CHICAGO, IL (BRAIN) — On the final day of the Dealer Tour, our group made its way into Chicago’s South Side and Lower West Side, working-class neighborhoods where two modest but friendly shops are satisfying a growing demand for bicycle repairs and low-cost transportation. They fix big-box bikes with a smile—all in the name of putting more people on bikes.
We also dropped in at a business that opened less than a month ago but offers up a model for retail merchandising done right, and we finished our 13-store tour at a high-volume shop that sells as many bikes and accessories out of a single location as many multi-store operations.
After two sunny and warm days, the weatherman forecasted afternoon showers. But luckily our group pedaled through 29 flat and dry miles.
A special thanks to our ride guides from Active Transportation Alliance and SRAM. Below is a recap of stores visited on Day 3. Additional coverage and photos will be featured in our upcoming June 15 print edition.
This 4,300-square-foot store on Clybourn Avenue in Lincoln Park is the newest for Stuart Hunter, who owns and runs three other bicycle stores in Ohio. It’s been open for three short weeks, but like Hunter’s other locations, it stands out for its sleek merchandising and layout that makes the store feel roomy and uncluttered yet well stocked.
Hunter was on vacation in France when we stopped by the store, but operations manager and buyer Anna Haney and the store’s general manager Gary Caudill gave us the rundown on the business.
Bikes are lined along walls on either side of the store while fixtures on wheels showcase all types of accessories, shoes and clothing in the center. There’s brand choice, but it’s selection that doesn’t overwhelm, with two or three options for each category. In bikes, for example, Roll: offers Giant, Electra and Felt.
Bikes and apparel are categorized into three segments: active, sport and family. “It’s demystifying the whole bike-buying process—Stuart always says bikes for the rest of us,” Caudill said. He relocated to Chicago from Columbus, Ohio, where he worked as merchandise buyer for the stores there.
Store branding and design—from signage to the graphics, materials used, colors and flow—was developed by Hunter, who studied architecture and came from the consumer branding and advertising world, working at firms including Fitch and RPA with clients that have included brands like Target and Adidas. So his approach is to make the environment “shoppable,” a store where first-time buyers would feel comfortable perusing.
“If you’re going to be a retail space, it can’t feel like a garage. And if you’re new to cycling, you don’t know what types of questions to ask,” said Haney.
So far, Haney said the store’s seen mostly seen city riders come through its doors. Roll: stocks a wide range of product, from kids’ bikes, cruisers, hybrids and folding bikes to higher-end road bikes.
A structure resembling an airport X-ray scanner sits squarely in the middle of the store. It’s a proprietary fit station, which takes a full scan of a rider’s body then suggests the best-fitting geometry and bike based on measurements and type of riding. Fits usually take 30 minutes and they’re free with all bike purchases—including comfort bikes, 24-inch kids’ bikes and cruisers. “So much of people’s fear of biking is they’re uncomfortable because of the frame sizing,” said Joe Babiarz, the store’s fit specialist.
Blue City Cycles
Chicago’s South Side has few bike shops, and for Blue City Cycles co-owner Owen Lloyd that suggested that the clientele there wasn’t being served. So he and Clare Knipper opened their shop in the Bridgeport neighborhood, but they didn’t know what kind of bikes residents there were looking for. They did know, however, that they would be getting service business right off the bat.
“This is a working-class neighborhood and for many people bikes are how they get to work. They don’t own cars. They ride their bikes hard, really until something goes wrong and it doesn’t work anymore,” Lloyd said.
Many of the bikes brought in for service are from Wal-Mart or Target. The shop rebuilds them to give their owners another year or so of trouble-free riding. Service is about half of the shop’s overall business.
Lloyd also is a framebuilder who has carved out a niche fixing steel frames with issues like cracked dropouts, broken rack mounts or snapped eyelets. “It’s work other shops don’t want. But for people who only have their bike to get around on, they want it repaired not replaced,” he added. The shop doesn’t advertise its steel repair work; the business has been building by word of mouth.
Blue City Cycles sells bikes from GT, Haro, Terry and Yuba, as well as used bikes. The shop does a brisk used bike business, but it’s hard to find a good supply so it only sells bikes it acquires as trade-ins. And these are gone early in the season. Mostly families buy its Yuba cargo bikes, with a few customers buying them for work.
Both owners have long histories working in bicycle nonprofits around town and Knipper is looking to keep pushing the shop’s repair programs.
“We’ve only been here four years. While we have offered quite a few classes in the past, it’s hard to get more than a few people interested. We are going to keep at it, but we may have to try some new things,” she noted.
In the heart of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, this Humboldt Park shop on Division Street (also known as “Paseo Boricua” or Puerto Rican Avenue) is the retail store for West Town Bikes, a nonprofit that teaches bike mechanics to underserved youth.
The shop provides job training and provides a pool for new hires at other shops throughout the city. “A lot of bike shops know us and ask us who we have coming out of our training programs,” said Alex Wilson, founder and executive director of West Town Bikes.
The shop sells bikes from SE, Breezer, Redline, Surly and All City, parts and accessories as well as service, which makes up a majority of its business. It also sells used bikes. All revenue goes toward supporting the work of WTB, which also offers bike maintenance, wheel building and bike-building classes for adults as well as junior racing programs in ‘cross, track and road.
Wilson said WTB works with as many as 1,000 kids every year and noted that community bike shops with a social mission, such as Ciclo Urbano, serve customers who wouldn’t shop at traditional bike shops. “If we weren’t here, people would buy bikes at department stores,” Wilson said. “A lot of people we serve shop at Wal-Mart.”
Most bikes purchased there are for transportation as well as recreation, with customers spending on average $350 to $400 on a new bike and $200 to $300 for a used one. Though Wilson said the shop has started seeing more sales of bikes at higher price points.
Wilson said opening a shop on Division Street—which a year ago got striped bike lanes—signifies a wave of change and one that the community was reluctant to make.
“It’s a real triumph to be on this corner. For a long time, the bicycle was thought of as a leisure activity only for the wealthy,” he said. “Bike lanes were seen as white lines of gentrification. That has changed.”
Village Cycle Center
The last visit of the day was a store that could fit all the previous shops inside it, and still have room left over. The 30,000-square-foot, three-floor Village Cycle Center is one of Trek’s largest dealers in the U.S. and makes the brand’s Top 10 list every year. While it used to carry other brands, it’s sold Trek bikes exclusively for close to a decade.
Anthony Mikrut guided a tour through its expansive 7,500-square-foot show floor as well as the warehouse in the upper two floors that, when bike boxes are packed up to four levels high, can store more than 8,000 bikes.
The store annually sells anywhere from 6,000 to 7,000 bikes, he said, and services another 50,000. Hybrids are its largest category by volume, but the store sells Trek’s full range of bikes.
To pull those kinds of numbers, it requires a hefty staff. During peak season employee count balloons to 40 full-timers. That comes down to about 25 in the winter.
On a busy Saturday in the summer, mechanics can push through as many as 25 to 30 tune-ups and 60 to 70 pre-built new bikes. Mikrut said to cut down delivery time for new bikes, staff will pull bikes out of boxes and get some of the build and warranty issues out of the way during the slow winter months. But with little show floor space, these are put back in boxes and stored upstairs.
“It saves 15 to 20 minutes per bike,” Mikrut said. “When you’re selling 50 to 60 bikes a day, it helps.”
Mikrut also said the store, which has been in business since 1976, commits to large pre-season orders because it can’t afford to be out of stock. Boxes upon boxes of helmets, shoes and other accessories also take up warehouse space.
“We’re trying to get more inventory on the show floor instead of storage,” Mikrut said. “While we do get dating, it’s still money laying around.”