Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bike shop labor... fair or foul?

I was in a bike shop yesterday looking for a spare part for a bike that Santa will bring to our house in a few weeks.  It wasn't my usual shop, as they don't carry the line of bikes in question.  While I was there, a student brought in a BSO with a seat post that had been bent back so far it had nearly broken off at the clamp.  When greeted, he announced he was there to pick up the seat post he'd ordered a couple of weeks earlier.

I wanted to ask him if he'd ever heard of a bike co-op or of Craigslist, where a jillion tweakers are trying to unload excess bike parts every day.  But I didn't.  If this kid wanted to wait two weeks for a seat post, that was his business.  At least he was supporting a local bike shop. 

In a minute, the clerk returned from the shop with the most ordinary of seat posts.  It seemed odd that they'd have to order a standard seat post in a pretty big shop.  But the good part was still to come.  The student asked a question about installing it... something along the lines of which end was up.

The clerk then helpfully suggested that the shop do the install for him... at the usual rate for a "saddle install."  He asked his fellow clerk what the charge for a "saddle install" was, and the quick-thinking employee made up a number on the spot.  The student agreed, and learned that he could pick up his bike "later today, hopefully."

OK.  I understand that bike shops have to pay the rent.  I further understand that people like me ordering saddles and brake levers and panniers off the Internet have made it more critical than ever to capture revenue from repairs and service.  I honestly don't begrudge them the right to charge a fair price for their labor.

But it seems to me when someone has already bought a part like a seatpost, you could take the 30 seconds necessary to loosen the clamp, remove the old one, shove the new one in the tube and tighten the clamp again.  Another 30 seconds, at most, to switch the saddle from the old post to the new.  A 60-second investment in customer goodwill.  It's a way of saying, "let's see the Internet do this... thanks for coming in here and buying our full-fare seat post instead of just swiping one off any of the hundreds of abandoned bikes on campus."

It's the kind of thing my shop does every day.  And it's a huge part of the reason that whenever possible, I buy parts through them instead of ordering on line.  This kind of goodwill is the reason I've spent enough at that shop in the past two years to buy a decent used car.

But the shop I was visiting yesterday chose another route.  It's a route that almost certainly ends with the customer one day figuring out (or being told) that he needn't have waited another day for his bike or reached further into his pocket. And my contention is that the long-term damage done will far exceed the few dollars squeezed out of him for a "saddle install."

In fact, it already did cost them more than the cost of the installation.  As I stood there with $90 worth of accessories in my hand, I started thinking about which parts I could get off the 'Net and which could  be ordered by my own shop.  All of them, it turned out.  So, back on the shelves they went.

After all, I didn't want to occupy their time ringing up my sale.  I knew they had that big "saddle install" to get to by the end of the day.


  1. Judgment call..

    Every shop has their own way of doing business. I have a grand total of 2 LBS's in my area. One I do business with, the other I do not. I also have another favorite shop, but it is 90 miles away. :-(

    Unfortunately no one in the LBS side of the business is going to retire a millionaire any time soon. If they installed the saddle post for free, then it is going to be fixing flats, installing grips, handle bars, lights, etc.

    Most shops that I am aware of make most of their money on accessory sales and service, the bike sales barely cover the overhead, if at all.

    I have been in the small retail business in the past and it is a hard way to earn a living.


  2. Agreed on all points, Aaron. But I do think that when someone purchases a part and the installation is as near-effortless as grips or a seat post, it's an easy opportunity for the LBS to buy some lasting goodwill.

    When I buy my saddles from my LBS, they wouldn't dream of letting me out without making sure it's positioned correctly and they wouldn't dream of charging for that. That's why I pay the extra $$ between their price and the online price.

  3. Devil's Advocate here...

    What if the seat post turns out to be one of those ones that was the wrong size and wedged in? Or they find that the seat tube is cracked? Etc, etc.

    Like I said each shop makes their own choices and decisions on what to charge for and who to charge. As long as they are consistent I don't have a problem with it. We choose to shop where we do based on our experiences and preferences.

    That is why I shop at the ones I do. I know good and well my main LBS doesn't have the lowest prices, but they have helped me out in the past and I have spent enough there in the past 30+ years to have bought a couple of cars. The other shop in town chose to make fun of my bikes and be condescending, so no business even though they are closer to my home and easier to get to.


  4. I've heard other accounts of LBS employees looking down their noses at bikes that don't fit their preferred image. That would be an instant deal-breaker for me.

    I was recently on a hiring panel for the new manager of my LBS, representing customer issues, I guess. Several of my questions were designed to weed out just the attitude you describe.

    You're lucky you have one shop that works for you!

  5. that should have been "customer interests."