Wednesday, September 13, 2017
The New Retail Order. Part 1: Out With The Old
The Internet is without doubt the greatest development to human existence that has happened during my lifetime. Not perhaps a particularly radical statement, but bear with me.
If we consider other great forward thrusts in technology - like locomotion or electricity - and the monumental changes they forced within the otherwise steady march of human evolution (as viewed now with historical perspective), I doubt people living then had a full grasp of the significance of those changes. I'm quite certain that many of the outcomes of this recently initiated cataclysmic shift have yet to fully manifest themselves, let alone be fully appreciated.
We're increasingly witness to the fallout from these shifts. I'm fairly sure that those born into this world within the last 20 years will have little trouble navigating the new waters, but the older members of the workforce are having big problems keeping up with the pace of change. That would suggest that those at management level are often going to be the problem. Many businesses formed around traditional parameters betray evidence of a fundamental dysfunction in still trying to follow their traditional processes. The negative buzzword is now Legacy.
As a jazz artist, I have watched myself become a dinosaur in a world where the popular mainstream has been narrowed down to the basest formula-driven opiate. What seemed initially to be heralding a levelling of the playing-field in the media has actually given rise to an even more cynical and malicious manipulation of public taste and awareness. Survival requires a reassessment of the entire panorama, and your place in it.
DEMAND DRIVES SUPPLY
I could go off on many tangents from this one, but in this case I want to ponder our current situation as consumers, both from the perspective of the supplier and the receiver, and for our purposes here to narrow it down to the market for cycling-related products.
The bicycle business has shifted quite monumentally to an online mail-order business over the past few years. The average discerning cyclist on the road sports an increasingly eclectic selection of equipment and clothing that is not even available locally. In fact there seems to be a specific intention to be as exotic as possible in the more well-heeled of the cycling community.
Shops can't possibly compete with the variety, value and specificity of online retail. When you're not restricted by location, your global market can be huge, and online retailers can then invest in a selection of stock that can cater very specifically to each customer's demands and, with low overheads thanks to being in the middle of nowhere (or an industrial estate), your prices can be much closer to cost price.
Clothing, wheel and bicycle manufacturers are now getting more and more into retailing directly to the consumer, which is just great news for all of us. And though it might seem through this evolution that the local bike shop is becoming a thing of the past, in fact, as so many of us are discovering in our respective industries: it's really all about re-positioning.
THE MODERN BIKE SHOP
What hasn't changed for shops for a start is the crucial provision of a centre where people can go to get service, repair and maintenance. Not by people with basic mechanical skills, but by people with real experience in building and fixing bikes/wheels - which means employing genuine experts. Having a real expert bicycle mechanic is worth his weight in gold to the modern bike shop. A lot of your investment should be there.
I can check the price of anything on my phone immediately, so there's no point in having a stock of items that people can get cheaper elsewhere, except in the case of things that require personal fitting - like saddles, clothes, shoes, plus a good bike-fitting system.
I'd suggest taking the fitting idea one step further, and offering as extensive as possible a selection of things you don't necessarily sell so that people can "test drive" things, and make better decisions about what they spend their money on.
Try starting a collection of every saddle you can get your hands on - starting with all your old ones. Finding the right saddle is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the development of most cyclists, and you would build some real long-term relationships with customers this way. Offer these things for hire on a weekly basis so that your customers can make more informed choices.
The stuff we might need in a hurry like tubes, tyres, chains, chainrings, cassettes, pumps, brake pads, cables, and middle-of-the-range components. Things that might unexpectedly fail or wear out and need to be replaced. This stuff is also available cheaply online, so I'd suggest this is not where you're going to make a profit. If local prices are really not competitive, the more enterprising are just going to buy a stock of spares online.
You can take the service idea further, and do a consultancy on equipment selection (from the complete market) and even to sports-testing, coaching, spin classes, indoor training labs. Some of these things might also be available online, but there is always an advantage to dealing with a real person face-to-face.
If you do offer a consultancy service where you fit equipment to an individual's physical characteristics and intended application, it is better not to be a dealer or distributor for a particular brand of anything, as it reduces your integrity and the customer's trust. You could however offer a - very transparent - service where you get hold of the stuff for a customer, and build to order with clear, and fair, charges for the service.
I have seen a few shops make tentative moves towards creating a cafe section - basically a cafe/bike-shop hybrid.. This is a great idea, and often seen now in London and various other forward-thinking bike-friendly cities. But you have to make it a good cafe. Just having a couple of tables and chairs and a coffee machine in the corner won't do it, especially if there's just a couple of grumpy teenagers manning the shop. It has to be a cafe that people go to for the coffee and the food. It should have at least one screen with cycling films and races running continuously, especially current events, perhaps a library of cycling magazines and books is a good idea too. You can use it as a meeting point for group rides, seminars, coaching clinics and various other events that are ways of sharing experiences/knowledge with the cycling community. You can host special events to watch important races, or have club meetings. In short it should become a community centre.
I think there's always a good case for having a selection of drool-worthy items around your shop. The latest, lightest, fastest, most aerodynamic/expensive/limited-edition will always attract attention. Signed jerseys and other collectors items are great. You may not even want to offer most of this stuff for sale, but having them on display will draw cyclists to your shop like ants to a discarded gel sachet.
So you bought it online and it doesn't work?
Embrace what the internet is in all of our lives. The latest trend of top manufacturers like Canyon is cutting the middle-men out completely, selling direct to the end user, so get used to it. It's going to be increasingly a fact of life, so there's no point in feeling bad about it, or stigmatising those who opt for this method. Offer a tariff of realistic prices for fitting - or fixing - bike parts supplied by the customer from elsewhere. There's nothing to be lost in that exchange - and much (respect, gratitude, plus a lot of new friends and customers) to be gained.
It should be obvious now that my agenda for the modern bike shop is to prioritize the software (the humans) not the hardware (the gear), and only really deal with hardware as it needs specific fitting to software. The shop is a place for cyclists to feel they belong. It's a place populated by humans that can offer real expertise and advice. You have to offer a generous and respectful experience to the humans that are drawn to you, and welcome everybody in as if you value their company - not just their business.