Monday, January 27, 2014

The Carbon Commodity Conundrum: What Causes It? (Pt 2)

A long time ago, many bikes were made in the U.S.  Then, still a long time ago, some brands started making bikes overseas, and some brands were started overseas.  At that time, a long time ago, overseas manufacturing was sort of behind the scenes.  Trek and Specialized proudly proclaimed "Designed in the U.S.A." and you had to search to find the little "Made in Taiwan" sticker on the head tube.  Many shops just removed the Taiwan sticker.  If customers knew, they didn't seem to care.  

That seemed to change in the late 90s and early 2000s.  I can't cite a specific time when overseas manufacturing transitioned from being unknown to being a secret to being just the way it is, but I was working in shops when it happened, which would've been during those years.  I recall many conversations with customers about economics and trying to explain why you could have a Trek 820 for $329.99, or made in the U.S.A.  But you couldn't have both.

People accepted that (sometimes grudgingly), and the only proof needed to back up that statement is the fact that today, something like 96% of all the bicycles sold in the U.S. are made overseas (this according to a study by the NBDA.  That statistic includes all bikes sold through all sales channels, including department stores).  People just wanted a cheap bike, and overseas manufacturing delivered it.  I'd hear grumbles about how Trek or Cannondale used to be made in the U.S. but people still bought them, and there was no problem because people couldn't know about the economics of overseas manufacturing.  At that time, you couldn't look on Hong Fu or Alibaba to see something that looked remarkably like what you wanted to buy for a fraction of the price you were seeing on the sales floor at the bike shop.  This made it easier to trust marketers and sales people.  When they said this bike was more expensive for reasons X, Y, and Z, and that it was worth it, we accepted that, bought the bike, and enjoyed it.  Of course, there were exceptions.  There is always the customer who cannot view a bike as anything but a recreational toy, and for that customer, bikes should not be expensive because toys are not expensive.

But now, we have this pseudotransparency offered by the interwebs.  When we see the new offerings by Brand X, and we then jump on the interwebs and find a Hong Fu that looks almost exactly the same, and the Hong Fu is half the price, we can't help but wonder how we're being ripped off.  For the purposes of this argument, that couldn't have happened before the internet.  Yes, there were industry insiders with access to catalogs offered by overseas manufacturers, but a paper catalog is much easier to control than a website, so customers never had a clue.  Now, when the sales person tries to sell you Brand X, it's harder to believe the marketing.  It's harder to believe that Brand X is better enough to justify paying what you perceive to be a premium price.

This is really what has caused the Carbon Commodity Conundrum.  What we're talking about is value, an inherently subjective variable.  A Hong Fu, no matter whether it is a good frame or not, decreases the value of all carbon frames that look like it, simply because it exists and we can see how much it would cost to own it.

But so the fuck what.

This is why it matters: because there is a difference.  Stick with me through a painfully obvious analogy.  Let's go shopping for black t-shirts.  Let's go to a nice clothing store, not to Walmart, someplace where we'll get service.  So we go to a nice place, and the guy we talk to tells us how the black t-shirts they sell are Egyptian cotton, stitched at a reputable place in Colombia where the workers make a decent wage and the quality is high.  He gives us a once over, guesses our size, but takes a tape measure to our neck and sleeve to make sure.  His guess was right.  He tells us these shirts are cut longer so they stay tucked in.  They add a little Lycra to the fabric mix so they stretch a little when you move.  They're great shirts.  And they cost $45.  Fuck?!

Why the fuck would I pay $45 bucks for a fucking black t-shirt when I can go to Walmart and get a 3-pack for $9.99?  Better yet, why would I go to fucking Walmart when I can hop on the good ol' interwebs and get em delivered to my door?  I'll bet that guy at the men's store was full of shit too.  Lycra?  I don't see any Lycra?  How does it feel?  The fuck do I care how it feels?  Feels good enough.  Looks good enough.  That guy and his fucking shop are fucking gougers!

See what I did there?  Sub out "carbon frame" for "black t-shirt" and you have the carbon commodity conundrum.  Here's the rub: in the above, painfully obvious analogy, there is a difference, and we could get proof - we could look at the tag on the shirt.  With frames, there is no such tag, and when there is, we often choose to not believe it.  High modulus?  The fuck does that mean?  Why should I pay more for it?  Gougers!  Open mold but custom specified layup?  Looks the same as a fucking Hong Fu.  Gougers!!!

In some cases, there's not going to be a difference between the Hong Fu and the Brand X, and we truly are getting ripped off.  Let me state emphatically that I do not believe this happens often, and certainly not by any of the Big 5.  In more cases, the differences are real, but possibly the value therein is overstated.  That's marketing.  And I think in still more cases, the majority of them in fact, that there really is a difference, it matters to some riders and not to others, but that nobody is trying to rip anybody off.  You see any mansions in the Hamptons and private jets that came from the bike industry?  Fuck, you see any second homes or nice cars?  There's just not enough money in the industry to make a true rip off worth it.

So.  Find a nice bike shop.  If, when you walk in, you're not greeted with a smile, find another shop.  If the sales process doesn't involve you answering a lot of questions about the kind of riding you like, find another shop.  If you feel alienated because you don't wear lycra, have a neck tat, shred the gnar, etc, find another fucking shop as fast as you can find the door, and don't be afraid to throw a big ol fuck you over your shoulder on the way out.  When you find a nice shop, listen.  We've been doing this a long time and we like you.  We want you to like your bike.

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