BOULDER, CO (BRAIN) — AOL-owned Engadget.com is one of the most-read technology sites on the internet. People paid attention this week when its former editorial director penned a column recounting his dismal shopping experience at two bike shops on Black Friday and his ultimate decision to buy a bike online.
Brick-and-mortar shops "aren't worth the trip," were the final words of Joshua Fruhlinger's column, "This is the Modem World: Fear and loathing in the local bike shop." Fruhlinger spent part of his day Friday responding to some of the many comments left under his column, some of them from apologetic bike retailers. He also got comments about the column on his Twitter account, including one from a Specialized employee.
(See separate story: Speedgoat enjoys traffic bump, Specialized checks in).
Fruhlinger also did an interview, via email, with BRAIN web editor Steve Frothingham.
Q: Hi Joshua, I Googled around and gathered a few snippets about your career, but I wasn't able to find an up-to-date bio anywhere. Can you tell me a bit about your professional situation?
"This will be the first time I bought one online, and to be honest I'm still trepidatious about the whole affair"
A: Sure. I've been writing for Engadget since 2004, and until last year, was their editorial director. Last year I took a position at TMZ as their head of digital, where I run programming. I'm keeping my head in tech, though, with my Engadget column as well as regular pieces in The Wall Street Journal. Back in Southern California after 15 years in New York, so I'm getting back into mountain biking, and can't wait to hit the trail!
Q: I gathered you are a longtime mountain biker from the column and the comments underneath. You said you had built up a bike or two from the frame up. Had you bought your previous bikes from brick-and-mortar stores?
A: I did actually, yes. This will be the first time I bought one online, and to be honest I'm still trepidatious about the whole affair: What if the bike is damaged in transit? What if I discover a bad weld or part? The thought of shipping it back as opposed to dropping it at the LBS isn't pleasing.
That said, I have my own workstation and tools, so as long as everything is in the box, I'll be fine. In fact, my last bike I bought in pieces from various local bike shops and built it up myself at home.
Q: So you are obviously not an entry-level consumer. Do you think the bike shops you visited were set up to deal with entry-level customers and didn't know how to deal with a more experienced/knowledgable customer? Usually the rap against shops is that they are snobby towards newbs.
A: You know, I thought about the same thing when I was talking to my mom last night. She has a great relationship with her LBS and she's entry-level. She's easy: ask her some questions, qualify her, and sell her a bike. She's not going to know the difference between XT and S9.
In my case, it's totally possible that I rolled in there asking questions about travel, bobbing, and holding a line that flashed "too much trouble, too little profit" on my forehead.
I felt as though they need to meet me halfway and at least show some interest.
Q: I guess the question is whether everyone of your generation has the same stamp on their heads.
A: I hope not, because I like having a local bike shop nearby. I like having the relationship. And to be fair, I'm sure I could have sauntered in there and said, "I want a Superlight with these specs for this price," but I felt as though they need to meet me halfway and at least show some interest. It's like dating: If you're not showing up, this relationship is going nowhere.
Q: Your final paragraph was pretty disheartening for any brick-and-mortar retailer. Are there brick-and-mortar retailers you rely on for other products? What do you think of Apple stores?
A: But it shouldn't be disheartening; rather, it should be motivating. We experienced riders WANT that relationship. The shops just need to work with us. Remember, I went out to the LBS before I turned to the online retailer. The latter just did a better job of closing me.
You can't replace brick-and-mortar retailers. People want to touch and feel product. Apple is a great example — they bet on the notion that if people just got their hands on a Mac or iPad they'd want it right then and there. You can't do that online.
Q: B&M retailers often say that they can't compete with online pricing. Did pricing have anything to do with your decision over where to buy the bike? You said you got a 15 percent discount; that's pretty good.
A: Price is always a factor, sure. But in my case I didn't even get a chance to talk price with the LBS. They had the retail price on a tag on the handlebars, and when I asked about the price, he simply repeated the tag price and said he'd work with me when it came time to do so. Point is, that was the time.
When I'm spending thousands on a bike, I have no problem paying a premium locally, especially since I get to ride away with the bike that same day. You can't put a price on hitting the trails within hours of buying a bike.
Meanwhile, here I sit, waiting for my bike to arrive from across the country.
Q: I guess a retailer is only as good as its sales staff a lot of times. As much as we talk about online vs. B&M and other big picture analysis, your situation really came down to clueless salesmen at the shops and someone helpful at Speedgoat. I notice you didn't mention the shops' names in your column.
A: Right. I'm not out to get anyone in trouble. Everyone has bad days.
And I haven't given up — I'll be back at the LBS for tools, apparel, components, etc.