Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Life - Bike Shop Learning

Recently someone posed the question (albeit incompletely phrased), "How working in a shop changed you."

I immediately thought of one or two things, but as I started to type, I realized, hey, wow, there's a lot more here. I guess part of it is that I spent almost 15 years in the business, and if I didn't learn a lot by doing something for 15 years, I was doing something wrong.

I remember one summer I made something like $5000, worked my butt off, as many hours as I could manage. I had maybe $500 in the bank at the end of the summer but I had a 23 lbs mountain bike (for some reason I spent all my money on the bike I didn't race, and I didn't really race my mountain bike) as well as my road bike and all its trappings. Back then it was all wheels and tires - it seemed like I was building up new wheels every few weeks.

First lesson - don't spend your money where you work!

Because of my time in a shop, I appreciate small businesses. It's different when one or two people do all the back office work. Payroll, insurance, medical, taxes, purchasing, marketing, and let's not forget budgeting, it can be overwhelming in more than one way. It takes money to do all this. You can add time to take some money away, i.e. instead of hiring one more person you just work later, but ultimately someone has to pay for everything - the owner/s of the shop. Time or money, you take your pick.

I appreciate margins - I don't ask for a break unless I need it, and I'll ask to be charged full price unless it'll take more time to convince a shop to skip taking 10% off retail than it will for them to just give me 10% off. The discount, while I appreciate the gesture, doesn't make a financial difference to me, but to the shop it can add up. I do ask for breaks when I need it, but I try to make it such that the shop will benefit.

See, as a former shop person, I know it helps to have filler items when ordering from places with high minimums. I also know that if you're ordering a lot of stuff from a distributor that's far away, they'll expedite shipping (Next or Second Day) for free if the order is big enough. So I'll ask the shop to order something from one of those desirable distributors (i.e. good products, good selection, gives bonuses for big orders), pay for it in advance, and let the shop tack on stuff to my order. Since my base order will be substantial (I'm nice but if I want to order $1-3k of stuff, I need a break at that point - my $50-250/visit amounts are manageable and usually pretty spontaneous), the shop can earn expedited shipping, terms, and other things that help them do business. I never take anything out of their inventory, and if I hold off on picking my stuff up, the shop may be able to sell it first (that's part of the agreement - they just buy me another one).

I appreciate the fact that bike shops usually attract hugely overqualified people and that they aren't typical "I don't care about my job" type folks. The "senior" staff are enthusiastic, intelligent, dedicated, and usually have strong opinions on what works and doesn't work. The "junior" staff are usually smart, well raised kids, doing the best they can. They're enthusiastic, happy to be important, eager to help, and full of raw idealistic ideas and opinions. That's awesome.

I love the social aspect of the shop. I like being able to help someone in a genuine way. I sold all my old bikes to folks on an "as needed" basis. My Schwinn and Dawes (steel, 27" wheels, etc) both went to guys who lived at a shelter and commuted on bikes because they couldn't drive. One I sold for $20 because the guy wanted us to replace a tire - $14.95 tire plus $5.00 labor. But he really needed two straight wheels, spokes that weren't about to pop, and a drivetrain that had less than a half decade of everyday use on it. My relatively pristine Schwinn Traveller III went to him for the price of that tire change, and I went over it before I handed it over to him. I even moved all his accessories onto the Schwinn, his rack, lock holder, and some other miscellaneous stuff. The last time I saw him, about 5 years later, he was still on the bike.

The Dawes also went to a guy who needed it. I put the original wheels back on (I'd swapped them out for super narrow "race" wheels) and sold it to another slightly distressed individual. I don't remember this transaction as much because I remember the guy for a funny exchange we had across the shop. He opened the door and hollered to the back. I think it was 67 feet to the wall separating the front and rear, so we were even further away. With very tall ceilings you really had to holler.

"You got a pin?"
"Pin?" We looked at each other. "Pin? Why's he want a pin?"
"Pin! You got a pin?"
"What kind of pin?"
Our guy was obviously a bit frustrated. "Pin, you know, PIN. P - E - N. Pin!"
"Oh, a pen! Yeah I got one."
I ran up and gave him a pen.

So, no, I don't remember anything about selling my beloved Dawes Lightning, but I think I sold it to him for $40, the price of whatever repair he needed at that time.

I do remember one thing vividly about being in the shop - I was so poor, so so poor. I was shredding some very old statements the other day and saw my bank account balances - I remember thinking things were good if I had more than $100 in the bank. $200 was exciting. Yikes.

Someone who bought a nice jacket brought it back when the sleeve thread broke or something. He was yelling at me, really upset because it would take time to get a new one (and it ended up that the company stopped making them for the year). "You ever buy something at a store and it just breaks????" I thought about it and realized (to my horror) that I had not been able to buy anything at a store for something like five years. My then girlfriend (and, before her, the one before that) bought me my clothes and stuff, I begged my food from the bagel place or traded for it at the deli, and I drove a totally beat up car that I worked on at my friend's garage. I didn't say that to him though. I just said yes and tried to get him another jacket from the rep, from another store, anywhere. No luck. I still feel bad about that, and it took me about 11 years to buy another Pearl Izumi product (last week, actually).

I also know that I never want to work in a shop again. I am totally and completely burnt on working in a shop. I have volunteered at shops, done as much free work as I can in the time I have (usually a day or maybe an early-to-late evening), refuse anything in return, but man, I just cannot do that as a job again.

After I first closed my shop I didn't even want to change a flat so I just swapped wheels for a few years until I started puncturing really expensive and virtually new Vittoria tubulars. When I started training on a Seta (silk) tire I realized I'd hit rock bottom. It took maybe 10-15 rides on the Seta before I changed a few tubes (I had them, just didn't change them) and started back on the road to recovery. It took a bit longer for me to actually degrease my chain - by then it looked like something out of the bottom of an old rusty oil tank.

What's interesting is what I learned after I closed the shop.

Keep in mind that I started working there pretty much as soon as I was driving, and although I worked in other places, none of them were retail oriented. Okay, a super market is technically retail, but a gallon of milk is a gallon of milk, and it didn't sell "Parlee with SRAM Red" equivalent beef or anything. Therefore I had very little exposure to other people's spending habits.

I learned that (some) people have a lot of money, that the way I spend money is not the way others do. So although I'm a relatively frugal person, I know that there are those out there who have tons and tons of money. And they want to spend it.

I made more money in the first 2 months after the shop closed than I did the previous year. Granted I made 1/2 as much that last year as I made the previous year, and 1/3 what I made the year before that, but still... I couldn't believe that someone thought my time was worth so much. And they paid for social security, state income tax, medical, even something called a "401k" (which I thought was a scam at first).

For someone used to doing payroll and deducting social security, insurance, taxes, and such, this was unbelievable.

I bought a new car in 2003, something that, when I owned the shop, I swore I'd never do. Cars were $2000 max when I had the shop, and I never got comprehensive insurance because I could never afford it. A new car? Forget it.

I learned that there is a bigger world than Campy vs Shimano, mtb vs road, hardtail vs full suspsension, Ritchey tires vs Panaracer. I learned how much someone sacrifices to pick up a bike at 5 pm, and if it's not ready, why they are so upset. Ditto picking up bikes for weekend rides. If I miss a ride, even one I forgot wasn't even being held, it's a big blow, a big disappointment. As a shop guy I just rode whenever I could, and that meant riding after whenever the last customer left the shop. In the spring and fall I'd ride in the dark, and in the winter I rode in the store, late late late.

I realized that upholding your word, no matter what the cost, is critical for a small business. People deal with you, not some vague corporate identity. They expect personal attention. From you. Over-promising is the worst thing you can do. So if the bike "might" be done on Tuesday night, say it'll be done Wednesday. Either that or make sure it's done Tuesday morning, before the shop opens and before things get so crazy that you can't finish it by 5 PM Tuesday.

I also learned to appreciate how much time and effort my friends spent helping at my shop. My teammates (and they were pretty much all friends of mine as well) would sometmes show up on Saturday after the morning ride to talk to customers, talk to them about what they knew about bikes and stuff ("Oh, if you want to carry your bike on the car, this is my car and this is the rack I have. The shop has them over here.").

I had one kid "working" for me. I couldn't pay him so I told his parents I couldn't hire him. But they wanted him to work for me, and they were willing to pay for it. So they paid him for the whole summer, his mom or dad calling every now and then to make sure things were okay with him. The next summer I paid him but I remember being really puzzled with the procedure, like, "Hey, this doesn't seem familar to me."

One friend spent a couple months doing my books, a day a week. This was after he designed and built our enormous loft in the second location, a project that took him out of "real life" circulation for about two months. During the build he managed to fall off the second floor deck, landing in a pile of scrap below (luckily he was only out for a few days). He even had a piece of wood fall on his face (and I happened to be snapping pictures when it happened). He helped with the Bethel races as well, doing a lot of the gritty paperwork that I love to hate.

And, get this: he even led me out at races! That's a friend.

Another guy spent probably five years helping with Bethel, and he helped paint the shop (he painted for a living). The landlord gave us paint, we painted. Because he's a pro, he painted everything that required a ladder, and he even brought a co-worker to help him out. I learned after many, many years that he's the one that gives me discrete little pushes up the hill at Bethel. If you ever saw me at the top of the hill at Bethel, looking around with a puzzled look on my face, that's what just happened.

Another friend would show up, out of the blue, on a day off, and put in an hour or 8 of hard work, grin, do the whole gangster knucks/slap/whatever thing to say they're taking off, and drive away. He worked with me for years, starting off as a kid, finishing off as a young adult ready to take over his family's business. When he was starting to get into racing, we'd ride after work every day, returning to the shop to detail our bikes in excrutiating detail. We'd discover new polishes for aluminum, waxes for the frame, and spend countless hours using such stuff on the bikes. We even used a drill press to drill out a bunch of chainrings, but when I realized how flexy they were, we stopped that experiment.

A decade down the road he's running his extremely successful business, his dad still lending a hand every now and then. It used to be the dad introducing the son. "Hi, Mister So-and-so, this is my son." Now it's the other way around. "Hi Mister So-and-so, this is my dad." Amazing.

And, yeah, he also rode his brains out for me, at least until he was so strong he could ride me off his wheel.

I didn't realize what they gave me until I got into the position where I wanted to offer the same help. When I worked an unusual three day a week shift, I knew what I wanted to do on my days off. I called my friend and told him I could help out a couple days a week. I didn't do very much, I don't think, mainly taking out garbage and cleaning stuff up, but I got to help work on some very cool things. When my time at that job ended, so did my short stint volunteering at my friend's business.

At some point, when I recovered from my extreme bike shop burnout, I'd offer a hand at the shop I patronized, spending a hour or two, maybe more, talking or wrenching or something. I trued a wheel at one busy shop while everyone was running around, built bikes at another, and did some repairs and assemblies at yet another. I haven't done this too much. I am very, very selective of where I make my work offers, and I've done so only at shops that support the local cycling scene. My volunteer work keeps me fresh, lets me see things from a slightly different perspective, and reminds me to appreciate the (good) local shops.

The last thing is important because of one overriding reason. Everyone starts at their local shop, and for that reason alone, it's critical to have them around.

Ultimately that's what I've learned from having a shop.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Working in a bike shop does have its negative side. Customers equip-ment always break either the night before a race/ride and or that new high falootin part/tire that they read up on and had you order doesn't quite measure up to their high expectations. And, AND every broken part should be warrantied, cuz the were "just riding along" when it broke. Never mind they were riding in the local race and crashed taking a turn too steep.
But it does have its bright side. Discounts, no. Because you will spend your whole paycheck buying that new high falootin new part. You get to work on the latest and greatest. Baloney! You have to fix those Huffy's, Santa Fe's, and every bike left in the back of the garage until 2 days before that big "race/ride". And don't forget every flat mtn bike tire with dog crap on the tread needs to be fixed.
No, what I'm talking about is a pure and simple joy of talking to people about the 2 things they love to talk ad nauseum about. Themselves and bikes. You've been in my store, and we spent over an hour talking, bikes, racing, and life. That is why I still remain in the business. Everyday is different. Friends, old and new, stop by everyday and talk bikes or themselves. Alot talk to me about racing. Some of the biggest thrills for me is not the $5k-$10k bike sale, which is more of a challenge. I'm trying to get the customers money, he/she wants a discount, even though you know that if they are looking at a bike priced like that they can afford it. So its always a game. The real thrills are selling that 16" kids bike to a first time rider, or even showing someone how to ride a bike for the first time. Those are the real fun sales.
I don't give discounts to people who think they deserve one. I don't give discounts to bike clubs either. I do give discounts to repeat customers who frequent the store. I also do my best to help out distressed customers and some racers. I see them at the races, and I usually pass on my discounts or freebies to them. A set of tires here, some new shorts there, and always some free labor on my part. There are times when I will get in early, 6:30am-7am, to make sure a customers bike is fixed in time for the big event. I try never to stay late because of the girls.
Yeah, you do learn alot about people in bike shops. You also learn alot about life. Want to make a million dollars owning a bike shop? Then start with 2 million.
I have sought out owners of other stores, just to see how they do things. I have gone into other stores and "stolen" from them. Not in the traditional sense, but with my eyes. I do my own market research, but I'm always learning. The bike biz hasn't changed all that much Aki, except for the average price, but the premise always remains the same.

Treat the customer, as you would want to be treated. This is a mantra I have tried to tell my guys for over 20 years. And notice how you are treated at other retail establishments. Always ask youself, is this the way you would want to be treated.