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Labor of Love Part 3: What do front-line workers say?

Published November 24, 2021

A version of this article ran in the November issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News. To read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.

We spoke to shop owners, front-line staff and industry experts to get a clearer picture of the rewards and opportunities available in the industry.

First, we'll compare compensation and benefit numbers with other industries. Then let's look at three good things and one bad thing about working in bike retail.

Because data about bike retail is both old and scarce, we need to compare salaries in a qualitative way. The last National Bicycle Dealers Association's Cost of Doing Business Study and related research we drew from was compiled in 2013-14. Numbers were corrected for inflation.

American bike shop owners average $50,000 in annual income. This is comparable to carpenters and electricians according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Shop employees average $16.50 an hour, $33,000 a year, parallel with office clerks and administrative assistants.

Fred Clements, who was executive director of the NBDA for over two decades, has studied book sellers, sporting goods store owners, and specialty toy store owners with comparable incomes.

"They face similar challenges of finding, hiring and maintaining great employees for the wages they can afford given the financial realities of tight margins and high expenses," Clements noted.

Benefits? Advancement opportunities?

Two unfortunate realities these income numbers DON'T tell us: First, how do benefits compare? Second, how about opportunities for advancement?

In the last CODBS, benefits in bike shops as a percentage of revenue were under 1% for all employees including owners. National averages in 2014 were 31% for private employers. Employee purchase is a nice perk, but it pales in comparison to "real" job benefits.
Ben Madary, owner of CycleWorks in Lake Jackson, Texas, wishes he had more ways to reward his staff. "Our business is rather small," Madary said. "With only four or five employees it's almost impossible to afford any type of health insurance."

Many union workers with similar wages enjoy healthy benefits and pay raises. Many are in corporate environments with bountiful opportunity for advancement. Up the ladder in a bike shop doesn't take you very far.

And yet, we persist. We keep running our shops, working in them, or "graduating" to the supply side. Both in terms of revenue generated and store locations, specialty bike retail, much like the industry overall, is stable.

While there's been a reduction in shop counts since the 1970s, the number of bike shops in the U.S. has been remarkably stable for the last decade. Christopher Georger tracks shops through brand dealer finders. He identifies 6,347 bike shops in America.

Compare that to the decline in the number of book stores, camera stores or hardware stores over the past decades. Sure, we have online and big box competition, but we're holding our own.

Clements explained our balanced ecosystem succinctly. "Of course we'd all like to make more money," Clements said. "It's fine to strive for higher wages, but wages are not set arbitrarily. There's a marketplace at work here, and that's where this is decided."

Bike shop owners are content to "make what they make" or they'd be doing something else in their careers. They go into ownership with a mix of high expectations grounded in reality. Salespeople and mechanics, the same.

There are three upsides, and only one downside to working in bike retail. They're a bit different for owners and staff. Let's take a look at all four. And the last one, the downside, you don't really notice when you start out and it can be a game changer for you a decade or two later.

You need next to no education or experience. Most of us broke in young sweeping floors and flattening bike boxes before we ever picked up a wrench or talked to a customer.

Blair Clark, who runs Canyon USA, started at 16. Woody Smith from Bike Mart in Dallas, 15. My son Will Keener, Production Manager at Dean and Merlin, started at 14. Ian Christie, who owns the five Summit Bicycles stores in the Bay Area, started at 12 and bought the shop at 20!

All experience levels welcome

While shop owners tend to be more seasoned (usually graduating from working in a shop to starting a new one) the low barrier to entry means people of all experience levels can join in. I opened a shop at age 26 with six weeks' of industry experience, for example.

You work around products and culture you enjoy and turn people on to life-changing experiences. "The primary benefit of my job is getting to talk with people who are passionate about bikes," Adam Sokol, a salesperson at Ride Brooklyn, in Brooklyn, New York, told us. "I love selling people their first bike, especially when you see them putting on miles and getting fit and healthy."

There's that P word, Passion. Bike retailers have been characterized forever as "more about the passion" and less about business skills, which isn't necessarily a negative.

On the flipside, Ian Christie said, "This business is not a passion. It's a business. We just happen to be selling things we are passionate about. Passion won't improve an income statement or pay the rent."

If you're good, you can move just about anywhere and find another job quickly. Or you can hop around within a given market until you find a situation you like. This has been especially true during the pandemic boom and always true for skilled mechanics.

Downside: You don't make much money. When you're 12 or 14 or 16, making $10 an hour seems pretty good! Health insurance, retirement benefits, who cares? By the time you're 26 or 36 and want to buy a house, start a family or both, money matters more.

Owners have additional benefits in the form of company vehicles and such. They also have the sometimes crushing pressure of keeping their shop alive and keeping people employed in a seasonal business with a 5% EBITDA and few cash reserves.

One classic solution is a well-employed spouse. Madary is one example. "I'm blessed to have an amazing wife who works part-time at a hospital NICU and she's the primary provider for our household," he said. Sokol said "...lucky my wife makes significantly more than I do in a union job with benefits."

So would you rather look forward to going to work in a low-paying industry where you love what you do? Or tolerate a "sensible" office job with better compensation and advancement opportunity? If you're reading this, you likely made that choice a long time ago!
Woody Smith closes this series with a great take on our Labor of Love: "Working in bike retail, we all have the opportunity to change lives every day when we choose to serve our customers with the correct heart."

Topics associated with this article: From the Magazine

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