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


Arkansas Outside said...

I'm with you. I recently built up one of my old frames using parts bought both online and from local dealers. I also spent some money with the local shop on running all the cabling (I dislike that part).

I have a habit of buying something every time I walk into a shop even if it's just gu or a tube or something else expendable. Of course the build up was of a frame I bought at the local shop 13 years ago and all my bikes have been purchased locally so they can be fitted properly on their nice equipment.

It's important to support them when possible, they are the ones who sponsor races and rides and sometimes lobby for better trails and road conditions.

Last, I ride with those folks and count them as my friends. Nothing like having a shop guy/girl with you when you have a mechanical. :)

GeekGuyAndy said...

Every thing we buy is in a grey area. No one is mining steel in their backyard, building their own tig welder, and using wind power to hand make bicycles that they designed themselves to then ride to your home and walk back home on dirt paths.

Oldfool said...

I found many years ago that if it's on Earth it's local. Sometimes what I need (or want) is in a nearby shop sometimes it is in Hong Kong. I live local and think global.

Doug Mayer said...

As ever Kent, your thoughts are articulate and fair. I have close friends who own a bicycle shop, and though I spend most of my bike dollars there, I recently bought a frame from Handsome Cycles online because it was something no one else was offering (a chromoly mixte frame in a nice color) and my friends couldn't get it without a big minimum purchase. The rest of the parts I needed I bought from them. Friendships intact, businesses make money, and my girlfriend got the prettiest, most appropriate bike for her.

Not said...

I try to support my local bike shops whenever I can. I want to make sure they will be there when I need them.
However, frequently I'm unable to find a particular product I want locally, and the time I spent riding or driving to several different shops was wasted.
- Ventura

Sean Armstrong said...

When it comes to books and bikes I always buy local if at all possible. I think it all ties back to my childhood. My two favorite places in the world were Powell's Books and Weir's Cycle and Hobbies (the hobbies unfortunately no more), both in Portland, OR.

To focus on the bike side of it, my father, grandfather, uncles, aunts, and brother all got their first bike from Weir's. They knew us all by name. As a kid I would regularly ride the 3 miles over and test ride bikes all day, even though they knew damn well I couldn't afford a new bike(although I almost always left with a new Testors or Guillows model airplane). Weir's also got me started in turning my own wrenches, when I had a shifting or brake problem as a kid, they'd bring me in the back, put the bike in the stand, and talk me through the process of repairing my own bike. That experience earned a special place for the LBS in my heart.

I haven't lived in Portland in over 20 years but to this day but the old Weir's the standard by which all shops are measured in my eyes. I've encountered a lot of misses but so far Two Wheel Transit in Spokane, Walt's in Columbia, MO, Rage Cycles in Scottsdale, R+E in Seattle, and now Sound Bikes in Port Angeles have filled the Weir's spot quite nicely. Until I live somewhere that can't provide a decent LBS I have found no reason to shop online.

I've yet to find a bike related product that isn't on the shelf at a shop that I need so bad or urgently that I couldn't just wait to have the shop order it in for me when they order regular stock. Also, I've never once asked for or expected a discount from a shop but I'm quite certain that I've spent less over time buying from shops than I would from buying online.

All that said, I couldn't care less how others acquire their bikes and parts, but for me local is the way to go.

kfg said...

Once upon a time the discovery of Penicillin destroyed life as we knew it. I'm not sure that was a bad thing.

The books I wish to buy as often as not are both somewhat obscure and out of print. Only small stores of the sort that cater to the bookish kind deal in these small, probably used item markets.

The problem from my perspective is tracking down which small store has the item I'm looking for; and it may be in Tulsa or London. I can now do that easily and make the transaction, because of . . . Amazon.

And I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

Well put,Kent. I'm like you,in the happy middle ground,buying local on purpose about 60% of the time,and online the rest...sometimes when on a fixed income one has to decide between buying what is often considerably less expensive at an online shop (not even factoring gas and time if the LBS\bookstore\whatnot isn't within walking\driving distance)verses supporting the local economy...one's supporting the economy SOMEWHERE regardless,LOL,so IDK what's wrong or right,or if either is,I just don't know,LOL!

The Disabled Cyclist

GravelDoc said...

I live in rural southwest Missouri. The nearest bike shop is at least a one hour drive (by car). I purchase from both my LBSs and on-line. I have never purchased a complete bicycle on-line though, as, I tend to want to examine and test ride before buying. Also, I like being able to take the bike back in for after purchase adjustments. Also, since there is little to no cycling "community" where I live, having the Internet availability for information, communication, and supplies helps me feel somewhat connected to the "bigger picture".

Dan O said...

Great post. I have a similar view. The world is changing - the way we view media, how we buy things, where they're made - along with many other examples.

Retailers will have to go with the flow and adapt, pick a niche, or possibly fail. Bike shops included. No way around it. Successful bike shops may need to be hybrid of in-person and online sales. Or provide something online cannot, like super customer service, great repairs, etc. There's room for successful online shops and local shops as well.

I worked in a bike shop from '81 - '85 or so. A different era, but then again - not all that different. Mail order was deemed the big threat. Bike Nashbar and Performance being the early big players. Online retail is really just mail order boosted a few degrees. Click instead of calling - customer view anyway.

Being the ex-bike mechanic and one paycheck family of four, with a 12 year old son who races mountain bikes and cyclocross - I probably purchase 95% of bicycle related items online. The cost savings is just too much to ignore. I've built up various bikes via a few hours on eBay. Pick up a frame, then everything else needed.

Without the cost savings, keeping a growing 12 year old on race ready bikes wouldn't be possible. I've set him up on some decent stuff for low money, used bikes included.

I've also purchased a compete bike online for myself (as have friends) with no complaints at all. Killer deal as well, saved hundreds of (tight) dollars.

Online isn't for everyone though. I still point people to specific shops in the area. I have wheels built locally. I've bought plenty of new bikes, clothes, and piles of gear at local shops over the years - during our two paycheck/no kids era.

It all depends on the person. If you have no bike wrenching skills, for sure, become friendly with your local shop. Need a custom fitting or have no idea on fit? Need a test ride? Good local shop for sure. Against online sales on principle? Shop local for everything. No problem. Whatever works for you.

This a complicated and interesting topic. I think what it comes down to is passion. If you're passionate about something - lifestyle/pursuit - bicycling, surfing, hiking, photography, etc. The products are no longer "products", they're more important then that. And so are the people that sell and support that lifestyle. I think we sometimes feel we're cheating the local bike shop good guy/girl out of a sale by going online. True?

If that's not the case. Outside cycling, if you're against purchasing online, do you purchase other items online? If so, why?

Pick something boring, like a washing machine or dryer. I've ordered parts online and repaired my own dryer a few times. Do I feel bad I didn't call the local dryer repair company? Not one bit. Goofy example, but I think you can see where I'm headed.

More importantly, wherever your Bike 'N' Parts came from - just ride...

MzunguEriki said...

Money is over rated. Bicycle parts are over rated.

A bigger and maybe more important question is do I need to buy the item? (I agree with you because i do buy bike items.)

The inherent and subliminal issue with both LBS and on-line shopping is seeing something and getting that feeling "I need / want that."

It is not only advertising. I buy a fair amount of spares from a second hand bike shop, and my eye wanders to items not on my list and I start to want that item.

And if sometimes I buy an item due to feelings I no longer beat myself up over it. Hey, stuff happens. Which is what I got out of your post. Lets not rage against one or the other, they both work.

Real Shoppee said...

I think shopping online isn't bad as long as you are comparing prices or looking for more opinions (using social media). But I don't feel comfortable if the items are highly priced and I haven't seen the actual products yet. I would like to see it in-store before doing such a purchase online.