This is an intervention for the bike shops out there who exist on the web -- and I'm not talking "Google can find you" existence. I mean, you have a site, and that site has some kind of electronic contact mechanism. Basically, an "e-mail us" link. If you have a site that invites electronic feedback from your customers, ANSWER IT.
Seems pretty simple, right? But I can't tell you how many questions I've sent to a bike shop's e-mail address that apparently went down a very deep well, never to be heard from again. The argument I've heard from shop folks is that e-mail takes up too much time for too little return. And sure, many of those messages won't lead to a sale. But when someone walks through the door of your brick-and-mortar store, do you just sit in the back until they leave under the assumption that they were probably just looking around and didn't want to buy anything? I doubt it.
My own fleet is a case study in how a responsive web presence can make for a happy customer. The tandem was a previous year's leftover on the "closeouts" page at Williamson Bicycle Works in Madison, WI. My stoker and I were in the market, and just happened to be planning a trip to Madison, so I pinged the shop to set up a test ride. Got a very quick and helpful response from someone at the shop, and a few weeks later, we owned a tandem -- and Williamson said goodbye to a bike that might have languished for years.
My recent Raleigh Clubman purchase was another great example. I knew I wanted the 2011 model (for freakishly compulsive/bike geekish reasons I won't bore you with now), so I sent a message to a Des Moines Raleigh dealer (who shall remain nameless, for reasons you'll learn shortly) and Skunk River Cycles up in Ames. The Skunk River guys got back to me right away, did some legwork with Raleigh to track down exactly the bike I was looking for, invited me up for a test ride of some others they had in stock, and as a result, made a sale and a customer for life. That Des Moines shop? I'm still waiting for their e-mail. At some point, I'm going to ride the Clubman to their store and pull the Pretty Woman on them: "You work on commission, right?"
Now, I can hear shop people in my audience of three saying, "Geez, Jason, you e-mail shops in your own town? Pick up the dang phone already!" The thing is, I'm a bit of a nocturnal shopper. I'm usually working or riding during the hours that bike shops are open, so the web lets me figure this stuff out (and -- hopefully -- get some questions answered) when it's convenient for me. Then I can decide if it's worth it to make the trip to the shop on the weekend.
Lest you bike shop customers out there think you're off the hook for good netiquette, here's a simple rule for you to live by as well: If you try it there, buy it there. Don't go to the shop, use their staff and inventory to figure out that you wear a size 44 shoe, and go home to order that same size 44 for five bucks cheaper online. if your shop goes to the trouble of stocking something you need, get it from them (unless their prices are absolutely bat-feces insane compared to the rest of the world, but I kinda doubt they'd still be in business if that were the case). And if they give you good advice (sadly, a rare commodity in a lot of shops), reward them with a purchase -- maybe not today, but soon.