I spent almost twenty years working in the bicycle industry as a mechanic, inventory manager and shop co-owner.
In that time, I watched as our little shop went from being exclusively a used bikes dealer and repair shop to being an almost entirely new bike dealer.
The reasons for that are many, but mostly have to do with the internet and the cheap cost of goods made in China.
The internet made it possible for folks to acquire information about their old bikes, discover that many were, in fact, "vintage" and there fetched a higher price than a shop was willing to pay out. And with the advent of craigslist and eBay, the used bike retail market pretty much dried up in bike-friendly cities like Portland, because of the private market to be found online.
China, well.. China.
Yeah. Chinese factories, far from the prying eyes of all but the most diligent manufacturing company heads and paying pennies in labor costs, have been able to manufacture decent bikes and parts at a fraction of the cost of doing so in North America and Europe. Chinese parts have become the industry standard, while US- and EU-made parts have become "high zoot" and far more expensive than their Chinese-made counterparts.
Sure, some of that can be blamed on China's treatment of workers and the massive scale of their manufacturing. But some of it can also be blamed on a sense of guilt-induced cache that is added to the already higher price of US/EU-made goods. Yes, workers in the US and EU earn far more -- and their cost of living is higher. However, it would be interesting to stop and ask ourselves -- how much of our desire for goods made in the US and EU comes from needing to feel better about our buying power as expressed through our choices?
The more I watch the bicycle industry evolve, the more I become convinced that the average consumer actually holds very little power in this structure.
We spend according to our means -- or, more likely, according to the level of risk we're willing to take before the credit card bill comes in the mail next month.
If we ignored the efforts of Madison Avenue, THEN we'd have some real power. But too many of us (myself included, from time to time) are too easily manipulated by advertising; by the rules of the workplace which dictate that you have to look successful in order to somehow become successful; and by bicycle manufacturers dangling racer dreams in front of us that few of us can ever hope to catch.
But things are changing. And it's partly because of the internet, and China.
People are deciding that they want to live more within their means. They're cutting up their credit cards and learning to live on less money. They shop only when they actually need something, and learn how to maintain what they already own. And that includes bicycles.
Thanks to the internet, there are thousands of bicycle repair tutorials a keystroke away.
Thanks to China, when you need replacement parts, you can buy them yourself, online, for far less than you'd pay in a local shop.
And bike shop owners can do one of two things:
They can howl about how unfair it is. Those are the ones who will likely fold before too long.
Or they can adapt. Multi-purpose your space: serve coffee and lunch for the customer to eat while they wait for a simple repair. Teach repair classes for the simpler stuff and make more room on the board for the complex things that only trained mechanics should mess with.
Adapting also means running a leaner, smarter business. Because consumers WON'T stop buying on the cheap until they CAN'T anymore -- either because of trade restrictions and embargoes, or because of Peak Oil, or whatever else comes down the pike.
Some of us know that such a time might come in our lifetime. So we keep our skills handy and stock up on parts we've gleaned from other people's throwaways.
We repair derailleur springs and overhaul freewheels.
(Freewheels? Nobody rides those things anymore! Well, actually, they do. I do, and they work just fine.)
I am sitting on a secret stash of highly un-glamorous -- even somewhat rusty -- but perfectly functional bike parts and I pull from that stash to repair bikes that come my way.
I value department store bikes -- as long as they're whole and they can still roll, I can tune them up and make them rideable and safe. And that is perfectly and totally fine.
In the end, the bike-boom ship has sailed (it sailed in late 2008, and the number of people still pining for that time shocks me). We will never again see lots and lots of legitimate retail bike stores selling only used product and still operating at a profit. That will become the realm of the non-profit, charity organization which doesn't have to worry about doing more than breaking even and hanging on until the next grant cycle comes. Anyone else dealing in used bikes will be doing it out of their house, on a scale so small the IRS will shrug and leave them alone, because it's just not worth their time and manpower to go after the home mechanics of the world.
And things will stumble along as they are for a little while yet.
Meanwhile, I think I'll go ride my bike.