SHIFT: How the Internet is resurrecting your local bike shop


Image by Matt Krueger

Asked if he had done market research before he invented the Model T, Henry Ford reportedly said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, I would have built a faster horse." Cars, of course, changed everything. So did the Internet. In fact, the Net may turn out to be a more momentous catalyst for change in industry and commerce than the automobile ever was. To see why, consider a simpler piece of transportation: the bicycle. Keep reading — it gets more exciting.

Local Going
Pretty much every town has at least one local bike shop (LBS). I have four shops within pedaling distance. There's also a bike megaretailer nearby, backed up by a huge online Web presence. When the megaretailer built brick-and-mortar stores in town, some bikers assumed the LBSes would go belly up. Call it the Wal-Mart Effect: dealing in volume, megaretailers can offer unnaturally low prices that mom-and-pop stores can't.

The same principle puts into jeopardy small bicycle shops, electronics stores, camera shops, record stores — whatever. Who needs face time anymore? Back in the day, people relied on Freds in the local shops for derailleur advice, but now they can go online and get countless opinions. So megaretailers, particularly those with a massive Web presence, own the future. Or so the argument goes.

Shiny Side Down
Last week, my bike stopped. I didn't. Pavement: 1. Head: 0. Double vision, but I'm okay. Double vision, but I'm okay. But it destroyed my helmet. My favorite helmet. Sure, I have other helmets, but this was my fav. I called all the LBSes, looking for a replacement. No luck — none of the shops had it in my size and the color I wanted. Called megabike mart. Nada. I stopped wasting time talking, and started surfing.

The Global Local Bike Shop
Using Google, I found the helmet at a dozen online retailers. Were these massive megaretailers with warehouses jammed full of helmets? Nope. They were all mom-and-pop little guys. I placed my order with Ben's Cycles, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, family owned and operated for 80 years. Got a call the next day — Ben was out of my size. Next best price was from a small retailer in Italy. Yeah, that Italy. I told them I needed the helmet in three days. No problem. The site let me pick the language, currency, and in three days, my replacement helmet arrived on my desk.

The New Deal
When megaretailers move into town, the small local shops have a choice: Endure a slow and painful, inevitable death, or try to compete. But now, thanks to the Web, they can expand their customer base to the whole world. Most of my major purchases are online. I don't care where I order from — if they have the right price, right color, or the right component, I'll buy it. A few months ago, I ordered a Campagnolo gruppo (a complete set of bicycle components) from another retailer in Italy — they had a short-term price that was hundreds of dollars cheaper than anything I could find domestically. I ordered another, very specific component from a shop in England — I didn't care about the price, I needed that size and I couldn't find it anywhere else. And my new helmet fits just fine.

Even if local shops can't always compete on price and even inventory, they might have just the thing that someone in Albania really needs. All they need to do is open their inventory to the Web. No single retailer will have every component, in every size and every color — but with the Web, I only need to find one shop. Smart shops don't limit sales to the few people who walk through the door — they solicit sales from anyone with a search engine. Sometimes, they have exactly what someone in the world is looking for. Now, that's Globalization, baby.

Down the Road
Sure, I'd prefer to buy from local shops. I can try things on, measure them, and return them easily if it's not what I want. To help stay competitive, local shops need to become customer-service gurus. Local bike repair shops will always be needed. No matter where I buy my widget, I'll need a good mechanic to torque it. But local stores also need to sell online. Every local bike shop can become a global bike shop. To survive in the new economy, they probably have no choice.