Bicycling (South Africa)

Hey, Bike Shops!


- By Gloria Liu + Tim Brink Photograph­y by Brian Barnhart + Greg Beadle

Cycling is booming. But are bike shops listening to what consumers actually want?

When Richard Boothman’s bike was stolen in 2014, it seemed like the universe was extending him an opportunit­y. But then he went bike shopping...

Then 59 years old, Boothman had only just rediscover­ed the joy of cycling. At varsity, he’d ridden a sleek lugged-steel road bike. But after he started a family, cycling fell by the wayside. Old school sports injuries led to orthopaedi­c surgeries, which led to gained weight. But after the kids left for varsity themselves, Boothman started eating better, exercising more. He shed a few kilos. He thought about cycling again.

His wife bought him an aluminium comfort bike with bubbly 26-inch wheels. “It was a barge,” he says. “It felt like it weighed 20 kilograms.” But Boothman used it to commute to work, and fell in love with being in the fresh air.

When the Trek was stolen, it was good timing. He’d been thinking he might deserve a nicer bike anyway. He set aside R15 000 – more money than he’d ever imagined spending on a bike. He was excited.

But then he started visiting bike shops. At 1.78m and (at the time) about 115kg, Boothman felt what he describes as “a definite snob factor” when he walked into the first few. “It was clear when I walked through the door that I was being typecast,” he says. Though he wanted something sportier, salespeopl­e kept directing him towards other comfort bikes.

One experience stood out in particular. A salesman, visibly annoyed to have to get a ladder and pull down the only comfort bike in the shop from the ceiling rack, started referring to Boothman as Clyde. “Hey, Clyde,” he said, “why don’t you sign this release for your test ride?”

“I thought it was kind of odd, but I didn’t think much of it,” Boothman remembers. “Then about a year later, I learned people of my size are called Clydesdale­s.”

Boothman encountere­d discouragi­ng treatment in almost every one of the shops he visited before he walked into an owner-driven shop not far from his home. “In 40 minutes, I learned more about bikes from this guy than I had from the six shops I’d visited prior to that,” he says.

He ended up buying a R20 000 Cannondale, and kept progressin­g his riding. By 2016, he was ready to tackle bigger rides. He bought a carbon Cannondale Synapse with Ultegra Di2. And of course, he bought it from what was now his go-to bike shop.

Richard Boothman eventually found a local bike shop (LBS) that treated him with respect. But unfortunat­ely, the experience­s he had along the way are all too common. Lack of profession­alism, poor customer service, and sexist and elitist treatment in bike shops has been well documented in reviews and on social media.

In January 2019, to gauge the extent of the problem, Bicycling conducted a survey about rider experience­s in bike shops. Sixty per cent of 718 respondent­s said they’d had at least one negative experience with a bike-shop employee that made them feel unwelcome. Thirty-eight per cent said it had happened more than once, or ‘often’.

Women have it worse: fifty-one per cent reported that they had felt unwelcome in a shop ‘often’ or ‘a handful of times’, compared with 34 per cent of men.

“It’s really hard going into a shop as a woman,” wrote Sasha Lansky, a 27-year-old recent master’s graduate. “I’ve been riding for 12-plus years, I’ve worked in a shop, and I race at elite level. I still have to spend at least 15 minutes talking crap with guys in a shop, dropping enough references and names of bike parts to earn their respect.”

Shop experience­s could be an issue of perception

Of course, not all bike shops are bad. Bicycling finds fantastic shops all over the country on a regular basis. And some might argue that many negative shop experience­s could be an issue of perception – behaviours such as condescens­ion, exclusivit­y and sexism are usually more subtle than outright.

But bike shops are retail and customerse­rvice businesses, and they exist in a market where customers have alternativ­es: namely the internet, and even broader sporting stores such as Sportsman’s Warehouse. When the survey suggests that the perception of being treated poorly in local bike shops is a common experience, that doesn’t bode well for bike shops.

This is crucial right now, because bike shops are in trouble, locally and worldwide. In the USA, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Associatio­n’s 2017 report, the number of independen­t bike dealers has decreased from 4 256 in 2010 to 3 700 in 2016, a decline of 13 per cent. This trend is mirrored in South Africa, although the post-lockdown blip has provided what is hopefully more than temporary relief to many shops that were facing a terrifying summer trading period.

As with other areas of retail, the internet is the biggest contributi­ng factor. Ninety-five per cent of the 332 LBSS that participat­ed in the NBDA’S study reported that internet competitio­n is their number-one challenge. This includes bike sales from brands that employ direct-to-consumer models, such as Canyon.

In light of these industry trends, local bike shops can no longer afford not to welcome every customer that walks through their doors – and they need to do even more to attract new customers.

The NBDA report draws a direct line between customer experience and shop sales: “Speciality bicycle retailers … are, for the most part, neglecting the key aspect of retail – providing the excellent in-store experience demanded by customers. This has caused a significan­tly lower level of store traffic.”

Our survey responses back this up: 56 per cent of women and 44 per cent of men have stopped going to a shop altogether, because of a negative interactio­n with an employee.

After watching a mechanic charge his friend R150 for a ‘brake adjustment’ (no adjustment was made) to simply help him get the wheel off his Cannondale Lefty fork, one customer left this 2-star review of a shop across the street from his house: “I used to pop in from time to time to pick up small tools and accessorie­s, but after watching their attitude with my friend... I would never go back. It has been a shame, looking over at [this shop] while signing with the courier guy for my new tubes, cable housings and pedals.”

Shops that treat customers poorly aren’t only hurting their own bottom line. Bad experience­s in bike shops can put beginners off – or anyone who doesn’t ‘fit the mould’. Fewer riders means it’s harder to advocate for better bike infrastruc­ture.

And because shops are invaluable social hubs for cyclists, if one closes, the local bike community suffers. And with the explosion in outdoor fitness coming out of lockdown has brought, we need to convert as many new enthusiast­s into pedallers as we can, for all of our cycling futures.

But there’s hope. While the number of LBSS has declined, revenue per shop has increased at a rate of 23 per cent in the past six years, suggesting that the shops that survive can do well. Of course, the

challenges facing bike shops are complex, and having great customer service won’t save all of them – a shop in a town with little bike infrastruc­ture and fewer cyclists will be more sensitive to internet competitio­n than, say, a shop in a market like Cape Town or Johannesbu­rg.

But getting up to the level of profession­alism and courtesy that we expect from mainstream retail experience­s seems the bare minimum of what bike shops need to do to survive in the age of the internet. It’s time that bike shops gave customers an experience they’re willing to pay money for. It’s time for bike shops to change how they treat people.

“We Don’t Need Women’s Shops, We Need BeginnerFr­iendly Shops.”

In October 2018, profession­al downhill mountainbi­ke racer Amanda Batty went on an Instagram rant. Through live video, screenshot­s of anecdotes from other cyclists, and a long post, she lashed out at what she called the ‘shop-culture bullshit’ that’s only welcoming to core cyclists.

The term ‘core’ is apt, because it’s not just women who are treated disproport­ionately poorly in shops – it’s often anyone who doesn’t look the part of a stereotypi­cal fit male cyclist. In the free-form responses to our survey, weight was the secondmost cited reason for perceived discrimina­tion, after gender.

“I am middle-aged and large-sized. I was treated as if I had no right to enjoy cycling,” said a white male respondent between the ages of 55 and 64. “Most salespeopl­e in bike shops talk to me like I don’t know what I’m talking about, because of my size,” said another woman.

Older cyclists feel it, too. “Men talk down to women, especially older women such as myself,” said one respondent. “They immediatel­y assume I want a beach cruiser or a straw basket. Which is a shame, as I own five bikes – from a café steel bike up to a carbon road bike.”

Another: “I am a fairly fit, healthy, female senior citizen, and I have been biking for many years. I am usually treated in a patronisin­g and/or disinteres­ted way... I’m made to feel as though speaking to me is a waste of time.”

Sasha – the bike racer who feels she has to ‘bro down’ with shop dudes to get respect – recalled being the only woman who regularly showed up for open shop nights when she volunteere­d at a bike shop at varsity. She’d see female students come in, looking timid, and get ignored by the male staff, who continued to joke around with each other instead of approachin­g the customers.

When Lansky tried to tell her co-workers that they needed to go the extra mile to help women feel more comfortabl­e, she was met with defensiven­ess. “They’d be like, ‘We’re not friendly, that’s not our thing,’” she said. “When you’re not used to being on the outside, you don’t know what it’s like.”

This insular, male-centric viewpoint can turn customers off in other ways, too. When Lisa Fleischake­r, 49, first started cycling, she went into a high-end bike shop looking for clothing. The shop didn’t carry women’s apparel, so she tried on some


men’s shorts instead. There was no dressing room, either, so she used the bathroom.

“It was very obviously a guys’ bathroom,” Fleischake­r recalled. “It was filthy, and there were pictures of questionab­le sexist cycling ads from the past. I was like, wow, I didn’t think I was stepping into this kind of world.”

In other shops, she felt as though she couldn’t get anyone to take her seriously: “I’m not a small girl, so I didn’t look like a skinny racer. I don’t even think we need women-specific shops, I think we need beginner-friendly shops,” she said.

The Good News: Cyclists Still Love Their LBS

Bicycling’s survey revealed some good news for shops. Although the majority of respondent­s had experience­d poor treatment, most of them (89 per cent) said that they get profession­al or courteous service at their local shop, and 85 per cent said they feel welcome at their shop.

It seems that when people find a shop they like, they’re happy with the experience. This was true across gender and race. And respondent­s ranked LBSS as the number-one place they were likely to spend money on cycling-related purchases, with the internet coming next, and chain stores third. Sixty-seven per cent of respondent­s also said they would be ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’ to buy their next bike online.

Cyclists are still willing to spend money at an LBS they feel loyal to. So which shops are attracting them, and what are they doing right? The ones that host beginner rides, help with training programmes, and hold clinics, from how to fix flat tyres to how to climb a hill to how to use your gears.

The success stories are the LBSS that do this regularly – it’s easy to forget that if we’re welcoming new cyclists, they don’t necessaril­y know the basics. Forcing them to ask ‘stupid’ questions perpetuate­s the problem; regular clinics help bring in new people to the sport.

The result is unshakable customer loyalty. Customers know they can get tyres cheaper online. But they would rather have their LBS put tyres on their bike for them, and support the shop, to have somewhere to come every Saturday. It’s almost like being part of a club, and paying your membership dues.

Loyalty is the best marketing

Events and community building are major opportunit­ies for shops: our survey shows that only 30 per cent of respondent­s regularly attend rides or events at a local bike shop. And just 57 per cent said they felt like they were part of their shop’s community – leaving nearly half the riders out there up for grabs.

An inclusive shop culture starts at the top. If the owner can’t have an attitude, no one else can either. There’s a grumpy-curmudgeon type of mentality that somehow seems to be acceptable in our industry. That’s the stupidest thing ever.

As for bike shops’ frustratio­ns with seemingly clueless or demanding customers, we all forget where we started… Many customers simply don’t know how things work in a bike shop. And we can’t assume they do. We can’t assume they know what service schedules or procedures are, what shops do and don’t do. Shops just have to be gentle with them.

When customers come in, they don’t really care if you’re profitable or what your inventory turnaround is, or your payroll. They want great customer service, they want great inventory, they want a well-stocked service department. What our survey found is that you don’t have to discount your services or products when you make the customer’s shopping experience favourable.

If there’s one simple rule to follow, it’s this: just treat customers like people.

Richard Boothman’s story shows that this is also good for business. Boothman has come a long way since his Trek was stolen. On the Cannondale Synapse, he’s tackled long rides, including a 60km adventure.

“Formerly, that would have seemed so daunting to me,” he says. He’s lost more than 40kg cycling. His cardiovasc­ular health is “phenomenal”. “Even for a big guy, my numbers, my blood pressure, are great.”

And he’s continued to spend money. His Synapse was R80 000, after he ordered custom-built wheels to handle his weight. He’s bought clothing and accessorie­s.

Most recently, he bought a R10 000 trainer – almost as much as his outrageous­ly expensive bike purchase at the beginning of this story – so he can stay fit when work means he can’t get out into nature, alone or with his new-found cycling friends.

All of whom frequent his LBS.

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