In the latest issue of Dirt (135) I wrote the piece below on whether ‘direct’ sales are the future of the bike industry, and questioned what the future holds for the traditional bike shop. Obviously what I’ve written is my view on the subject, and so it would be great to know what all your thoughts are on the matter. I mean do you stand by your local bike shop, and will you always support it no matter what? Or are you more concerned with getting the most bang for your buck? Do you feel that shops offer you a great service, or do you think that done correctly a direct sale could actually offer better service? And have you already bought a bike product ‘direct’, or is something putting you off? Anyway, enough of the questions cos I’m sure you get the drift, but here’s what I originally wrote on the subject…
SHOP Vs. DIRECT
Are direct sales the future? Or will bike shops always have a place?Unless you’ve been living in a cupboard you’ve almost certainly noticed that there’s an ever increasing number of companies who are now selling us products ‘direct’ at what seem to be unbelievable prices. The whole ‘cutting out the middleman’ ethos is nothing new, but it’s only in the past couple of years that this way of doing business has really taken off in the bike trade, and unfortunately for shops I can only see the trend growing.
In the past I have worked in several bike shops, and for many years, so if anyone should be keen to keep the shop tradition alive it should be me. But, I know full well that if I was a regular Joe paying customer right now I would be seriously tempted to buy something direct. The cold hard facts are that if you cut out both distributor and shop margins you can automatically chop a huge percentage off the price tag of a product, and in many cases there is no reason why that product can’t be exactly the same as one in a shop, just a lot cheaper. So why the hell would you go to a shop?
Well at the moment perhaps the biggest reason to buy from a shop (whether it be online or in your local town) is choice. You simply can’t buy a lot of products direct. That though I feel will become less and less of a valid argument as more products are offered direct, so let’s for a moment assume that every product is available via both channels. What can a shop offer that direct can’t? Service. That’s the age-old answer. It’s not a simple thing to define though. Advice has to be a key part of that, but then if the truth be told many shops have staff that can offer little in the way of advice to an experienced rider. Of course there are some genuinely great shops and staff out there who can offer words of wisdom to even the most knowledgeable of cyclists, but sadly I think these are in the minority. Your traditional ‘Raleigh Dealer’ at the end of the street might be able to offer some advice to parents about what bike to buy their kid, but I doubt they’ll be able to tell you whether or not you can use IceTec rotors with your Formula brakes.
On the flipside to all this if you’re buying direct then you’ll hopefully be dealing with the very people who designed and manufactured the part that you’re interested in, and therefore the people that know most about it. Obviously you’re not likely to get any impartial advice, but if you know what you’re after then maybe dealing direct is actually better? Yes you might have to arrange sending your bike/component somewhere should anything go wrong, but at least you will be dealing directly with the company involved, and it’s certainly no worse than buying something mail order. Any costs that you might incur doing this should also be more than offset by the original savings that you made.
I originally set out writing this with a very clear mind that I was going to give a balanced view on this subject, but the more I think about it the harder I find it. With my background that I have mentioned before I find this very sad, and the fact that if shops were to disappear a massive percentage of the bike industry would lose their jobs just makes it even worse. On the positive side though I reckon that will never happen, there will always be a place for bike shops no matter how much direct selling takes off, and despite the ever present threat from online retailers. Some will probably continue to make a living from catering for the casual cyclist (the ones who don’t just buy a bike from Halfords or the supermarket that is), but then I think we’ll see far more emphasis on the repair side of the business. If I was thinking of setting up a bike shop I’d probably just focus on repairs because whatever happens with how stuff is sold people will still need their bikes repairing locally.
Whatever happens I think the future is going to be interesting and you the consumer are going to benefit in one way or another. Will the direct sellers adopt ‘Concept Stores’ like those from Giant and Specialized as a way of showing off their wares in the flesh? Or will they organise test ride weekends so that you can actually try them out properly? Who knows, but if the choice of ‘direct’ products continues to grow I’m really not sure how much longer people will be willing to pay the considerable premium that is involved if you buy something from a conventional bike shop. Will you be willing to?