So, one of the blogs I follow is Life on 2 wheels, written by a fellow randonneur (http://jefaisduvelo.wordpress.com). He recently wrote a post about why he prefers not to go to his local bike shop (LBS). Being an employee at one (part time, and not in SLC) I thought I should at least respectfully address some of the very valid points he brought up. (It’s here, by the way http://jefaisduvelo.wordpress.com/2013/04/17/supporting-your-lbs-and-why-i-dont/). I’m now going to switch to talking to the blogger in question… makes the writing so much easier!
First things first… an employee who can’t accurately estimate what it’s going to cost to change a spoke with the wheel in front of him shouldn’t be allowed to work on bikes. In a relatively relaxed market we have a $50 an hour labor charge. If it takes a “skilled mechanic” an hour to pull a cassette, replace a spoke, and true a wheel then s/he’s not really a skilled mechanic. If our mechanics run into a real problem with a wheel they’re working on and it looks like it requires more TLC than a) the customer intended to pay for or 2) the wheel is worth we call the customer, explain, and ask what they would like us to do. In my opinion you were right not to go back. (This happens sometimes when, for example, bearings were cranked to tightly, causing the balls to machine bad grooves into the bearing surfaces, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to a good mechanic who should be able to feel the problem before s/he starts disassembling anything.)
Now that the obvious is out of the way, there are more unobvious points. The kid who couldn’t find the vulcanizing fluid probably had no idea what it was. Unfortunately in an age where we throw away anything less than pristine, patching tubes is becoming quaint and old-fashioned. I personally patch my tubes until the patches have patches (and because I work at a shop I get tubes pretty cheaply), but it’s entirely possible a younger employee has never patched a tube in his life. Part of this, I think, is the problem common in retail in general and bike shops in particular. Nobody works at a bike shop to get rich. Some folks work there because they don’t want to do anything else. Some folks work there because they like bikes and hung around the shop so much that the owner just started paying him/her (my situation). Some work there to pay their dues to become racers down the line. And some work there because it’s more fun than Wal-Mart and less soul-sucking. I have a feeling your clueless kid probably fell into the latter category.
Not all shops are created alike. If you come into our shop (http://www.skunkrivercycles.com/) you will not find arrogance. We simply can’t afford to be arrogant and only cater to racers or triathletes because our shop specializes in non-racers (who may or may not be “casual riders”). We pride ourselves in spending a lot of time on customers (not working on commission helps) making sure they get what they really want and what will fit their needs, and not what we want to sell them. If they come in wanting a comfort bike but they want to get more fit, we show them hybrids, put them on both bikes to let them feel the difference, and even allow them to take bikes on extended rides to really figure out what they want. We explain that a comfort bike may meet their needs now, but won’t grow with them if they want more out of their bike a year down the road. How long will they spend on the bike at a time? Do they need something that’ll handle gravel? Lots of questions, lots of listening, and very little by way of advice, just guidance. If you had come into our shop looking for a tandem (we tend not to stock them because we get them and then they sit forever, taking up space and getting older… our market is not very big for tandems for some reason) we would show you options, the things we could order, and other shops around us that do more business in tandems. We do this because first, we want to see you on a bike you’re happy on, wherever you find it, and second, we love talking bikes.
I guess the biggest issue I have is the value and the buying local issue, and that’s wrapped up a lot in my worldview. I don’t like the way the world is moving. I don’t like the mindset that tells people that if they are not getting the best deal (i.e. paying the least amount) then they are chumps. I disagree with this because I believe that building business is all about developing partnerships and personal connections. It’s why I try to deal locally as much as I can for everything I can, even if it costs more (which, realistically, is a lot easier when I’m in the financial position to do so). I understand the opposing viewpoints, but I think a lot of what has hurt our economy is always searching for the cheapest possible way of getting things we want. I can understand how people may want to spend less, and may need to. But what really chaps my hide is how people will come in, spend hours of our time trying to find out exactly what they need, only to order online. It bugs me when people come in asking me to “measure them for a bike” so they can go to an online store and order from them. (I suppose I could be snarky and give them the wrong size, but I never do.)
I know that so many bikes are now made overseas (all of my frames and forks were, but I want my next one built here), but the money spent in a bike shop does lots of intangible good. We volunteer a lot at events that try to get people on bikes (yes, we get good exposure for that). We sponsor lots of events for runners and riders (yes, we get good exposure for that, too). We repair and donate a lot of bikes to foster kids as well as people at halfway houses and shelters, so that they can have a reliable means to get to work (we get no exposure for that, we just feel it’s the right thing to do).
Is any system perfect? Of course not. I’ve been in a lot of shops on my travels who look at my legs before deciding to invest serious time in me (and I tend not to stay in those types of shops for long even though my shaved legs tend to gain me admission). I don’t believe I should rely on shop mechanics because I won’t have them around when I break a spoke or drop a chain on a brevet and I should know how to do my own maintenance. I have the relative luxury of having enough disposable income to be able to support local businesses, and I do. Is the LBS a preference? Absolutely. It is certainly my preference, and would be (and has been) even if I weren’t employed at one.
P.S. If you DO work at a bike shop and you ARE arrogant and dismissive of anyone not riding a plastic fantastic and wearing matching team kit you’re inhabiting the wrong headspace. Stop making us all look bad!