What’s the difference between a bike shop and a coffee shop? About five years’ time.
A growing number of bike shops seem to resemble stylish coffee bars with designed interiors that cater for a lifestyle rather than the rude tasks of transport or competition. This trend isn’t everywhere but visit London, Hong Kong or Sydney and you’ll find places selling cappuccinos alongside cogs and cleats.
Bike shops come in all shapes and sizes from a roadside stall in India selling tubes and tires to a more typical outlet selling kids bikes and basic “mountain bikes” for adult transport. Instead what I’m talking about here is the kind of shop readers of this blog might visit, a place that’s road-cycling orientated.
Visit such a shop in, say, Italy and frames will hang on the walls, bikes are arranged in rows, there will some shelving for clothing and components are housed like museum-pieces in glass cabinets. Behind the counter there’s a range of spare parts on the shelves and out the back, a small workshop. Maybe it’s run by an ex-pro or a former team mechanic. You know the place.
But there’s been a trend for new metropolitan bike shops that have carefully designed interiors that often feature wooden flooring, exposed brick work. I’ve been enjoying The Bike Lane and it’s been filmed in Northside Wheelers, a shop in Melbourne – pictured above. You might have heard of the Rapha Cafés in New York, London and Tokyo.
By now you get the picture. But what’s behind these shops? We can look to another sector, the book trade. In many countries this is dominated by Amazon, an online retailer. Some book shops carry on regardless but others have responded, perhaps by carving out a niche in a particular specialism to become a hub. Many are trying to turn a visit to a book shop into an experience with literary evenings or book clubs and offering coffee and snacks for visitors to enjoy whilst shoppers browse. In other words it’s no longer a visit to browse shelved publications followed by a transaction on the way out.
Some bike retailers have responded in a similar way. Like books many bike parts are commodities that can easily be ordered online. You know the deal: a warehouse is cheaper that an urban shop with its rents and taxes and more savings come from the economy of scale. Even shopping for clothing and shoes is easy given returns policies designed to ease anxiety about ordering the wrong size. As more people go online to shop for their bike parts, the less shelf space demanded in your local bike shop for inner tubes, bar tape and other basic items… and the more room to install a vintage espresso machine and hang evocative decorations on the walls. What remains are the things you can’t buy online:
- advice from experienced staff. You can buy a frame online but getting the right size, geometry and position on the bike is another matter. Online retailers are countering with consumer reviews but generally intangibles like advice and experience cannot be put into a virtual shopping basket
- a comprehensive workshop, often in full display. Like some restaurants where the cooks can been seen working, the mechanics are not hidden in the back but work in front. Obviously skilled mechanics can’t be replaced online and if many people do work on their bikes at home, many prefer to trust their bikes to a professional
- there are parts you can buy online but sometimes you need them quick. Customers can get a tube, a tire or a replacement brake cable from their local shop faster than 24 hour delivery allows. This lighter stock isn’t all bad for the bike shop who might have had to sink a lot of money into a lot of components and spares only to wait for the occasional sale
- a “lifestyle” concept with books, clothing, free WiFi and maybe a hub for local riders as a place to hang out. Bikes and bike parts may be commodities but the experience of cycling remains intangible
Far from every bike shop is like this. Typically they’re reserved for large cities, the kind of place where there’s every kind of shop going to be found. I keep seeing these new shops in the media but they’re hard to find in France or Italy, even in urban areas. Instead they seem more prevalent in places where cycling has enjoyed a rapid rise in popularity, a phenomenon that has gone well beyond the traditional blue-collar clientèle seen in much of Europe.
Indeed this trend has gone so far that you’ll find cafés opening to serve cyclists, offering hot drinks, a floor pump and if you need it, a bike tune-up. One of cycling’s attractions can be the exotica, the Euro-aspect and newcomers are keen to buy in to this foreign culture that sits alongside the urban hipster element with fixie bikes. A coffee is a cheap way to buy yourself a quick dose of Euro culture. Café Roubaix anyone?
It’s not all new and linked to the e-commerce. Motorcyclists have known café racer, a bike designed to go from café to café in ostentatious style, a means to allow like-minded riders to meet although the destination was more about the social experience and the consumerism comes from building a custom ride.
Once upon a time a bike shop sold bikes. Most still do but the rise of online commerce is prompting changes and there’s a trend around the world for shops to move away from stocking every part under the sun to selling services. Some are going beyond this as they sell coffee and a concept that means they’re not competiting on the basis of price or stock.
It might look fashionable but if online sales continue to grow then expect the aroma of coffee to gradually replace the smell of rubber and grease in the coming years.