I was having a conversation with a relative newcomer to cycling on the weekend, a guy by the name Michael. Specifically, he was recounting his rather patronising experiences at two different bike shops in the last few weeks, each of whom seemed far more interested in selling him something quickly, than actually helping him with what he needed.
I’ll let Michael tell the story from here…
“The two shops I visited are part of the reason why I think online shopping is so popular. I got a flat, and realised there was a chunk of the tyre missing, and figured I needed a new one, quickly, as in the morning I was racing.
Shop 1. This shop has been around since I was a kid, in fact my first mountain bike was purchased from them growing up. I asked for a 700×23 tyre. The answer I got from the young kid behind the counter was ‘We don’t have anything in a 23, but we do have a 25. I strongly recommend this.’ At this stage I walked out, because if you don’t even have a 700×23 tyre, surely you shouldn’t be in the cycling world? The strong recommendation also felt very much to me like ‘this will do mate because this is all we have.’ At $50, I wasn’t throwing money at the wrong size tyre.
Shop 2. The next morning I went to another bike shop I knew would have a wider selection. I told them ‘I race crits, I need a 700×23 tyre that will be okay for grip, but with a certain level of durability.’ The young guy pulled a tyre off the shelf and said ‘this is a good tyre.’ Looking at the packaging I asked ‘I this going to be okay, it says it is a training tyre?’ It was a genuine question as I’m new and don’t want to go into a corner and crash. He looked over to the mechanic behind the counter who called out ‘What do you want?’ Once again, I explained the crit racing. I was told ‘triathletes like training with this, they are a good hard wearing tyre.’ Unconvinced, I said ‘do you have something in the middle or super grippy?’ The gruff answer this time was ‘That tyre will be okay.’
With no other option I bought the tyre and walked out the door. However I quickly turned around and walked back in, as they had given me the wrong size. $45 later I was still not confident in my purchase, and the ‘that will do’ attitude sure doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy.”
Michael may be a noobie. But he’s not an idiot. As you can probably tell, he was pretty worked up by all this, not least because he also knows just how much pressure overseas and online retailers are placing on the LBS. You’re rarely cheaper, you’re rarely the sole retailer for the item/s concerned, so if you don’t offer great customer service, what exactly are you offering?
As someone from a marketing background myself, this kind of service – in all retail categories, not just cycling – has always perplexed me. But from a cycling-specific perspective, perhaps the saddest part in all of this to me, is that I had exactly the same experiences myself about four years back when I really threw myself into my cycling. I too was patronised. I too was given a bum steer toward things that, in hindsight, weren’t what I really needed. I too was made to feel like a halfwit for asking what I felt were genuine questions at the time. As a direct result I too started researching and buying a LOT of my gear from online retailers, something I did for about two years before gaining enough confidence to re-enter the world of the LBS where I far prefer to spend my money nowadays.
I must say until speaking with Michael I felt things had improved considerably since my beginnings in cycling, and perhaps they have. But from his perspective it’s been a pretty shitty road so far. I can’t imagine he’ll willingly set foot in either of those bike shops ever again.
With so many new people coming into cycling – with all their new enthusiasm and money – why wouldn’t all retailers embrace the noobies with open arms? Their cash is the same as everyone else’s and, frankly, once they get bitten by the bug as many inevitably will, they’re likely to keep spending and upgrading for years to come. In simple marketing terms it’s called understanding the lifetime value of a customer. Sure, Michael may only have wanted a $7 tube or a $50 tyre. But who’s to say he wouldn’t be back next month to buy a $6,000 bike? Or $3,000 wheelset? As well as recommend their store to his 450+ cashed-up clubmates?
Now this is not to say all bike shops are like this. Clearly they are not, and as Michael himself was at pains to point out, there are many that do offer great service. But clearly some bike shop owners and sales staff out there just don’t get it and are surely living on borrowed time?
“Maybe the Retailers’ Association and retailers in general should stop bitching about online shopping killing local businesses,” says Michael, “and spend more time looking at employing sales staff that really want to be there, and care about your purchase.”
Now there’s an idea.