Sunday, March 05, 2023

People you don't want trickling on you

 Specialty retail is hard, but specialty retail in a small town is even harder. In a small town where the median income jumps by six figures in the summer, the machinery of trickle-down economics operates in plain sight.

 Back in the 1990s, slopping over a bit into the 21st Century, we operated under the philosophy, "Charge what you're worth, and be worth what you charge." Since then, the cost of tooling and the complexity of the systems we have to master has made it harder and harder to stand out and turn a profit. As each subcategory of bicycle becomes more narrowly focused and intricate, a few specialists emerge to cater to the dwindling number of addicts who can afford -- or think they can afford -- to pay whatever it costs to keep their chosen machines running. A town this small can't support all of those specialists, nor will it fund a generalist shop with well-equipped departments for every possible need. When the machines were simpler, we could do an excellent job, charge what was a decent price at the time, and only go broke very gradually. It was so gradual, we didn't even notice it. We were still having too much fun.

Summer is the busy season. It is nowhere near as busy as it was in the 1990s, but it's still more bustling than winter. Winter brings its own type of business, but without the second home crowd that swells the population by tens of thousands and raises the median income by hundreds of thousands for a couple of months.

In our year-round customer base, the income range covers everything from SNAP and Medicaid to stock portfolios and bragworthy adventure vacations. So we have some indigenous tricklers as well as the seasonal ones. Ideally, we wouldn't burn any of them off. In real life, however, some go away mad when things go sideways, and others turn out to cost more than they trickle.

The high-cost tricklers divide roughly into two categories: accident prone and abusive of their equipment, and outright deceitful. The deceitful may also be accident prone or abusive of their equipment, but they are the ones who make a stink afterwards and try to strong-arm you for warranty, or cover the tracks of their abuse before presenting an item for evaluation.

In a small town, you often have to maintain a working relationship with people in life outside of the shop. You may even be friends, or at least friendly. That makes the diplomacy more delicate when they want to support a local business and you know that whatever they buy is going to come back in pieces within a few days to a couple of months.

Some of these human booby traps manage to bugger up their bikes in ways that tie up a work stand for days, and/or call for parts that are very hard to get or very annoying to install. Given the way the latest bikes are designed, just about anything is very annoying to install.

It extends to ski season as well, especially when the misfortune magnet has a taste for higher-end equipment. That stuff is built for speed, not for durability.

In the animal world, insects that are toxic often have distinctive color patterns so that predators know to avoid them. In the retail world, we have to learn to identify the specimens that will end up forcing us to regurgitate the money that they put into our coffers. A refund may have costs attached that take more out of us than just the purchase price. Even if it just zeroes out, in all likelihood we didn't have the money long enough to make the tiny bit of interest that you might get from a sufficiently colossal bank balance. And credit card transactions in either direction have bank fees.

Both the merely jinxed and the outright duplicitous usually end up shopping elsewhere, relieving us of the diplomatic issue as they search for either the perfect place that sells things that never malfunction, or new suckers who haven't figured them out yet. But occasionally they return, forced by momentary need, or seized with nostalgia, or perhaps just hoping that we've forgotten the last time.

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