Sunday, March 01, 2020

The 24th Century Bike Shop

It's a sunny day in early March. The entry alarm beeps as two people walk through the front door of a little, independent bike and ski shop in a small town in northern New England.

One of them, a tall, robustly built man, says, "I'm interested in looking at what you have for bikes." He looks puzzled as he scans the floor for rows and rows of them.

The shop attendant leads the customer down to a corner of the sales floor, where eight or ten bikes are clustered together. "These are the dribs and drabs left over from last year. None of our best sellers are here because they...sold."

"I was hoping to replace my old bike with something that would be good for riding on the rail trail and places like that. Looks like you don't have much."

"At one time, that would have been a problem," says the shop attendant. "Not now, though. Computer! Recreational path bikes size extra large!"

The replicator hums and growls. The portal opens and disgorges a row of hybrids and comfort bikes. The customer walks up and down the row. He selects a couple to test ride.The replicator swallows the others and dissolves them into their constituent particles.  After test riding and summoning a few accessories from the replicator to add to his purchase, the remaining reject bike is reabsorbed as well, to await the next curious customer.

Of course you don't need to be told that this is not the 24th Century. We don't have a replicator. We do have a crowded corner stuffed with the remnants of last year's stock. All of our best sellers sold through before the end of September. Our stock wasn't too deep even at the start of the season, because that's the reality of a small independent shop in a frequently intemperate part of the Temperate Zone.

The apparent death of winter this year has brought out three seekers so far, all of them in the core demographic for this area: older adult path riders. Like most customers in any category, they are profoundly surprised that a shop would not have full stock at the moment they're looking for it, whether they've been anticipating it since last fall or the inspiration just struck them as they sat at a sunny window table in the nearby coffee shop. But the customer before them was equally disappointed that we did not have full stock in snowshoes this late in that season. Virtually all customers are understanding when you explain all the factors that lead to the unfortunate necessity of low stock levels, but I do have to wonder if, inside, they're not grumbling about a bunch of bullshit excuses.

Regardless of when winter ends, bike manufacturers don't offer long enough dating on early season purchases for a small shop in an uncooperative weather pattern sell enough bikes fast enough to pay invoices on time. Ninety days on a shipment received at the beginning of March would be due at the end of May. Briefly in the 1990s our selling season might have been active enough to meet a deadline like that. Now there doesn't seem to be anyone around until about the Fourth of July, and they've pretty well petered out by late August. In any recent year we've had to try to keep people patient until late April no matter what a winter looks like at the end. We're aided in that when the weather reverts to cold and nasty for a while, even though it complicates life in general to deal with late season snow.

This year is more complicated, because tariffs have driven up prices on products sourced in China, and there's that new disease keeping factories idle. How much was already manufactured and on the water before that? Will we be able to get bikes when we're finally able to order them? Will we even be able to get repair parts and accessories?

I guess while it's quiet I'll work on developing the replicator. It can't just be some plastic 3D printed bullshit. It has to be full quality at any price point. This may take a few weeks.

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