We speak to the owner of an independent UK bike shop to find out how they're being hit by the cost-cutting giants, and discover the benefits of purchasing from them.
There are a lot of recurring arguments in the world of cycling, from quarrels over fashion, protection and suspension to those who defend their choice of wheel size like someone has insulted their first-born child.
One argument that pretty much everyone agrees on however, is that it’s better for the sport as a whole if you buy your bikes, gear and whatever else from the local bike shop rather than from a cost-cutting website or non-specialised dealers.
This advice tends to be less practised than preached, for the simple reason that cut-price retailers, by nature, save people cash. Local bike shops may have been the backbone of the cycling community for decades in the past, but in the era of direct sales and online shopping, what is their place now?
Pete Clarke, co-owner of the independent Biketrax Cycle Shop in Edinburgh told us why it’s still important to remember to shop local.
1. Expertise, honesty and experience
An online chat may seem simpler after a long day at work but nothing can replace the expertise of a bike mechanic who has had his hands covered in oil for the past 30 years, or the advice of someone who knows their way around every bike part on the market.
“What we have to do as a local bike shop is make sure the level of service is better than you get online or from picking a hire bike off the street,” Pete says. “The guys in the shop are experts. Our head mechanic is a competitive racer. He’s 45 and he’s still smashing it. He hates losing more than he hates pain to the point he finds bike rides with us a bit boring! Luke, my business partner, is a cycling nerd. He loves reading about all the new stuff and finding out the pros and cons.
“I bought a bike online years ago before I was into this and regretted it. I was stuck with it for two years because it cost about a grand, but it didn’t feel right because I didn’t fit whatever their size guide was, so I wouldn’t buy online anymore. At a local bike shop you’re coming to see real people with real expertise and a real passion. It’s not just a guy in a warehouse putting it in a box and sending it out.
“There’s a place for online. We’re online and we wouldn’t stop a guy buying a bike online from us, but we’d prefer them to come into the shop. Bikes are specific to the individual and reading reviews online is tough because after a certain price there’s no such thing as a bad bike, so it’s hard to know which one is right for you.”
You might think you want or need one type of bike or component, when actually your riding is much more suited to something completely different.
Pete continues: “You can speak to all your pals but the guy in the shop knows more. Often people come in thinking they need a carbon frame for example, but quite a lot of the time – and as someone who does the accounts this possibly isn’t the greatest thing – but out of respect for the customer, you end up talking them into getting a cheaper bike."
2. You’ll miss the quick-fix emergency repairs when they’ve gone
Ordering extra inner tubes off Amazon or the cycling equivalent is all very well but what happens when you realise you’ve got a flat tyre on Saturday morning and you’re all out of spares? What happens when your bike is making the kind of ominous clicking noise that strikes fear into the hardiest of riders, and you don’t have a clue what it is? Where is your online retailer now? Where is your knight in shining armour, emerging unheralded to joust away your flat tyre woes? They are, of course, in your local bike shop.
“We get tons of that,” Pete says. “The mechanic shop is full of a range of sizes of job, from stuff we can do right now to bikes where we need to order stuff in and rebuild the bike.
“There is that situation, though, where people need a quick fix which would be gone without local bike shops, and also you get that education when you come in with a puncture on what else is not roadworthy about your bike.
“If your brakes wear out they damage your wheels, and if you leave them too long it can be even more expensive to repair. At some point your bike stops being safe to ride.”
3. You will end up with the right thing
This is just common sense, really. We’ve all ordered something that doesn’t fit off the internet. You can’t try it before you buy it, so it might not be right.
Pete says, “The amount of times you get people coming in and saying they’ve bought this but can’t work out how to fit it, and it’s just because it’s the wrong part which doesn’t fit the bike, is huge. And then the 10% you saved by shopping online is gone because you need to post it back.”
This has inevitably led to the rise of pseudo-shoppers, who head round to their local bike shop to try out the goods before leaving and buying online. We asked Pete if he ever gets any customers who are quite obviously there to size up an internet order. The speed of his response shows our naivety.
“Oh yeah. The thing about bike shops is we can offer that extra service but it’s all free until you buy. Especially with shoes, you’ll get a guy coming in to try on ten pairs of shoes, then he walks out and gets on his phone and you know you won’t see him again. It’s not uncommon at all.
“We had a guy last year who wanted a decent priced bike and we borrowed one for a demo so he could take it for two or three days. It fit him, and he loved it and then he Googled it and found it £500 cheaper online. When we looked into it, that was just the advertised price and there were all these add-ons, and he did really want to buy from us, and to be fair [can you blame him] when you can get it that much cheaper?
“He was upfront about it, and we went some of the way to matching it, but you’ve already incurred a bunch of costs getting the demo bike in and so on.”
4. Most local bike shops are more than just local bike shops
Such is the demand for coffee that it’s become somewhat of a trend in the world of cycling for entrepreneurial bike shops across the UK to add a coffee shop to their premises.
“In pretty much everything at the moment, people are expecting more from retailers,” Pete says. “So even in the pub industry people need themes or other stuff. It’s not just setting up and selling beer anymore, and everyone’s idea now is a coffee shop in the bike shop.
"It’s probably because the mark up on coffee is ridiculously high, and the bike shop industry is pretty seasonal. I don’t think that would work for us personally, because there are a lot of coffee shops around us but thinking about things that smooth out the low season can't hurt. Usually, the best you can hope for in winter is breaking even."
“One thing we’re working on is turning a corridor between our shop and workshop into a components alley. So, it’s not going to be as clean or well-presented as the shop but not as dirty as the workshop. So, if you know what to do on your bike or want to learn how to fix your bike you can come in and ask what you need, and get a bit of advice from the mechanic. It’ll be a little more expensive than buying online but you’ll get what you need.”
5. Local bike shops are still at the core of the cycling community
This may come as somewhat of a surprise to anyone who lives primarily online, but human interaction isn’t always the worst thing in the world. There’s something nice about getting to know the crew at your local bike shop, and many will offer social rides too. Biketrax run a fortnightly Wednesday ride from their shop in central Edinburgh to the Pentland Hills, an 100km hill range just 30 minutes cycle away.
“We probably haven’t got that much in the way of sales out of it but just to have it is great,” Pete says. “Really, that’s the reason everyone is in that shop, because they like going on rides and they like meeting people. We’ve had people who’ve just come to the city to come with us on a Wednesday.”
Remember, with all the chaos in running a local bike shop, there’s still an obvious reason why those who do it do it.
We asked how sustainable it is to run a local bike shop. Pete replies simply: “Brutal.”
Asked why they do it, and he says: “Bikes! Everyone wants to work in something they believe in and I really believe in cycling as a force for good.
“It doesn’t have to be for someone who is a competitive rider. It’s probably even better for people who are just getting on their first bike since they were 12 and thinking ‘I’m going to cycle to work and get a bit fitter and get outdoors’. To support people into that is superb.
“Think about the percentage of our country which is taken up by car and road space. Bikes can reduce that. They make everything more sustainable.”
At the end of the day, it’s hard to argue with that – even if it does mean saving ten percent.
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© Chenthil Mohan for BigRush