LBS vs Online
Shopping with a Local Bike Shop or on the Net
There's no denying that money can be saved by purchasing many bike items on the internet. These days, there are very few riders who don't buy at least some items they need online rather than going down to a local bike shop.
In this article we'll have a look at the reasons behind this, but also explore what the advantages and disadvantages might be as well.
From behind the counter
Back in the day, I worked in an auto parts retail environment very similar to your local bike shop in many ways. This was back when online shopping was really just starting to take a hold and began affecting local retailers. We first became aware of the impending loss of sales from online purchases when customers would roll up with electronic equipment such as car stereo head units they needed fitted to their vehicles. My boss at the time reacted as most did back then, and promptly berated the customer and told them to... f... ahhh... you know... do things to themselves that really weren't physically possible or indeed appropriate. It took a lot of convincing by us staff members that he was not only losing the initial sale, he was then throwing away the income opportunity of fitting the product as well. To chase away a customer that chose to purchase one type of item online to save some dollars didn't seem like a smart business move. Especially when that same customer is likely to come back for loads of other items the store also offered. After a time, we became known as at least willing to fit and service items purchased online, and so regained some of the lost income, along other incidental purchases the customer was likely to buy while in the store.
My point? There's little point in a bike shop ignoring what has become a distinct change in how we shop for our bike parts, or even bikes. Better that they make changes to their business model to garnish some income from this shopping behaviour because it's not going away in a hurry.
As a customer
On the other side of the counter though, it often comes down to dollars. Many of us simply can't just go and buy whatever we want, when we want. The brutal reality for many folk is that they don't know how stable their jobs are (if they have one at all), and they seem to have to sacrifice some necessity of life each pay day if they want to maintain or upgrade their mountain bike needs. So, sometimes with more expensive items, the bottom line is going without if having to buy at local bike shop prices, or... buy online. For some it's more about keeping their hard earned income and simply saving dollars wherever they can.
There are other issues also of course such as customer service, availability, choice etc. If these are not supplied by the local bike shop in the expected quality, quantity or manner to the customer's liking, they soon choose to spend less time in the shop and more time online purchasing instead.
Benefits of the local bike shop
Much of what we enjoy out on our mountain bikes is supported by local bike shops; those who can afford to offer support anyhow. For instance, many mtb clubs are based around or strongly supported by at least one local bike shop. These clubs in turn provide the small, local races, advice and discounts via these shops as well. Most of the big races that come around annually are also reliant on the clubs and local bike shops to help prepare the trails, advertise the race and even provide bike mechanics and parts on race day. Some shops even offer a few pre-race rides to help prospective racers get to know the trails. Local bike shops are often also involved with mtb charity events. They do this when they are surviving well enough to be in a position to offer this support.
A local case in point is a bike shop at Morriset that puts in a huge amount of time into the local Awaba MTB Park trails. The shop owner himself is on the local mtb club committee and spends a great deal of time building and maintaining trails, including building man-made features, throughout the mtb park. He's been doing this for many, many years, and it's clear that the trails out there wouldn't be the same without his constant and dedicated input. Should we lose this local bike shop, it would definitely impact our riding at a local level.
This is not an isolated case either. There are other shops in the region, and all around the country, that provide much needed support into our mountain biking in a host of ways. Ways that online shops do not.
Instant and tangible
A well stocked bike shop is a real life saver when you need that item right now! I was in the aforementioned local bike shop recently before time of writing and was hugely surprised at the stock levels I saw. Although I was there to have a rear wheel fully serviced from spokes to hub, I gathered quite a few smaller items I needed from butt cream to multitool and even a camelback bite valve. On many items, I was also very surprised at the pricing being comparable (in some cases identical) to what I had paid online for the exact same product in the past. Some items were maybe 10 -20% more but that's fine when I can take it right now and not pay shipping anyhow. And I got to wander around and see and feel what some stuff was all about; something you can't do staring at a monitor.
Service & Repair
Many of us either don't have the know how, the tools, desire or the time to repair or service our mountain bikes. Some, like myself, do much of my own work on our bikes, but need the expertise of someone who has experience with the more complex things like suspension or having a wheel tensioned properly. We need our local bike shops to survive so we don't lose this necessary service.
Sometimes it's not clear exactly what parts we need or whether there are alternatives we aren't aware of. Chances are, a good local bike shop will have some clues about these for you. They may even talk you out of spending big bucks for something less expensive but equally as efficient, thereby saving you money. Even if you just get the right part, it's surely worth spending a few dollars more than online.
Benefits of shopping online
Whether we choose an online shopping outlet in our own country or overseas, chances are their huge buying power will far exceed that of our local bike shop. As such, they can sell many products cheaper, and that is obviously very appealing to the customer. When dollars are tight, the price is often the deciding factor.
There's not much more convenience to be had than not even leaving home to go shopping, and then the items arriving at your door a week or so later. Although, shooting down to your local bike shop and grabbing something right away, rather than waiting a week or more, is also convenience.
Several of the bigger online bike sites have a very wide range of products indeed. Only the better local bike shops can hope to hold a range of products large enough to compete. It's obviously nice to be able to get everything you need in a single transaction, even if you have to wait for it all to be shipped.
Perspective and things to think about
We tend to hold our local bike shops to very high standards, standards we often set in ignorance. We are quick to criticise and vocal about that criticism too. Yet our praise is often rare and not shared in equal amounts. Having said that, many local bike shops don't exactly help their situation or profile with bad customer service and a reluctance to be more reasonable to the customer.
However, many customers are ignorant of the day to day runnings of a local bike shop and often make some rather wildly inaccurate assumptions. There's an old joke... if you want to have a million bucks in your pocket from running a bike shop, start with two million. It's a tough business, and getting tougher for most.
When a customer feels they have been treated badly by a bike shop in some way, they very quickly go elsewhere. If they find similar treatment at several local bike shops, it's hardly a wonder a customer will decide to order online instead. Taking their time to drive to a shop and then stand around for ages before being served, and/or being served by someone who has no idea what they are talking about, always puts a heap of black marks in the customer's mind. As hard as it is around the myriad of things that need to happen around serving customers, not much destroys a local bike shop's reputation more quickly than bad customer service.
Conversely though, excellent customer service goes a very far in a positive way. Simply being acknowledged when you enter a store makes a huge difference. Even if it's to be told nobody is free at that moment to help, but someone will see you as soon as possible. At least you know you matter and aren't being ignored. You may just want to be pointed in the direction of the shock pumps or something you are familiar with, saving you the wait and the salesperson the work. A staff member that even avoids eye contact with a customer because they are busy elsewhere is a sure way to shorten a customer's tolerance level.
Just waiting for you
However, with online shopping so prevalent these days, and you and your mates no longer regularly haunting the bike shops to keep your mtb addiction fed, there are many hours a week where no more than one or two staff members are needed on the sales floor. All well and good until there's an unexpected invasion of 3 or 4 customers all needing a half hour of attention. Someone isn't going to get the service they want. It would be nice if local bike shop staff were all there just waiting for you to arrive, and could swarm in as you step in the door and pander to your every need. The reality is though that this is a level of service very few shops, if any, can afford. Online shopping means less and less people coming through the doors. Less people, less sales. Less sales, less staff. Less staff, more tasks for those staff to take care of in less time. In essence we, as customers, have contributed to this issue by no longer shopping with our local bike shops as often as we once did. Probably not fair then, that we are quick to criticise them for being short on resources.
There's not as much profit in a mountain bike sale as one might think. By the time you haggle with the local bike shop on price several others have already taken their slice out of the margin. It doesn't leave the lowly shop owner much to play with. In your mind, you've spent a lot of money with him, you may now want discounts on accessories to go with it. In his mind, he's just made very little, after all his costs are taken into account, and now he's expected to smile and give away any profit he may make on extras you might purchase. Purchasing a mountain bike online is something I wouldn't recommend unless you are extremely well adversed in bike geometry and can be 100% certain you will choose the right size. Of all considerations when buying a bike, making sure it's the right size is paramount. Size charts can be a good indication, if you understand what you are looking at. You will want to make sure the warranty is good and applies when you need it, especially if you purchased from an overseas online outlet. Unless you are a regular customer already, (and even then) many local bike shops are going to be reluctant to help you with a warranty on a bike they didn't sell.
Purchasing from a local bike shop is usually a much safer option. You'll usually immediately get good service from then on because you bought a bike from them. At the time of sale, a good shop will spend time with you to ensure you are looking at the right size bike. If something goes wrong after sale, you have someone who can sort it out quickly for you, maybe even that day.
Thoughts for local bike shops
We suggest taking customers thoughts and perceptions seriously. We know they often get upset and unreasonable at times because they don't understand why something broke or "it was just fine last time I looked at it so why is it broke now?!" Customer ignorance is a huge battle we know. But when getting purchases is tough these days, it makes sense to look at and use any resource to your advantage.
- Always acknowledge a customer when they come into the shop. A friendly "Hello, we'll help you as soon as we can" or maybe a "Sorry I'm with someone right now but can I point in the direction of something for now?" goes a long way and tops up the customer's patience tank.
- Don't let roadies try to sell mountain bikes to mountain bikers unless they ride mountain bikes themselves... a lot. Having someone that knows only the basics just doesn't cut it. I've tried to buy MTB's worth many thousands in the past, and having someone that can't even ask the right questions to be sure I'm choosing the right bike, the right size ends in a very unhappy customer. Especially if they purchase a bike that's not the right type or size for them.
- Don't let your salespeople make assumptions of the customer, especially women. We've sent many of our students into various bike shops to purchase a new mountain bike after we've given them advice on what type of bike they should be looking for. We've seen how they ride, we know what they aspire to and we know what potential they have. Ready to spend several thousands on a decent, full suspension bike, we've had several students leave a shop because the salespeople just wanted to put them on a base model or hardtail for a quick sale.
- If the shop allows for it, maybe hide your mechanic from the sales floor. We know that mechanics usually struggle to get through their multitude of daily tasks even without interruptions. However, customers tend to see a bike mechanic as another salesperson who is handy with tools. In their mind, they can just drop what they are doing and come out and help a customer choose a new helmet. When they don't, the customer feels like they are being ignored. A customer that feels ignored will go to an opposition shop out of spite and anger.
- Be open and friendly to anyone with any brand bike. Some shops are openly hostile to customers with bikes they didn't buy from them. You never know how much a customer will spend over the course of a year just on accessories. There's at least one shop in our region that loses several thousands from us (and other customers we know) because they have behaved in this manner.
Anyhow, take it or leave it. We deal with and talk to a lot of riders so we hear about a lot of experiences from your customers. There's often two sides to the story of course, but in the end, if a customer isn't happy with you, they aren't coming back and will go out of their way to tell others to avoid you as well. It's said that just one incident can sully a shop's reputation so easily, but it can.
As you can tell, we aren't exactly biased either way on this. Online shopping has it's benefits and it's made a permanent place in our society. We do think however, everyone should buy from local bike shops as often as they can, but we don't expect people to just spends loads of extra money when they can save it by purchasing online. What we are hoping here is that this article might, in some way, help consumers better understand the ongoing benefits from shopping locally. And, those that rarely go into a local bike shop anymore, maybe drop in and spend a few more bucks in there once in awhile.
- Online shopping is here to stay, and many of us have bike stuff that we wouldn't have otherwise have because of them. The savings are undeniable on some items. That's not likely to change anytime soon.
- Online shops very rarely contribute to your own community of mountain biking, be it clubs, trails, races, charity or whatever. Can't see that changing in a hurry either. Local bike shops contribute quite often thankfully.
- When you need something repaired or replaced quickly, online shops can't do it, but often local bike shops can.
- The more we buy from online shops, the more likely it is our local bike shops have to tighten their belts and become less able to supply our needs.
- Many items in a local bike shop are competitive with online prices.
In the end, the almighty dollar will speak the loudest for most people; and in tough economic times that's understandable. Hopefully though, the local bike shops can raise their community customer service perception to better levels, and the customers can find more understanding and see more value in shopping locally.