How To Save the Bike Retail Industry – Bike Shop Girl

Arleigh Jenkins argues that women-friendly bike shops are only one small solution to a much larger problem.

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Photo by Nikki

Following on the heels of a League of American Bicyclists report about the bike shop industry’s failure to welcome women – and an abundance of recent debate on the subject – Bike Shop Girl‘s Arleigh Jenkins penned an excellent article entitled “The Bike Industry is Sick and Hiring More Women Won’t Fix it.” Contrary to the report’s findings – which suggested that greater gender-inclusivity could save the struggling industry – Jenkins argues that the problems within the bike shop industry run much deeper.

Jenkins puts forth a strong four-point argument for why the industry is broken, which we’ve pulled excerpts from below:

1. There is No Barrier for Entry or Standard of Training

“There isn’t a available degree, school or class regime that you can take to ‘learn bikes’ outside of simply putting in time. Due to this lack of infrastructure there is no standardization of training.”

“Most shop general managers or service managers are there due to Peter Principle and not due to having managerial experience or skills.”

2. Lack of Training

“This lack of training (and education) breeds lack of basic business understanding. Employees are doing their best with little guidance, and typically when a customer is unhappy you will only know from a negative Yelp review.”

3. Low Average Pay

“We have employees working off hours (10-7, including weekends) that must know as much as possible on the niches of bikes their shops carry, including competing brands, making between $11-16 an hour, typically without any benefits other than a discount.”

4. Product First Mentality

“The industry has shoved product education down these under paid adults throats but we haven’t taught them about business, about building a brand, about selling or making a community.”

Jenkins highlights an unhappy truth about many bike shops. They’re not just unfriendly to women, they’re unfriendly to everyone. Who hasn’t at some point walked out of a bike shop feeling like the employees at best were diffident, disorganized, or unhelpful, and at worse were just plain rude. Bike shops are an invaluable resource for people who ride bikes and those who may be interested in cycling. When they’re run well, they serve as an entry-point to the world of cycling, a hub for local information, and a space for the development of community. If they’re ineffective, it doesn’t just hurt business, it hurts everyone.

Jenkins goes on to suggest eight key steps the wider bike shop industry needs to take if it has any hope of shaking off its unfavorable reputation and surviving in the modern market. First and foremost among them is gaining a better understanding of basic business practices, “This includes marketing, sales and data,” Jenkins wrote. Improved business models would mean higher profit margins, which would translate into higher wages and employee benefits so the industry stops losing its best people to more viable careers. She argues for a basic training model, standardized by the National Bicycle Dealers Association, that would begin with customer service and retail basics and then work towards tech and product training. “Why?” she posed, “Product revolves every 6 weeks, being a good human does not.”

Jenkins – who writes from 15 years of experience in the bike retail industry – is effectively arguing that the focus on women’s bike products and the debate around women-friendly bike retail may not address the larger issues that the industry faces. While greater gender-inclusivity in the bike industry is inarguably positive, it may provide only a band-aid solution over a wound that runs deep.

In her conclusion, which I’ll let speak for itself, she wants to remind the world that bikes are not a hobby:

“In conclusion, I would also like to ask that we stop comparing ourselves to golf, or some other hobby. I would love to compare us to the auto industry. Not only because bikes are transportation but because cars aren’t so different. They require sales, service and have a lot of variations in models. What is different is the training. To work in a car dealer you go through intensive training for both sales and service. My favorite part of comparing the bike industry to auto? You don’t see cars designed only for women.”

The article in its entirety is definitely worth a read, it can be found here.

12 Comments

  • Emma Bull

    The last thing I want from a bike shop is for it to more closely resemble a car dealership. I don’t want salespeople who pressure me into buying because they work on commission and have a quota. I don’t want a shop that values me primarily for the number of big-ticket purchases I can be counted on to make. Have you ever had a relationship with a car dealer? One in which the staff know how and where you drive, what your skill level and interests are? Do you have a car dealer that provides classes on how to replace your oil or air filter or clean your carburator? Maybe one that organizes group drives for drivers of differing levels of experience? My bike shop does the bicycle equivalent of all that and more. That’s why I’m a repeat customer, why I recommend it to everyone I meet who wants a bike, and why I turn first to them for accessories, parts, repair…and sometimes, just a visit to get a comforting whiff of the smell of chain lube and rubber.

    • Chris Keam

      Having grown up around car dealerships and gas stations (Dad was a mechanic) I think the negative response to the comparison is missing the point. Car dealerships actually do form relationships with repeat customers, and it’s in their (self) interest to meet their needs. When it came to fixing cars, my Dad was a genius. People would ask that he be the one to work on their car when they brought it in. So in my experience, there is a personal, mutually-beneficial relationship between customer and dealer, esp. because it is a big ticket item and people want to make sure it’s done right.

      Sure they (auto dealers) don’t offer classes AFAIK (nor do most bike shops) but most people aren’t interested in learning how to fix their car (or bike). Of course, go to a parts store, and there is a wealth of repair manuals for varying models, not much different from the ‘fix your bike’ book beside my toolbox and in fact, because of economies of scale, much more detailed re: models and years, instead of a generic manual covering different types of bikes.

      I do know, having a friend with an expensive Porsche, that there are things like club events, there is absolutely car clubs of various kinds that organize activities such as track days, etc. These things are however, targeted to enthusiasts. Most motorists aren’t enthusiasts. With regard to cyclists, there is undoubtedly (at present) a higher percentage of hobbyist/enthusiasts, simply because biking is less popular for commuting than cars and other options at present. So it’s not uncommon that bike shops might collaborate more closely with bike clubs, local amateur teams etc. But to return to the previous thought, how many take repair courses? Most cyclists pick it up in other ways, just as so-called shade tree mechanics swap knowledge, tools, and assistance.

      Do most bike shops know your skills, interests, and so forth? Not if you’re a first-time or infrequent customer.

      What’s the selling point at a garage? Listen to the ads. Trained and certified mechanics. Would consistency of experience help bike shops? Absolutely. Would bike mechanics like to make something closer to an auto mechanics wage? My guess is yes.

      There are some very valid reasons to consider in taking what works from the car dealership structure. With some measure of success in implementing them, it might make cycling a more accessible idea for existing non-riders. More people buying bikes could result in a higher profile in the advertising sphere, which makes cycling more top-of-mind, breeding more customers, and so on. One thing the car companies absolutely get right is advertising the hell out of their products. For me, it’s annoying as hell, but I also recognize that it achieves their goal, which is cementing auto use as a good thing in people’s minds.

      cheers, CK

  • D F

    Most bike shops cater to a non-city everyday biking bicycle i.e. a sports car mentality of design vs a station wagon. Fenders for example because if you ride regularly, you’ll at some point ride in the rain or at least through puddles (when you can’t ride around them). General commuting to everyday activities doesn’t require spandex.

    • D F

      I should also add the off road bike as well (mountain bikes) which are wretched for general biking

      • Emma Bull

        Not if you ride in winter in a northern Midwest city. Then a mountain, off-road, or fat bike is worth its weight in platinum to a bicycle commuter.

  • Ms. Jenkins has pretty much summed up the problem. One thing I might add because bicycles are such as sophisticated piece of equipment like a car the US government needs to regulate the cheap and dangerous bicycles being sold by the big box stores.

    • Emma Bull

      A huge proportion of transportation cyclists in North America are working poor, and immigrants with very low incomes. Add those people to kids who want to ride whose parents can’t afford a $500-plus bike for them, and you have many good reasons not to make cheap new bikes illegal. However, if those riders could count on bike shops carrying used bikes, that they’ve tuned up and inspected, at low prices, then yes–maybe we could outlaw those bottom-end Kmart bikes.

    • Emma Bull

      Also, bikes aren’t sophisticated machines like cars. They don’t often reach 30 miles an hour. They don’t have a combustible fuel source. They don’t have emission systems that require specialized maintenance to reduce air pollution. They can be fixed by their owner with a simple repair manual and ordinary tools. Their common failure modes rarely result in death or critical injury to their rider, let alone others. Regulation of cheap bikes won’t make streets or riders safer; it will only raise barriers to cycling for those who need it most.

  • Mark Buettner

    I’d add repair people that don’t speak English, and haven’t repaired the bike. Also” it’ll be done in 3days” I always call the morning of the third day and get” uuuhhh, we were just getting to it”

    • Dominic

      Now you’re being unfair. Those things happen because of what’s been pointed out already.

  • Alex Boucher

    Thank you for the article. How should male riders help remedy the problem? thank you

    • Dominic

      Being accepting and encouraging towards others is not really that hard. The trick is to not be patronizing, and treat people with respect regardless of gender or age or experience.

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