Tuesday, May 10, 2016

How competition helped us in the 1990s

Wolfeboro has been in a bicycling recession since the early part of the 21st Century. Cycling numbers appear stable, but definitely well below their height through the 1990s and the first part of the road bike wave that rose up around the turn of the century.

These days, we only manage to feel overwhelmingly busy by having only a couple of people on the schedule on most days. But with that short roster, if anyone goes away, the others have to put in more time to make sure we have minimal coverage on every day we're open.

Boom times don't last. The bustle of the 1990s seemed like it would never end, but it was based on temporary conditions. The surge in the bike business coincided with popular interest in small-town New England. In Wolfeboro, an existing summer home tradition brought multiple generations of prosperous families, while proximity to jobs in southern New Hampshire and nearby Massachusetts brought super-commuters who wanted to situate their families in idyllic small towns while they did the heroic highway haul to bring home the paycheck. To service all this, contractors and land pimps gathered like flies on a big corpse. Good times!

The spike in year-round population meant the schools had to expand. That meant more building, more maintenance, more buses, more bus drivers, more teachers, more administrators. More kids meant more toys. And the 1980s had already seriously promoted the idea of adults playing outside, with slogans like "he who dies with the most toys wins."

It was a great time to be selling the toy everyone wanted. But we know how that goes.

The competition between bike shops in this pre-Internet age could be vicious. The business values of the 1980s met the influx of cash to produce things like Zane's in Connecticut, and a corrosive climate of slander as shops battled to gain market share. In Wolfe City, with a year-round population of about 7,000 people, three shops tried to operate year-round.

We were there first. We're the last one left.

While we bemoaned the loss of sales revenue, and the sleazy gossip people told us they heard about us in the other shops, our repair business kept us alive. Those other shops couldn't seem to find a good mechanic, no matter how many rocks they turned over, offering minimum wage and an employee discount on all the shiny trinkets. But that wasn't the only way competition helped us. It also kept us from having to grow large enough to feed the voracious market all by ourselves.

When things went down, it was like that pinhole puncture you can't quite feel at first. Then things get squishy. Then, after several miles, you definitely feel the bump of the valve stem. But, unlike a puncture, we couldn't just put a new tube in and wail it up to full pressure again. To push the metaphor a bit further, we could only do as well as our frame pump would allow. You know what I mean: you will probably never get it up to race pressure again, and it will take hours of tedious labor even to get close.

If we had become the giant powerhouse of a regional shop, we would have to feed that beast now on the scraps that come to us. Mountain biking has become a destination resort activity, not a daily dose of fun. Road bikers are fed a steady diet of newer and more complicated parts by an industry that hopes their customers become addicted to buying things and discarding them. The industry categorizes riders and tries to feed them tailored products, rather than capitalizing on the kind of rational anarchy that thrived through the 1970s and '80s, and that held on through the 1990s while the "innovators" of mountain biking repeatedly shot themselves in the foot.

Shop staff in the age of Big Bicycle are expected to wear the company shirt and spout the company line. Expertise means being expert in the company's products and the proper care, feeding and euthanasia thereof, on a steady schedule of obsolescence.

Our little outpost on the banks of the Big Lake will never be that shop. We don't have the year-round revenue stream to make us big enough to look attractive to Big Bicycle's bean counters. We have to rely on our ingenuity to be able to deal with whatever comes through our doors, including nothing at all. We have to pay full freight, get the crappiest terms, and deal with our handful of customers who still believe in the old idea that you could buy a nice bike and enjoy it for years. And by that they mean decades.

Our mechanics take a perverse pride in figuring out how to fix what the industry wants us to throw away. It is born of necessity. We can't always just order a new part, even if one is still made. Especially during summer visitor season, we get thrown these challenges with short deadlines. They're more fun than the routine, boring bullshit that makes up the bulk of our repair income. We can't always win, but we always try.

1 comment:

greatpumpkin said...

The context is decisive. Change the context, change how things look. Consider that when bicycles were invented, the context for the first owners was riding a horse--they were all wealthy gentlemen who owned and rode horses. Later, as cycling became affordable transportation for the masses, the context was walking or riding in a public conveyance. Then the context became driving a car. Now one context for all technology is the mobile smartphone, an expensive device with a designed obsolescence of about two years. Millions of people are becoming trained to throw away their technological wonder toys at regular intervals. By contrast, the Victrola I once owned was desgned and built to last for centuries of use--no one having by that time anticipated the obsolescence of the 78 RPM record. So no wonder that people expect no more life from their other possessions. You and I know that one good bicycle can last several lifetimes. Pity them who do not.