Thursday, December 20, 2012

Big Bicycle strong arms little shops

Ever since the mountain bike boom attracted lots of money to the bike industry, big manufacturers have been  squeezing small independent shops. During the 1990s we were threatened by every one of our major brands with the loss of our dealership if we did not increase our preseason commitments and dollar volume in their brand. And they haven't really let up much since the bottom dropped out.

What Big Bicycle does not acknowledge is that the small independent shop in a rural small town is their far-flung outpost, the vital capillary in their great circulatory system. If they want to cut off the blood flow, they'd better expect to lose the limb to gangrene. People will show up on vacation needing a proprietary part and be stuck because Big Bicycle tried to take a greedy grasp of the market.

Cannondale did it to us. We dropped them when consumer demand dwindled to the point where any floor stock from them was dead weight. That left our local, and any visiting, Cannondale owners high and dry if they needed Headshok service or any of Cannondale's other corporately-controlled widgets.

Specialized threatened us with it several times when they started getting big for their britches in the mountain bike boom. Most recently they did it again, and this time the shop took the bait. Our territory rep told us this was it. He couldn't run interference for us on this anymore. He told us we had to place that big bike and parts order or kiss the line goodbye.

Personally I would have said goodbye. I hate to be pushed around. But Specialized is our last large name.

We declined to open with Trek because of their heavy-handed policies. Who do these bike companies think they are? Pharmaceutical manufacturers? They made the mistake a couple of decades ago of thinking they could act like computer companies and get people to junk their barely-used stuff for newer, faster models that did more tricks. The problem is, bicycles don't get faster. The engine has not changed. You can make it lighter (at a cost), but the engine will adapt to the lighter load and simply relax more, thank you very much. Pretty soon the Big Hill feels like a Big Hill again. Headwinds still suck the life out of you. You get wet when it rains and you worry whenever you lock the thing and leave it in a public place.

I'm not sure what we're going to do with a couple of cases of comfort bike 26-inch tires that weigh about 30% more and cost 50% more than our previous offering. If they last 50% longer we will sell fewer of them. If not we will look like scum for selling them.

The helmets look okay. The gloves are fine. But the seat bags, while interestingly designed, look cheap and flimsy. We also had to buy a bunch of wheel sets. Kids! Start jumping your bikes off big drops and slamming into curbs again!

The rep who talked us in to this left the company immediately afterwards, but I bet it wasn't because he flimflammed us into buying bushels of crap we'll have trouble selling. More likely it's because he didn't do it sooner and more often to more accounts. But of course no one will discuss it. Confidentiality and all that.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Time for a career move?

As the shop sinks ever deeper into the pitiless ocean, the owners look for heavy things they can heave over the side. I have not yet been singled out as one of them, but they've been estimating my weight by eye. Last week I almost didn't get paid because my effort to help my colleague George set up a nice display of bikes for someone who had spent nearly $5,000 purchasing them at our shop interfered with our warm welcome for one unannounced teenager from the ski team showing up to wax his skis for free.

Irrational panic has set in. It is aided by a pre-existing tendency to be irrational at the best of times. The employees they need to meet the basic needs of operating a shop with two doors and rooms that can't be surveyed from a single central point seem like dead weight to them when no one comes in. I sympathize, but they have no other options, since one of the two family members young and lucid enough to come in and work as slave labor refuses to spend more than a few hours on two separate days in the shop. That leaves only one overworked owner and a labor pool of three hourly-wage employees to sprinkle over the schedule. Of the three employees, one is a retiree with a sufficient pension, so he takes off when he feels like it. The other one is balancing his need for the income from this job with the other factors in his life that lead him to take some fairly lengthy trips at times. So that leaves me. But I've been told I'm such a liability in the customer service department that the bookkeeper "finds it really hard to write your check."

After 23 years with the company that's pretty hard to hear. But you reap what you sow. Evolution is a cold bitch, and it's about to select against me. Twenty-three years be damned. If I'm not worth paying, I'm not worth paying. The past is dead and gone. The future is a dream.

The late Bill Call, my friend who died of colon cancer a couple of years ago, once told me that being a dishwasher is a pretty good job. Easy to get, easy to leave and it's generally yours as long as you can stand it and you get the dishes clean enough to pass a health inspection. Sure the pay isn't great, but I've lived on that little before. And there's no chance I'll break out and offend customers. I just have to get along with a few coworkers and keep up with the work load. Nothing to make, nothing to fine-tune, just dirty things and clean things.

It helps that I know I have no future. Grunt jobs are harder when you think you're meant for something greater. I've had plenty of time to figure out that I'm not. However many times I've pulled the bike shop's chestnuts out of the fire with an ingenious fix, it's worth nothing now that people aren't spending money on anything we sell or requiring service on things we repair. In a hundred years people might be riding bicycles a lot, and valuing simple ones that last a long time, but I'll be dead by then. Things will get worse before they get better for my kind. Nothing brilliant has flowed from my pen. I have not improved the world because the world cannot be improved, only experienced for as long as you are permitted to live.

According to the Houston Chronicle website, prospects for dishwashers are expected to improve through 2020. There's job security. Of course once the word gets out it will become more competitive. One might need at least two years of college, preferably with a business major, to get the really good positions.

Depending on where I find work in this rural area, bike commuting might be over. The truly efficient grunt does not own a home, so he can migrate to a more conveniently located sleazy rental with each job change.

I don't know what will happen to the bike customers who relied on my expertise whether they knew it or not. Certainly they will be greeted with lavish courtesy by whoever might work at the shop for as long as it stays in business. I understand that's really what matters anyway. Anyone who believes otherwise is awfully hard to pay.

It's not over yet. I am still scheduled to show up and man the pumps for the foreseeable future. I don't know how to sweeten it for them when they have to force their pen across that wretched check I didn't earn, but I'll keep cashing it as long as they keep writing it. And start noticing where all the restaurants are.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Last ride of 2012

Today's 15 mile commute was probably the last bike ride I'll take before 2013. Tomorrow a snowstorm is supposed to move in with some pretty thick stuff before the end of our work day. Next week and through the week of Christmas, holiday needs are going to keep me in the car. By the time it's over I bet my park-and-ride parking space will be a snowbank. I'll need to come up with other ways to reduce my driving and maintain some semblance of fitness.

The night was crisp and cold, 26 degrees at the start. Jupiter and a scattering of stars reflected from the water and fresh ice of the lakes. A thin crescent moon settled toward the western horizon. My headlight flooded the trail with blue-white light.

People on the path have commented on the power of that light since I started using it. Wednesday night, four teenagers in a cloud of cigarette smoke, standing along the trail in town said, "Hey, that's a bright light! It looks like a car or something!" Farther out a miniature schnauzer ran up to me yapping, followed by a bigger, smooth-coated dog. The people with them also remarked on the brightness of the light.

Last week a police car drove up quickly to the crossing at Whitten Neck Road. It pulled in as I approached the crossing, then turned and drove away. I wonder if someone had called me in, thinking a motorcyclist was poaching the path. I love pushing that big light around. At a walking pace it reaches nearly full intensity, but I get to see it burn brighter and whiter as I speed up.

As winter advances I might figure out how to do some ski commuting from a closer parking place to town, provided it's plowed out. Or I might just drive all the way and take a walk. With free use of the groomed trails, one might think I could do that, but the temperature swings we've had in the past several winters make night skiing unrewarding if not outright hazardous. There's no chance I'll get any of the good stuff during the day. So a morning trudge on whatever is on the rail trail sounds like the best bet. The scenery is pretty and most of the dog doo will be frozen.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Lunch Interrupted

In a small retail store lunch is taken when the opportunity presents itself.

The most interesting lunch interruption I ever experienced came after a long series of failed attempts to get some time alone with my sandwich when I worked in a small outdoor outfitter store in Annapolis, Maryland. One after another, annoying people came in with questions that did not lead to sales or to interesting conversations. At last, they seemed to have finished with me. I sat on a stool behind the front counter, my back to the front window and the door and raised the sandwich to my lips. Immediately I heard the clang of the door chime and turned to see a slightly unkempt individual who looked like he could be crazy. He pointed over my shoulder out the window.

"Look, it's the space shuttle," he said.

That's it. He was definitely crazy. Then I turned to look and there was the space shuttle, flying low and slow over the old Parole shopping plaza on the back of its 747 transport plane.

Today's interruption was not that interesting. You can't beat something as weird as the space shuttle, but I have also gotten harder to wow over the years.

We have a pact here at the shop that whoever is eating should have the best chance to finish doing so  before some annoying bumbledub gets to lurch in and demand attention. That being said, a lot of the time I'll be trying to python down my sandwich and everyone out on the sales floor will apparently be abducted by aliens or something. I'll hear the tentative, "hellooooo...!" from the workshop door while I'm sitting a the lunch desk we call the Bayview Cafe.

I'm really good at pretending I can't hear people. It's even better when they can't see me, but not necessary. So when someone came up the back stairs right after I sat down I didn't even twitch when he said loudly, "ANYBODY AROUND IN THE BIKE SHOP?" Let the guy who had just finished lunch take care of it.

He spotted the boss at the front register. The sound of his voice receded. Then the sound of both of them grew louder as they came back.

" son is building bamboo frames in the Philippines. I was wondering if your customers would be interested in anything like that," he was saying. He told a little more about the origins of the company and stated that he thought there were only a couple of other players in the business, "one in California that builds them in Africa and another one in the Philippines."

I could think of Calfee and Panda right off the top of my head. I was pretty sure Calfee was the one doing the bit in Africa. I didn't think either one was in the Philippines. A quick Google search on bamboo bicycles yields plenty of leads to follow to other companies well before getting to his son's. But I don't enjoy blowing people out of the water the way I used to. Besides, Bambike seems like a great little company with a nice philosophy.

The frame was surprisingly heavy. Calfee's site said they engineer the frame to rider weight, so perhaps this one was for someone fairly substantial. Bam is a different company, but the same design principle could apply. I don't know if we could move any here, but as interruptions to my lunch go it was a lot better than a stinky pair of hockey skates, even if it wasn't the space shuttle.