There's a hardware store here in Boulder called McGuckin's, where the prices aren't terribly low nor the goods always beautifully displayed, but I've never walked out of there feeling unsatisfied for having spent a little more for what I needed. I don’t go to this independent, single-location store because they're as cheap as Amazon or as pretty as the Apple store. I go there because it's awesome – and there's no reason why walking out of a brick-and-mortar bicycle shop should feel any different.
The commercial appeal of big online bicycle retailers is undeniable. They have greater economies of scale, they can afford to stock nearly anything and everything (and get it to you by tomorrow), and they thrive on margins that wouldn't even keep the lights on at your local shop. The best ones are even able to offer pretty good customer service, too – albeit remotely.
If you know exactly what you need, are willing to wait a bit for it, and know how to install and/or service it once it arrives, it's all too easy to go online and dismiss the "buy local" mantras that are constantly tossed around. Times are tough and money is tight.
You can fit a lot of things into a box these days, but not an experienced mechanic or a salesperson with local knowledge
That doesn't mean, however, that you should wholly abandon your local brick-and-mortar shop in favor of the brown Santa.
You see, the thing I love most about McGuckin's (technically, it's "McGuckin Hardware" but no one actually calls it that) can't be neatly packed into a box and shipped via UPS or FedEx, nor does it have a handy bar code to scan. It's the service.
Unlike a big box outfit like Home Depot where you're often wandering aimlessly searching for help, McGuckin's stations someone at the head of nearly every aisle. Moreover, that person invariably has a wealth of real-world experience to help you solve your problem. They're always friendly, too.
Local bike shops should offer similar experiences – and the smart ones do. What was your last local bike shop experience like? Did some snot-nosed kid at the counter barely raise his eyes from his iPhone when you walked in, or did a knowledgeable professional greet you with a smile and ask how they could help? Did you drop your bike off for service and get it back worse than before, or was it running like the well-oiled machine you expected? When you bought that shiny new Garmin Edge 810 (at full price!) did the salesperson walk you through the setup process or just toss a receipt your way with a dismissive, "Next!"?
Better shops have had to adapt to survive in the new online retail landscape and those that have made the effort deserve your business as reward. Cheaper doesn't always equate to better value, after all, and knowledge and experience doesn't come without a cost. There's also the convenience of getting something right now – assuming your local shop is savvy enough to know what its local cycling community needs and is run well enough to actually have it on hand.
"Local businesses have a responsibility to serve the community and the community has a responsibility to support a business that is doing right by them as a resource for information and expertise," says Chris Jacobson, owner of Sports Garage in Boulder, Colorado. "We ride our bikes here so we can provide a sense of where to ride and what equipment to use. We have a very high level of customized fitting with a dedicated area in the shop that's always been important for us. We also are a Shimano service center and Campagnolo pro shop so we've been recognized as a place to go for expertise, for warranty and service."
Brandon Dwight, co-owner of Boulder Cycle Sport, offers a similar appeal on why brick-and-mortar is still relevant, when done right.
"It sounds so cliché but it's customer service; it's experience," he said. "We try to hire people that have a lot of experience, not just the high school kid that wants a summer job. We have people on staff who are lifetime bike shop employees. They've owned a shop or they've been in bike shops their whole lives. They're experts in their field, they want to be experts in their field, they get certified, they have all sorts of training and they just have that knowledge base. You can search around on Google and stuff but contrary to popular belief, not everything you read on the Internet is true."
Boulder Cycle Sport has won industry awards for its professional operation
Likewise, feel free to try haggling with your local shop on price but be prepared to get a reply you might not agree with. Retail prices at B&M shops are what they are for a reason and more likely than not, no one at your local shop is striking it rich because you paid full pop for that Shimano Deore XT rear derailleur.
"Online is always going to be a place where people are going to find a deal," said Jim Potter, owner of yet another shop in Boulder called Vecchio's. "Our attitude is, we don't even try to fight the price battle. If someone comes in and says, 'I can buy this online,' I just smile, shake their hand, and say, 'good, buy it online. I'm not going to discount it.'
"On the other hand, if someone hands me a Colnago and a kit of parts, I'll charge them to put it together," he continued. "I'm not going to stomp my feet and tell them to go away. We're a service shop first before we're a bike seller so we'll sell our service. Ultimately we're a service shop and you can't buy service online."
So what's the takeaway here? Online and B&M may be at odds in many ways but they aren't locked in mortal combat. Each serves a useful purpose and as a consumer you'll eventually need both. Patronize the ones that do their respective jobs well, recognize that not everything of value has a price tag hanging on it, and let the lesser players fall by the wayside. Ultimately we'll all benefit.