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Dealer Tour: Austin retailers seek niches in increasingly saturated market

Published October 22, 2014
The Dealer Tour group rode through downtown and university neighborhoods on Day 2.

AUSTIN, Texas (BRAIN) — Take away the perpetually sunny skies, year-round mild temps and the ever-present Southern hospitality, and it might be easy to mistake Austin for Portland, Oregon.

Striking similarities between the two cities include: a booming population of under a million, hip food trucks and new restaurants emerging on nearly every corner, a vibrant cycling culture that spans all disciplines, a large green space accessible from town, numerous bridges that connect the downtown with other parts of the city, a growing cycling infrastructure, a vibe that makes you want to stay awhile — and above all, the two cities are siblings in weirdness, with Portland having adopted and adapted the "Keep Austin Weird" slogan for its own use.

And the parallels don't end there. Like Portland, Austin's bicycle retail market is saturated, with anywhere from 50 to 60 bike shops and counting within the city limits. But also like its unofficial Pacific Northwest sister city, what has been the saving grace of the Austin bike retail landscape appears to be differentiation in the form of the niche shop.

On day two of BRAIN Dealer Tour Austin, the group visited five distinctly different retailers in the city's downtown and university neighborhoods, from the full-service University Cyclery loyal to its primary brand, Giant, to Clown Dog Bikes, a service-oriented store working out of a 300-square-foot space located a stone's throw from the University of Texas campus.

"We've found our niche. We are the pricepoint shop," said Bryce Holt, co-owner of Clown Dog Bikes, which has a huge student customer base. "With so many shops here in Austin, you have to."

To cater to Austin's booming commuter and student population, Windmill Bicycles opened nearly two years ago and is the youngest shop on the tour so far. Sibling co-owners Aaron and Sarah Goeth saw an opportunity to serve one of a few underserved areas in East Austin and have subsequently watched other entrepreneurs move in as the gentrification wave hit the Cherrywood neighborhood. About 60 percent of Windmill's customers are women and they've carved out a niche as not only a female-friendly store, but also as an approachable shop for beginner riders.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is no shortage of multisport stores to serve Austin's sizable triathlon market. A climate that's conducive to year-round training attracts not only resident athletes to swim-bike-run, but is also a home run for events, which bring triathletes from all over the country and even the world to Austin. During big race weekends in the city, Austin Tri Cyclist does tens of thousands of dollars in sales to athletes from Mexican cities including Monterrey and Guadalajara.

But besides honing in on a niche and going whole hog with it, the Austin retailers we've visited so far prioritize good service. "For us, it's about reliability and falling within our customers' budget — and being nice to people," said Holt of Clown Dog Bikes. "But there was a time in Austin when there was an attitude of elitism in some of the stores. We don't come from bike shops. We have both worked service jobs so I guess we know how to treat people."

Many retailers in Austin seem to extend this same hospitality to each other, despite the fact that they're all fighting for slices of the same pie. From partnering to support good local causes to selling a nearby retailer parts when they're in need, most shops in Austin seem to view the others less as a crippling threat than as friendly competition they can even learn from.

"I see competition as a good thing," said Vytis Vardys, owner of Ozone Bike Department, a fixture in the Austin bike shop scene for 20 years. "It validates what you be doin', you know?"

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