My Love-Hate Relationship With The Local Bike Shop

“Support your local bike shop”

This phrase is so ubiquitous that it has become our mantra. We even wear shirts to support the message and blindly think were giving the honest-to-goodness best advice possible.

Now I’m all for supporting the local mom and pop shop and giving the finger to the big corporation. If I have to fork over my hard earned money I’d much rather it go to a functioning member of my community than some suit on Madison Avenue who probably doesn’t even ride a bike. After all, riding on a bike while knowing that I’ve helped my neighbor feels much better than helping some millionaire shareholders.

But what happens when the local bike shop doesn’t support you back?

Here’s the thing. I’m a cyclist. I love riding bikes, I read about bikes, I look at pictures of bikes and I write about bikes. But I’m also a card-carrying member of the Financial Independence brigade who firmly believes that ten bucks is a lot of money.

And that’s a problem.

I’ll drive across town to Costco in order to save $5 for a bucket of oatmeal but I should just hand over an extra $25 for a cycling jersey at the store?

It’s probably not even the jersey I want.

Online Retail

It’s no secret that online shopping is the new hotness and brick and mortar stores are going the way of the dinosaur. But do you see people wearing “support your local mall” shirts?

Maybe the Sears employees.

So why do we differentiate paying extra for some types of items versus others? That seems unfair to the local oatmeal shops.

Should we instead encourage people to spend their money wisely at places like Performance bike which are able to survive on lower margins? Shouldn’t we encourage efficiency?

Why should we support someone else’s business when we’re trying to make our own living? We cannot be blind to the fact that the store is selling a $200 pair of cycling shoes that are listed online for $100.

This is bigger than bikes, I know. This is a global shift as to how we shop and many companies we know today will no longer be around.

But times change. Should how we buy bikes change too?

Why should we shop at the local bike shop?

Call me old fashioned but going to the bike shop brings me back to my childhood. I’d hop on my old Giant and ride down the local Schwinn store and just stare at the bikes. I wanted one with suspension so bad and saved an entire summer’s worth of lifeguarding wages to buy a Fuji with front shocks. It was sweet. So sweet in fact that it got stolen one week after moving to Hoboken. Thanks Hoboken.

But the reasons are more than just nostalgia. What other reasons are there for shopping at the local shop?

  • Your bike shop is your dealer

He’s got what you want and, unlike your spouse, wants you to buy it. You totally need that bike dude, I mean, look how awesome it is.

  • They know more than what you read on the internet

They’ve dedicated their lives to bikes. You’ve dedicated twenty minutes to some dude’s blog. You’ll drop a few pieces of jargon and pretend you know what you’re talking about only to have your eyes glaze over when they take the bait. Just nod and smile. You’re outclassed.

Talk to a shop owner and you’re talking to a legit cycling junkie who knows all the local trails and routes. You’ll get tons of pointers and knowledge that just doesn’t come from buying online.

  • They hold classes and teach you basic maintenance

Charging you $20 to change your tube is their bread and butter and they’re willing to teach you how to do it for a nominal fee. What other businesses will teach their customers to do what they’re charging you for?

  • Fit. Fit. Fit

Getting the right sized bike is important and not all frames are the same. I like to test out a bike and see it in person to ensure I’m getting the right bike. Maybe I can save a few bucks online but if the bike feels wrong it’s gonna be a pain to return it.

  • They’re part of the local fabric

My town holds a sprint triathlon and every year I see the owner of the shop volunteering and directing the cyclists. He’s donated bike racks to the local businesses and holds bicycle swap meets and competitions. He’s a big part of my town.

I know everyone who passes by on a Bianchi bought it from his shop and that makes me feel good. He’s bringing joy to my community, taking cars off the road and making us healthier one bike at a time.

  • Variety

The shop in my town sells Bianchi and Jamis bikes. The neighboring town’s shop sells Specialized and the store in fancy-pants Princeton sells Treks. I like options. Your bike is a big part of your personality and it’s important that you choose one that inspires you. I don’t want a world where everyone rides the same standard issue bike. Boring.

  • Convenience

That bike, helmet and pair of shoes are in your hands the moment you swipe that credit card. No two day waiting period required.

How the local shop may not support you

  • Way less selection

It’s much more profitable for an owner to run a smaller shop which means there’s no way they can match the selection you can get online. You may find yourself compromising what you want just to buy in store. You shouldn’t have to compromise. It’s your money and if you don’t want to spend it then don’t. Walk out and order what you want online.

  • Generally more expensive

Aside from end of year clearances the local shops are going to mark everything at MSRP. According to the National Bike Dealers Association the average bike store needs roughly 37% margins to survive which is difficult when bikes are sold at about a 36% margin.

So if bike margins are lower than what’s needed to stay afloat then what does that mean?

Yup, you’re gonna pay for it in accessories and maintenance.

  • Some are jerks

Though a lot of us like to paint a rosy picture of the local bike shop owner the truth of the matter is that some are jerks. Since their business thrives when you spend money it should be no surprise that some employ shady business practices.

For example, when I was getting fit on my triathlon bike (at a different store than depicted earlier) the guy fitting the bike told me to grab a seat off the wall. I looked at the price ($225!) and he gave me a wink and nod that I was getting this thing for free. Sweet.

Two weeks later I came to pick up the bike and the dude who did the fitting handed the bike to the owner at the cash register. The owner not only charged me $225 for the seat but another $115 for a carbon stem that was switched while I left him with the bike. I wasn’t even aware of this new stem and never asked for the seat but they managed to charge me an additional $340.

When I told this story to someone who used to work at that shop he laughed and told me that they did this all the time.

Sucka.

So what do you do?

First make sure you find a good bike shop. The majority are not jerks who employ bait and switch tactics like I described above. Talk to local riders and get their recommendations on where to shop. If the only ones around are scumbags then screw them and buy online. They deserve to go out of business.

I’m generally OK with spending a few extra bucks if I trust the local store. I think they’re important to our society and am willing to live with a little bit of markup. Plus, if they all go out of business who is going to fix all the bikes when they break down? The mechanic-only model won’t work so they need to sell stuff.

If the store has the item you want and the price is close to the online dealer then I recommend you buy it at the shop. If it’s wildly off then either ask for a price match or buy it online. Not EVERY purchase needs to be from the store. I do a lot of shopping online but like to throw some love at the local store every few purchases. Especially from their clearance racks.

Lastly, buy the bike from a store. We know the lowest margin items at the store are typically the bikes so you’re getting the best value here. Plus the store can’t stay alive selling you $5 water bottles. If you order a bike online you’re probably going to take it to a store for adjustment anyway which will run you $50-$75 so make sure you factor that in.

That’s all for now, happy shopping.

One last note, the picture at the top of the article is of the Bicycle Rack in Hightstown, New Jersey. They’re one of the good guys and get the CheapAthlete seal of approval.