Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What's Wrong with the Bike Industry

I've been pondering this question for as long as I've been a part of the bike industry, which is to say, for as long as the bike industry has been pissing me off.  It was brought back to the forefront of my consciousness recently, when an acquaintance of mine, Bike Shop Girl, wrote this excellent piece: http://bikeshopgirl.com/2015/06/the-bike-industry-is-sick/

Arleigh knows her shit.  She's smart and experienced (which begs us ask why she still plays in the cesspool of the bike industry).  She lays out better than I can a lot of Big Problems with the industry, and her commenters, contrary to the typical trolls, lay out a few others that are important.  But they missed one, and it's particularly important to me.

One of the Big Problems she mentions (along with several of her commenters) is what I'm going to lump together into the category of Not Enough Money. This is an onion problem, with too many layers to count, and plenty of layers I don't know shit about, and I'm sure layers that I don't even know exist, but true to form, I'm going to distill it down anyway.  In the U.S, bikes are toys and as such are valued as toys.  We want them for as cheap as possible, we want to abuse them, we want to throw them away, and we want to replace them as cheaply as possible.  Because of this, the margin on bikes in the U.S. is razor thin and incapable of supporting bike shops (shops in the U.S. would go out of business if all they did was sell bikes; they make their money on parts, accessories, and service).  Because there is so little money to be made, budgets are always tight, and since payroll is almost always a shop's biggest category of overhead, employees are paid as little as possible, usually without benefits.  

So we start with workers who are paid as little as possible.  Most of those employees are bike geeks, and smarter than average when it comes to bikes (this is a generalization based on the anecdotal evidence of the employees with whom I've worked).  There is already an intrinsic interest in and motivation to learn about bikes and bike technology, and indeed, that's a big part of the job.

The problem is, the motivation is intrinsic, which by definition means there is no extrinsic motivator at play.  Unless it's a sales associate getting paid on commission, there is nothing to be gained by knowing more.

So the knowledge itself becomes the currency.

Victory when knowledge is currency is knowing more than the other person, be that an employee or customer.  The knowledge in itself causes no problems, but when your identity is so closely tied to how much you know, it becomes personal, and if your status as "smart" is challenged, you become defensive.  My hypothesis is this is the root cause of the condescending sales person and the grumpy mechanic, both of whom are frequently cited as the biggest problem with brick and mortar bike shops (and rightly so).  

It is why I started this blog.  It is why I so frequently get sucked into the same bullshit, asinine arguments in the comment section on blogs.  Admitting this makes me feel pathetic, but I long ago used up all the fucks I had to give, especially when it came to stroking my ego with my knowledge of spoke tension and my ability to overhaul an Ergolever, both skills that have next to zero value in this day and age.  

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