Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Shopping Online, Shopping Local

I have friends, earnest good friends, who rage against online shopping. Amazon is killing independent bookstores they assure me and places like Performance/Nashbar are killing local bike shops. I have other friends, earnest good friends, who shop online and find deals and rage against being "gouged" by their local shops. I live in a kind of a middle earth, a place I suspect you may live as well, where some shopping carts are real and some are virtual, some shops are bricks and mortar and some are clicks and bits. It's a good thing grey is my favorite color.

Let me tell you a little more about my grey world. Years ago I worked at a place that was called Trintex when I started there and was called Prodigy by the time we launched our online service. It started as a three-way venture funded by IBM, Sears and CBS and we did battle with guys like Compuserve and AOL. It was a hell of an interesting place to work. Buy me a coffee sometime and I'll tell you a lot of interesting stories from the early days. Now the common story is that Prodigy never made much money for it's founding partners, that it ultimately got killed by AOL and the internet. The common story is not quite right. A couple of years ago, when I was working at the Bike Station in downtown Seattle, an old colleague from Prodigy dropped by. Over lunch I commented that "Prodigy may not have made money for the partners, but heck, it payed us some decent dollars." My friend looked at me, "Oh, the partners did OK. Those guys up the hill," he said pointing to Amazon which at the time was ironically headquartered in one of the biggest brick and mortar buildings in Seattle, "settled a deal with Prodigy over one-click-buy. Your salary, mine, and every dollar poured down the Prodigy 'rathole' has come back home many times over."

These days I walk to my job in a brick and mortar bike shop, the Bicycle Center of Issaquah. We sell Trek bikes at the Bicycle Center, something I'm happy to do. There are lots of good bikes made by a variety of companies but the first bike shop I really hung out in back in Minnesota was a Trek shop. The folks at Trek were good folks back when they were a few people in a barn in Wisconsin and now Trek is a hell of a lot bigger but they still seem to be pretty good folks. A couple of years ago a guy came into the Bicycle Center and introduced himself to me with the words, "Hi, I'm John, I work at Trek." That guy, John Burke, is the president of Trek.

John is a very smart guy and when I was back at Trek's Wisconsin headquarters last August he laid out Trek's online strategy for all its dealers. Trek basically built a support system for the local dealers to have a powerful online presence. If you go to BicycleCenter.biz you'll see the online version of the Bicycle Center. You can see what we have in stock and you can order things. Bikes have to be picked up at the local store but accessories, clothes and stuff like that can be shipped to you if that works better for you. Yes, Trek makes money, but your local shop makes money as well. As I said, John Burke is a smart guy.

Online shopping exists and I have a hard time seeing it as this purely evil thing destroying life as we know it. My lovely wife rides her lovely bike to her local job at the local grocery store. Her job is putting real groceries in a real shopping cart and then on a real truck to be delivered to folks who put virtual groceries in a virtual cart. People buying groceries online pays for the groceries on our table. I make a living by working in a brick and mortar store and via Amazon referrals.

Amazon is another enterprise I cannot paint as simply black or white. While some folks are absolutely certain that Amazon is killing the independent bookstores, I know many writers who have found a richer market of readers thanks to Amazon's efforts, and I find some value in that. The laptop I type this on, my internet bills, the cameras that take the pictures I show here and all the other bits that go into this blog are here because Amazon pays a good chunk of my bills. But I understand that some folks really, really hate Amazon and I certainly respect that choice.

Each day we vote with our dollars and our attention and we try to do our best. If you value your local bike or bookshop, please spend some dollars there. If you get value out of Grant Petersen's expertise at Rivendell, buy something from him and don't feel bad that he's not local. Local isn't just a matter of geography. Like Jan's magazine? Subscribe.

Since you're reading these words on a screen right now, it's safe to say you spend part of your life online. And you probably spend some of your dollars online as well and I really don't think there is anything seriously wrong with that. But the offline world is pretty cool too, it's that place where we ride our bikes. It's worth spending some time and dollars there as well.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA
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