PORTLAND, OR (BRAIN) — Whether it’s dealing in used bikes, specializing in parts and accessories, or serving up beer and coffee and hosting cycling-related events, retailers visited on the first day of the BRAIN Portland Dealer Tour ranged as much in target market and client base as in size and longevity. Bike retailers—much like Portland’s coffee shops, beer makers and restaurants—craft their businesses carefully to suit the city’s diverse tastes. Old, new, small, large, single, multi-location—Portland is home to all.
Our group of 24 riders racked up a short 13 mostly dry but cool miles during visits to five shops, crossing the iconic Hawthorne and Steel Bridges and sampling many of Portland’s sharrows. Here’s a brief recap of the stores we toured:
This shop relocated 18 months ago to a prime location along the heavily cycled Ankeny Street in Southeast Portland, where commuters will find open doors and free coffee at 6 a.m. It’s a move that has helped drive up local business for Universal Cycles, which rings up 75 percent of its approximately $10 million in annual sales through online orders.
The Internet-based business started in San Bruno, California in 1997 and first relocated to Portland three years later. Today’s 18,000-square-foot building includes a 6,000-square-foot retail space stocked with 6,000 products—mostly commuter oriented P&A like tires, tubes, fenders, helmets, apparel and bags—and a warehouse that holds 10,000 SKUs to fulfill online orders. Manager Victor Sandrin likens the shop to the Napa Auto Parts of the bike industry.
“We carry everything you can think of besides the car,” he joked, although Universal does stock a small selection of complete bikes by Surly, Salsa, Civia and All-City.
Universal also staffs warehouses in Ogden, Utah, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Minneapolis, Minnesota in order to reach most of its customers with two-day shipping. It is opening its second brick and mortar location in Ogden next week and is also eyeing an East Coast warehouse location. While some online retailers are shunned by their brick-and-mortar counterparts, Universal has managed to play nice in both worlds by staying out of the down and dirty pricing game. The shop also contributes time and money to local advocacy efforts, sponsoring Portland’s popular Sunday Parkways, which closes various downtown streets to promote walking and biking and working to gain mountain bike access in the city’s Forest Park.
Bike n Hike
Kevin Chudy gave up his newspaper delivery gig for his first bike job at Bike n Hike, owned at the time by Al French. “I’ve only had two jobs in my life,” referring to his time as a courier and then bike retail. “In retail, all you have to do is be a little better than the next guy,” to thrive. And thrive he has. Chudy now owns four of the six Bike n Hike stores in the area.
Chudy has worked every job at the shop where he first became a frequent customer. He remembers clearly how at the tender age of 15 he went to several bike shops in search of a high-end road bike. “I wanted a double-butted chromoly frame, sew-up wheels and tires. I had $869 in my pocket but nobody was interested in talking to me,” he said.
The folks at the Corvallis Bike n Hike listened and gained a loyal customer, and eventual employee. Ten years later, Chudy would become partner in the business with French. Over the years he’s built his stores’ around loyalty—to his suppliers (he has two Giant Retail Partner stores) and employees, several of which have repaid him back with decades of service.
Portland is a highly competitive market with an estimated 80 shops catering to the cycling community. “You can’t run fast enough in this town,” Chudy said. “After the Front Range in Colorado, this might be the most competitive.”
Chudy reads a fair share of business strategy books and looks for ways to update his shops to stay in the race. In 2008, he undertook a major expansion of his Portland store, adding a spacious and well-stocked women’s section. Now, more than 50 percent of adult bikes are sold to women every month at that location—much more than at his other stores.
Doing business as a co-op can be an egalitarian ideal. But sometimes, it’s just a pain in the neck. Decision-making gets bogged down in the pursuit of consensus—one of the reasons Citybikes Annex still doesn’t have a POS system. And the retailer, which deals primarily in refurbished transportation bikes—plus new bikes from KHS, Surly, Jamis and Birria—and also operates a repair and accessories shop 11 blocks from the Annex, has no fewer than six committees to separately address such issues as finance, personnel, operations and inventory. But the model works for the quarter-century-old business.
“The idea is that the shop can keep going long after the original owners are gone,” said Hazel Gross, who joined Citybikes four-and-a-half years ago and is one of seven current co-owners compensated based on the work hours they put in each year.
The two-shop operation employs an additional 25-30 staffers, all of whom have a say at monthly committee meetings. They’re also all trained mechanics in order to help with any service issue or head-scratching bike rehab customers bring through the front door. No one is a manager; all are equals.
To better serve the broad demographic and socioeconomic profile of cyclists it serves, Citybikes cultivates a wide-ranging employee base, including the mechanics it develops through its apprenticeship program. “We definitely strive to have a diverse work force,” said Gross.
Among the biggest players on Portland’s retail scene is Bike Gallery, the 38-year-old family-owned business, which operates six stores in an 8-mile radius. The Bike Gallery is Portland’s only Trek retailer (and in a former life, Bridgestone’s largest U.S. retailer) and runs efficiently with one central warehouse at its flagship location on Sandy Boulevard and scheduled freight deliveries during the week to the other shops.
Second-generation owner Jay Graves brightens most when talking about his staff—with numerous employees tenured at 15 years on staff or more, the business has a comfortable family feel—or advocacy, a tenet on which the Bike Gallery was founded.
Graves was one of the earliest supporters of Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance; and a founding board member of Cycle Oregon and Community Cycling Center.
Our drop-in on this recent Rip City transplant was like a scholarly, though gleeful, treatise on the history of mountain biking. Owner Sky Boyer generously served up pints of craft beer from the shop’s bar before guiding the BRAIN Dealer Tour crew into his basement. That’s where some of us—how to put it delicately?—well, we kinda lost our shit.
We oohed and ahhed over the Cook Bros. cranks and bits of purple-ano 1980s and ’90s mountain bikes. Fat-tire pioneer Joe Breeze, along for the ride as sponsor, admired the Moto Cruiser that was the precursor to the first Yeti mountain bike and among Boyer’s collection of Fat Chances, Bontragers hand-built by Keith himself during the sport’s earliest days.
All of it is the product of Boyer’s single-minded obsession with bikes and the culture and lifestyle around cycling. Boyer knows what he likes. He also knows what he doesn’t like—and that includes most bike shops. That’s why Velo Cult is less a bike retailer than a place where cycling culture lives and breathes.
Since his relocation from San Diego to Portland six months ago, Boyer has made Velo Cult available, at no charge, for cycling-related events and advocacy meetings. He’s repurposed a 1,500-pound castle drawbridge door from a 1920s Portland home into a performance stage that drops down from a wall. Downstairs, a screening room for 40 is outfitted with seating from a historic movie theater. A lounge next door serves as a green room for performers as well as Velo Cult’s photo studio.
The full-size bar and table seating dominate the front of Velo Cult. Customers don’t even see bike stuff for sale until they’re halfway into the store. Nearly all complete bikes—such as cyclocross, urban, touring and randonee rigs from Surly, Redline, Bianchi and Linus—are displayed in the back of the store.
“None of this is a business model,” Boyer said. “I just like doing cool shit.”