Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, bike shop... the first three are endangered or extinct, while the local bike shop is still around. But can it survive the retail revolution?

We have a curious relationship with our local bike shop. We’d hate it if it disappeared, but sometimes we seem to do everything in our power to hasten its demise.

The vicious price-cutting swept in by the internet has cut a swathe through our high streets, and changed our shopping habits. The LBS is as affected as any other shopkeeper, with massive amounts of trade simply disappearing online.

“Nobody is getting rich in the bike trade,” says John Styles, an experienced sales rep for a bike and clothing brand, and a man who estimates he’s been inside 600 different bike shops and still visits four each working day.

“Everything is competed down to its lowest possible price. As a result most people in the bike trade — shop owners, mechanics, sales people — earn 20-30 per cent less than they would in an equivalent industry.”

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Carlton Reid, executive editor of BikeBiz, a magazine for the trade, says: “It’s so easy to shop online now that it’s the new normal. Of course you buy your tubes and tyres online. Why wouldn’t you? It’s cheaper!

“Bike shops used to make a lot of money on, for instance, tubes. They’re bought for pennies and then sold at expensive prices. That’s just not happening now.”

Prologue bike shop Harrogate by Russell Ellis 4 crop

Bike shops like Prologue can sometimes suffer from acting as showrooms for online sales. Photo: Russell Ellis

Added to the ruthless price war, bike shops have to cope with ‘showrooming’, as customers touch, squeeze, prod and feel, take up the staff time by soliciting advice — and then go and buy the same item online cheaper.

But despite showrooming and online competition, bike shops are holding on, and in many cases they are thriving.

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“The LBS is proving very adaptable. More shops are opening than closing. In my patch I have seen perhaps 30 new shops opening and only five or six closing,” says Styles.

Reid adds: “I’ve been staggered by their resilience. The rest of the high street has died around them but somehow the LBS has survived. If you’re in the right place, selling the right stuff and you have the right approach — which is to be proactive and offer services you can’t get online — they’re a good place to be and owners can make a tasty living.”

Prologue bike shop: coffee, cake and a bike shop. Photo: Russell Ellis

Prologue: coffee, cake and a bike shop. Photo: Russell Ellis

So what makes a successful bike shop in this day and age? It seems that, increasingly, although it is a gradual trend, bike shops can now be divided into two types. It’s not a neat dividing line, but the trend is for a new breed bike shops to offer more in the way of services although they still want to sell goods,  while the traditional operations need to sell lots of goods, and services are a bonus.

The new breed has a cafe attached — and the coffee is as good as you’d find in Milan — there’s a big screen showing bike racing, a slew of high-end brands, boutique bikes, the latest in bells and whistle bike fitting and perhaps even a white-painted room off the main sales area offering physiological testing.

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The traditional LBS is still largely to be found on the high street, though increasingly outside of the high rental pitches in the big city centres unless they’re a chain, full of kids’ bikes at Christmas, stocking a wide variety of brands, with long-serving staff and is often a part of the local cycling community through promotion or sponsorship of local racing or events.

Meanwhile, a third type of bike shop is emerging — and may be poised for big growth. On out of town or edge of town sites, ‘big sheds’ are springing up. Huge amounts of floor space are devoted to bikes, clothing and equipment and the advantage the ‘sheds’ can offer is to carry enormous amounts of stock.

Buyers visit in the reasonably certain knowledge that what they want is going to be available there and then.

We took a look at two types of LBS in the cycling heartland of Yorkshire.

Prologue bike shop Harrogate by Russell Ellis 5 crop

Prologue Performance Cycling, Harrogate. Photo: Russell Ellis

New breed bike shop: Prologue, Harrogate

Prologue is the brainchild of ex-marketing man John Read. You can tell. The shop has a distinctive brand and logo: It All Starts Here (Prologue? Get it?)

It’s reflected in branded shop kit and an eye-catching yellow and black colour scheme that’s everywhere on the premises, website and Facebook page.

The walls are draped in high end bikes and carbon wheelsets, a pristine workshop can be glimpsed off the sales floor, and there’s a procession of customers disappearing behind a closed door to have a custom bike fit or a body composition test from the shop’s resident physiologist. Yes, they have one.

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But Read’s also a long-time club cyclist, dyed-in-the-wool roadie and a big bike racing fan, and as much as Prologue is the very essence of the on-trend, new breed bike shop, it’s also a passion project.

“This is what I’ve always wanted,” he tells me over the excellent espresso in the cafe. “I’ve spent years meticulously researching and planning it.”

Prologue bike shop Harrogate by Russell Ellis 3 crop

Prologue Performance Cycling: new-breed approach with traditionally skilled mechanics. Photo: Russell Ellis

There’s a suspicion that cyclists can be a bit sniffy about these designer velo palaces. We are not noted for our unquestioning acceptance of new trends, especially if they’re accompanied by higher prices.

It’s a danger that Read has been acutely aware of and has worked hard to overcome with a careful eye on customer relations. An old school pegboard in the cafe is used to display information (sucked from Strava, naturally) celebrating the area’s most prolific climber or longest ride of the week. “That’s been amazingly popular,” smiles Read.

The shop runs regular rides, puts on talks and events and is promoting a traditional reliability ride. It’s managed, carefully, to win fans even amongst the hard-to-convince factions of local clubs.

But Read doesn’t compete with the internet on price, leading to interesting exchanges on local Facebook groups as cyclists seek out the best deal. “Who on earth pays those prices?” questioned one poster recently. “People who live in Harrogate,” came the reply.

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“Fighting the internet on price is just a race to the bottom,” says Read. “We have to provide something different, something with added value and we try to do that by offering services you can’t get on the web, as well as making Prologue a hub for the cycling community.

“We have to consider pricing — all businesses do. But we reward regular customers with a loyalty card, rather than desperately trying to match Wiggle on a 105 rear mech.”

Prologue Performance Cycling: it doesn't look like a bike shop from the outside. Photo: Russell Ellis

Prologue Performance Cycling: it doesn’t look like a bike shop from the outside. Photo: Russell Ellis

Interestingly, more floor space is devoted to the cafe at Prologue than to bike sales.

“The cafe is a great marketing tool. We’ve become a hub for local clubs to meet and start or finish rides. All these people wander through to the shop to look at the bikes, apparel and accessories.”

Prologue is coming up to its first anniversary. It was launched amidst the Grand Départ fever that gripped Harrogate and Yorkshire last year and predictably it did well on the Tour’s coat-tails. But Read has come through his first winter, traditionally a tough time for bike shops, in good shape.

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“We only offer premium brands and most of our bike sales are custom builds. These take time so as well as winter bikes, we’re selling summer bikes in the colder months in readiness for the new season,” Read explains.

“For me it was always about providing services you can’t get from the internet — in essence a one-stop shop for cyclists, whatever their level.”

Drake's Cycles bike shop Leeds. Photo: Russell Ellis

Drake’s Cycles bike shop Leeds. Photo: Russell Ellis

Traditional high street shop: Drake’s Cycles, Leeds

Bike shops don’t come much more traditional than Drake’s. Now owned by 35-year old Matthew Drake, he’s the third generation of Drake putting the people of Leeds on two wheels.

“My grandfather started the shop in 1951. They did everything — bikes, but also toys, mopeds, even records. It was a bit like that Two Ronnies sketch when a customer comes in asking for fork handles,” he recalls.

When Drake’s father took it over in 1969, an era-defining bike changed the shop forever. “The Raleigh Chopper came along — and my dad turned it into a shop full of bikes. We just grew and grew. We moved to new premises in 1997 and we’ve never looked back.”

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And it’s that ethos — “a shop full of bikes” — that has seen Drake’s thrive. With four full-time staff and utilitarian premises stuffed to the gunwales with bikes from £300 up to £5,000, Drake knows what works for him.

“We sell bikes, pure and simple. We have 200 on display and we store another 600. If someone comes in wanting to try a bike, we can usually have them sitting on the right size immediately.

“If we can’t, then within 15 minutes we can have a bike in their size and their price range built up. It’s pretty simple: if you want to sell bikes, you have to have a big bike shop with lots of bikes in it.”

Drake has reacted to the internet revolution, albeit reluctantly. “We were forced into going online because that’s how people want to buy now,” he says.

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“They research and compare prices and they want the bike at the cheapest possible price. Some customers will drive from a long way off to get that. Or we have to ship it 200 miles to them, which has its problems.

“We do well selling off older stock at good prices. Models change so fast and a lot of those sales of older stock come from online.”

Drake has seen clothing, parts and accessories sales decline in the face of the internet competition but he remains optimistic about his bike shop.

“The internet won’t take over completely. People still want to sit on a bike, pedal it on the turbo and touch and feel it. They want the right size and they want that extra bit of personal service that we can offer. We’ve been here since 1951 and we’re still here. I am optimistic about the future.”

Drake's Cycles bike shop Leeds by Russell Ellis 3

The well used workbench in Drake’s Cycles. Photo: Russell Ellis

The curse of show rooming: bike shops’ biggest threat

“I have been inside a bike shop and seen people asked to leave because they are so obviously showrooming,” says Carlton Reid. “The more forward-thinking bike shops now have policies for dealing with it. They have to do this because it’s such a threat.

“And customers who showroom have to recognise and accept that if an LBS goes bust it’s partly their responsibility.”

Showrooming is an understandable habit. But checking a bike out in the flesh and buying it cheaper online is an emotive issue for the retail bike trade.

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“Customers need to realise that being showroomed is a difficult and emotional experience for a bike shop manager or owner,” says John Styles. “Advice is not free. The person giving that advice has spent years building it up and the time he has just taken to give that advice could have been spent servicing a bike, which would actually make him some money.

“To see the customer walk out of the shop knowing that he’s going to use that advice and buy the item cheaper online is upsetting.”

Both Reid and Styles believe that showrooming will be stamped out as bike shops protect their livelihoods.

A shop full of bikes stacks up for the old school Drake’s. Photo: Russell Ellis

A shop full of bikes stacks up for the old school Drake’s. Photo: Russell Ellis

The experts think that certain brands will simply vanish from the LBS in response to showrooming. Styles says: “It costs money to rent a store, pay business rates, lighting, heat, staffing and insurance. Every piece of space in the store has to earn its keep. If a product is constantly showroomed, it will sooner or later have to be replaced with something else. That might be a coffee area, fit studio or different type of product. Showroomed brands and products will disappear from high street stores.

“The question isn’t about whether stores will survive, they have proved resilient and adaptive for the last 30 years of tough trading. It’s about which brands will survive the polarisation into becoming internet-purchased or high street-purchased brands.

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“The days of finding the same product in both places are limited. You can probably expect big changes in your local store in the next 12 months.”

Reid agrees: “I think you will see a growth in shop-branded kit and equipment because that is more resistant to discounting. The big brands — Specialized, Trek and Giant, for instance — are protecting the interests of shops because they are not sold online cheaper. But I think we could see a position where it’s almost impossible to buy Shimano, for example, on the high street because the big online retailers are now selling Shimano cheaper than the trade price, which shops pay.

“There’s a pretty simple message to cyclists if they value their local bike shop: use it or lose it.”

This article was originally printed in the March 26, 2015 issue of Cycling Weekly 

  • Alasdair Innes

    Prologue, along with Chevin Cycles are my local bike shops in Harrogate. Both great shops, both offering different things. Prologue is the end point for 8 out of 10 of our clubs Saturday and Sunday club runs and as a club we have supported both the retail and the coffee shop side (a lot!) John has done a great job over the past year in building Prologue up as a hub for cycling in Harrogate 🙂

    I would never buy on-line unless I could not get it at my LBS, and then I would always give them the chance to order it in. Chevin have helped me out on servicing and little bits like truing wheels at the last minute more times than I care to remember, so it is only fair to support them… and they are Bianchi stockists.

    And we all know that Bianchi are the prettiest bikes ever made 😉

  • David

    Shimano is the biggest problem the bicycling industry has had in the last 25 years. They managed to push almost all their competitors out of business, not always with honest practices (for example knowingly suing SunTour and SRAM without any legal basis for it in order to financially exhaust them), and got a firm grip in the whole business.

    Bike manufacturers have their business driven by Shimano to a huge extent these days and since the early ’90s.

    For bike shops this means that they no longer can adequately profit either from the assembly of a bespoke cycle, or from repairs that require drivetrain or brake spare parts. Actually, adding insult to injury, Shimano benefits from bike shop mechanics fitting their products for almost nothing.

    Shimano is the largest company involved in cycling,yettheir behavior and business model is one of the biggest issues for many of the rest of the actors involved.

  • uerie

    A sports injury clinic is not a bike shop though. Also, I disagree that comfort and power need be somewhow mutually exclusive.

  • Iain Gray

    Bike fits have there place. If you are happy with your position, are comfortable and don’t want to optimise power over comfort, then they are a waste.
    I benefited from mine because I was getting two sources of pain in my knees using conventional wisdom. My Bikefit was provided by a sports injury clinic though (NJD @ Clitheroe). I can now ride 100+ km with no pain.

  • Phil Jones

    I agree – several people have told me my riding position is bad/crap etc – but it’s comfortable for me – I don’t really care if it suits anyone else as I’m the one riding it – and I’m not going to part with some cash for someone to tell me the same.

  • Phil Jones

    Had both good and bad experiences with LBS – some have involved the
    staff being so opinionated that I’ve been made to feel belittled
    regarding my handlebar configuration needs (and I did buy online as a
    result) and got challenged by staff in the same shop about my views on
    tyre slime. On the other hand, I’ve had excellent service from their
    LBS competitors when buying bikes for my wife and I which cost a grand
    apiece – so I suppose the winners are the guys who treat the customers
    well.

    The showrooming thing is a danger, but also, some customers (me included) will shop around and eventually go back to the same place to buy having given some thought – this was the case when I bought my first ‘serious’ bike – the bloke in the shop admitted that he thought we were time wasters and weren’t going to buy.

  • ueirie

    What do you mean by “trolling”? Bike fits are a scam designed to extract money from the gullible. There is nothing a “bike fitter” in a shop can tell you that wasn’t common knowledge decades ago. There is no such thing as a perfect fit, and paying a load of money is not going to get you one.

  • David

    I’m going to assume/hope you’re merely trolling and not downplaying the importance of a proper bike fit from someone that understands the importance of proper position on a bicycle.

  • Morksmith

    The other big problem is that cyclists know what they want – the internet offers infinite choice, which the LBS cannot keep up with.

    In the old days you would have ‘made do’ – when parts weren’t available any more – now you can get everything on eBay etc…

    When I was putting together my latest bike I did buy from bike shops, but all over London – finding one store that had the right nitto bars – another that has the exact Brooks saddle I wanted etc… nobody has it all…

  • Dan Dg Gottlieb

    Sounds like you are very unfortunate with workshops for both your car and bike. Did you confront them with it to give them a chance to explain themselve?

  • ueirie

    Ah yes. Bike fits. Pay some stranger hundreds of quid to adjust your seat and bars less well than you could have done yourself.

  • David Bassett

    Is this John Styles the one and only JP ?

  • dave

    In my experience LBS are like the local car garage, charge you for something that doesn’t need doing or suggesting you need something new to make you drivetrain perform better! I once tested out my theory! Where they said my 1 week old cassette needed changing!! Also the time the charged me for for fitting new hub bearings when they only regreased the old ones. But because most of these shops are fronted by Nathan barleyesque robots people seem to put more trust in them?!?

  • Paddy

    Any bike shop which has a business model based on selling branded products at discounted prices is doomed to failure. A new model based on own brand products and income from bike fits, and ancilllary services is the way forward.