bike shop to have them install it. Sure, they’ll still do the install (and charge you for it), but many shops A) will provide free install for parts you buy from them, but more importantly, B) this is just bad form. Don’t do it.

Caveat #2: Don’t showroom your local bike shop.

Your local bike shop doesn’t exist for you to try on the latest threads, shoes, and helmets, so you can go and buy those same products for a discount online. If you try it on at the shop and you want to buy it, pay the extra couple of bucks for the assurance the shop has provided that you’re getting the right product in the right size.

Caveat #3: Don’t expect every bike shop to carry every brand.

While we instinctively realize this when it comes to complete bike brands, this same philosophy applies to clothing, components, and accessories. Every single bike shop can’t stock every single product from every single brand. So if you slash a tire on your trip, you may not be able to go to the local bike shop and buy your favorite Maxxis tread. And that’s OK.

But if you go to that same bike shop and want to buy a tubeless ready 3.0″ 27.5+ trail tire with sidewall protection and aggressive lugs, you should be able to buy that tire. If you want to buy a low profile 29×2.25″ race tire, you should be able to get that tire as well. If you need a 4.8″ fat bike tire–same thing. The shop should be able to provide all of those different products for you, even if they aren’t available in the specific brand that you might prefer.

Bottom Line

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I’m all for supporting local bike shops. I have many friends and acquaintances who own shops, and are employed at shops. And I need the other conveniences and services that the shop provides, like maintenance, warranty support, and so much more. But for an LBS to be successful, it needs to realize what it’s up against. It needs to realize what services brick and mortar stores continue to offer even in this age of digital shopping, and double down on those services.

But if you’re about to click on Amazon.com to order me a part, don’t bother–I can do that on my own.

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# Comments

  • SJP

    Hear Hear.
    I bought my bike at my LBS. They carry Trek. A lot of the Trek MTBs have a Turbine crank. I was doing some work and discovered that half of the head of my crank bolt had sheared off and was rattling around behind the extractor cap. So, I googled “Race Face Turbine crank bolt”, and instantly got a few online bike shops selling it, with pictures so I knew it was the right part. But, my LBS is less than 1000 yards from my house, so I called them and said “I need a Race Face Turbine crank bolt”. “We can order that for you, it will be here in two days”.

    Well, OK, as long as I’ve made the effort to call, go ahead. Two days later, I take my bike in to show them the sheared bolt head and ask if they’ve seen that before; and discovered that they had ordered the wrong part.

    “We’ll order the right part and get things fixed. Leave your bike”. Well, crap, but I’ve come here, so OK.

    Two days later, I come back for my bike. Something looks funny.
    “Well, the part we ordered was the wrong part (again), but we found this other bolt in the spare parts bin and it fits.”
    “Except it only sort-of fits, now the extractor cap won’t go on all the way because the bolt-head diameter is too big, and the bolt is riding on the sharp metal edge of the extractor cap instead of the teflon lining.”
    “This gets you riding right away. To order the actual Race Face bolt is a special order that could take 10 days. This will work. That will be $35 for the crank service”.

    So I paid the $35, went home, googled “Race Face Turbine crank bolt”, and clicked order. I should have done that in the first place’ I’d be $35 dollars and ~45 minutes richer.

    It’s not the money, its the time. I’ll happily pay for bike service that saves me time over doing it myself. I keep relearning the lesson that it never saves me time, but the intervals are getting longer so maybe it is sinking in.

  • marvinmartian

    Yes. I recently took what was to be an easy Saturday trail ride of about 45 minutes on my cross bike the day before a cross race. Got a stick in my chain/derailleur and broke the hanger (and the derailleur). While I do admit that I should have had a spare hanger myself, I frantically called every Specialized dealer in Atlanta and one in Athens GA (I have an older Specialized, a Tricross) so I could get my bike running for the next days race. No Specialized dealer had a hanger for that bike in stock… I was a bit surprised about that. Seemed like a cheap product that they could keep in stock in case someone who owns an older Specialized was in the predicament that I was in. All I got was “we can order it for you”; yes, and I can order it for myself as well, but I needed a fix that day.

    Fortunately I had an old 2000 Trek laying around and the hanger on it, while not an exact fit, fit well enough to get me through the race with a working rear derailleur.

    When I broke that hanger I honestly thought no big deal, I just call a shop and get a replacement, surely a Specialized dealer will stock that… wrong

    • Aaron Chamberlain

      Well the real problem there is Specialized and other companies changing the derailleur hangers every year. It would be super handy if there were only a couple of options to choose from, but it’s not like that.

      It just doesn’t make economic sense for a shop to stock outdated items. Let’s say that the derailleur hanger costs them $10, but it sits around in their shop for five years. That’s not an efficient use of their capital. You may say, “But it’s just a derailleur hanger,” but start thinking about all the items that can apply to and you can see why shops carry as little inventory as possible.

      It’s also important to note that shops need to cater to the tastes and needs of their customers. You can’t expect every single shop to have mountain bike stuff in it, if that isn’t what their core customers want. For instance, Loose Nuts Cycles here in Atlanta carries quite a bit of MTB stuff, but since they are an in-town shop and most of their customer base are commuters, their product mix skews towards them.

      I wish I could just walk into any shop and get what I need, but I realize that’s just not realistic. I try to buy whatever I can locally, but sometimes it is just easier to order stuff yourself.

    • marvinmartian

      Fair point, but the hanger in question was used on the Tricross from 06 to 14, and also used on a bunch of other models including some years of Allez’s, Crux’s and Tarmac’s. Someone I spoke with at one Atlanta Specialized dealer stated that it is actually a fairly common derailleur.I cannot think of that many more specific parts from a bike that is a part that is designed to fail (under the required circumstances) that they would really need to keep in stock, but this is a part that is designed to fail and was used for many years on the Tricross and other bikes. Also, to be fair, the first Specialized dealer I called (Outback) has helped me out of many bike repair related jams in the past 20 or so years… Pete and the crew are good people

    • Aaron Chamberlain

      @marvimartian I was thinking more about other components, not stuff specific to a particular frame.

      Take chainrings for instance. You’ve got triples, doubles, single rings, narrow wide, 4-arm, 5-arm, SRAM’s direct mount, Race Face’s direct mount, nearly unlimited colors, oval rings… Shops may as well guess blindly as to what to stock.

  • ACree

    Greg, you nailed it with this one.

    Personally I do almost all work on my bikes themselves, so I tend to buy parts and tools online. I’ve found far too many shops cost more, while underperforming in so many ways. I will happily pay a premium for a part that I need, that is in stock, right now. I won’t wait for it to be ordered, only to pay more and wait longer than if I’d just ordered it myself. Shops like that will either change or go out of business. Fortunately I have a few good shops nearby that seem to focused on modernizing their approach to business.

  • mongwolf

    Personally, I don’t see how bike shops make it at all. I understand that they have to keep their inventory down to a minimum because there is such a crazy variety of parts and models of each part. The volume would be horrendous. That’s why in the car industry you have mechanic shops and car parts stores in any given town. That’s a industry model that works well for cars, but is no way possible for bikes is my guess.

    So any of us can go ahead and order online if we so desire, and I do of course sometimes. But for me, having only gotten into biking in the past few years, I really appreciate the knowledge of some bike shop workers and mechanics and their ability to determine the exact part/model I need (or how to fix something, etc). I would screw up many of my own orders for sure I know or it would take me hours upon hours to figure it out.

    I also appreciate those shops who are willing to share their knowledge because I love to learn, and I like making relationships in the process. Of course some of the floor representatives act like they know their stuff in a certain area but really don’t. Very sad. It only takes a minute to see right through them … just tell me you don’t know and get some help from someone else in the store like the mechanic. And I’ve met a couple of mechanics who were out to rob me blind as a new rider. So I have definitely “cut bait” with some LBS in my home area (Colorado Springs).

    But to those shops who are honest, who like sharing what they know and are willing to make a friendship with me, I am MORE THAN willing to pay a few extra dollars and even wait a few extra days to get a part through them. I hope my small business with them somehow helps keeps them up and running, doing what they enjoy and feeding their families. And let’s get big government and big government taxes off their backs, so they can make a better “go of it” as a small business.

  • hproctor

    Same problems are found when seeking repairs or parts for cars, tractors, chain saws, lawn equipment, household appliances, etc. It is too costly to carry a large inventory. Shops that have a large, busy rental fleet are the best source of available parts.

  • spazjensen

    Yeeeesssss (manly grunt of approval). Have went through the this so many times in the past. And when the one shop had it the common parts (i.e tires or a cassette) available it was so ridiculously overpriced I said. “nope”. I’ve even tried giving them a chance to match the price on the part if I paid them to install it and that only aggravated the mechanics further.

    • Joel DH

      I agree with you’re statements here man. I find LBS prices are often higher than online. Word of advice: I never try to bargain with mechanics. They are professional sellers and mechanics, and arguing with ’em only makes them mad. If they charge me too high on something, I buy the part elsewhere. Here’s a story: I once got my derailleur cable installed by a mechanic without asking how much it would be. He charged me 20 bucks just to install the cable and adjust it. Always get a quote!

    • SJP

      $20 seems pretty reasonable. I suspect you don’t have a good sense of what it costs to keep the doors open.

    • Joel DH

      I suspect you’ve never replaced a cable yourself. It takes about 6.5 minutes and is easy. The adjustment is also quite simple if you know what you’re doing. When I have a shop replace my cable when I don’t have one or don’t have time to do it myself, I usually get charged about 10-15 bucks. 20 bucks? Admittedly, its only a five-ten dollar difference, but hey, most of us are on a budget, and every little bit helps in this very expensive sport!
      Note: I don’t care about “having a good sense of what it takes to keep the doors open”. It is the bike shop’s business to price me for profit, and it is my business to insure myself a reasonable price. I’m not there to keep their doors open. I’m there to get my bike fixed as inexpensively as possible.

  • Joel DH

    Another awesome “over a beer” Greg! This article perfectly articulated my thoughts on LBS’. They do face significate competition from Amazon and Ebay etc. LBS’ are typically really cool and have the parts you need, but, like you said, why would I want them to order it for me? Unless its something I need the shop to put together for me, like a bike, I can handle ordering a product myself. I also agree about what you said about going to a shop just to try on the shoes or clothes you’re going to order online anyways. That wastes the bike shop’s time and is wrong anyways. In short, go LBS! But 1. have the parts people need 2. Establish relationships with you’re costumers. They may be more likely to buy from you instead of online.

    • Greg Heil

      Thanks Joel!

    • Joel DH

      Thank you for often thanking me for my comments Greg. I appreciate being informed that someone reads my comments and likes them. By the way. KEEP WRITING THESE ARTICLES!

    • Greg Heil

      You bet man, no plan on stopping anytime soon!

  • Swampyankeecyclist

    There’s a soullessness to ordering online. Sure, I do it sometimes. It’s as satisfying as a Big Mac and leaves me wondering why I just did that. If I go to my LBS, they know me. I know them. I throw a Frisbee for their shop dog while waiting. I’ve ridden with them. They’ve extended me credit to take advantage of a manufacturer’s sale. Any tube is $5. There’s almost always someone else in the shop who I’ve ridden with.

    A good LBS survives by becoming the hub of a community. Amazon won’t ever be that.

  • k_hungus

    The most expensive cost associated with owning a retail business is the carrying cost of inventory. Considering the insane number of standards that the cycling world has come up with over the last 5-10 years (fat, plus, gravel, boost, through-axle, 29″, 27.5″, mechanical disk, hydraulic disk, etc.. etc…) keeping everyone happy is an extremely expensive proposition, especially for small, family-owned shops. Only the large distribution companies (like QBP) with their extremely sophisticated supply chain and inventory automation systems can afford to keep this variety in stock. On top of all that, margins are very thin for bikes, and not much better for parts. Most LBSs survive on service and higher margin sundry/add-on items that nearly everyone needs (Clif bars, small tools and bags, water bottles, butt butter). The fact is that it is our own desire for the newest, latest, coolest tech and lowest cost in bikes and components is what makes it so hard, if not impossible, for small shops to compete with the likes of Amazon.

  • Daniel Lee Dault Jr.

    agree whole heartedly nothing more aggravating than going into the bike shop and them not have the part on stock you need

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