Paul Andrews’s daring foray into bike Web retailing

In Bicycling, Mountain Biking on June 1, 2009 at 12:49 am
Props for snarkiness anyway

Props for snarkiness anyway

Can the personalized, trustworthy “LBS (local bike shop) experience” be translated to the Web? is convinced enough the answer is yes that it’s offering two new Web sites aiming to do just that. (for mountain bikers) and (roadie) will strive to scrub up the bike Web retailing business, offering only quality stuff with a stand-up, 30-day return policy. Call it a “virtual LBS” approach, where relationships matter and interaction is welcomed.

“We want to offer a premium experience for the customer on the Web,” is how Dustin Robertson, Backcountry’s chief marketing officer, puts it. That means high-end, reputable, OEM, name brand boutiques like Santa Cruz, Titus and Intense (including being the only authorized Internet dealer for Rocky Mountain). That means sales people who can talk bike talk, including live chat. Most significantly, it means a 30-day, no-questions-asked return policy, even on bling parts and high-zoot frames.

For the customer, it also means paying retail, even from a Web site. You won’t get the insane discounts on Hucknroll and RealCyclist, but you won’t have the gotchas of sub-par merchandise.

Backcountry, a 600-person operation based in Park City, UT, and known mainly for outdoors gear, knows it’s bucking the establishment here. Web vendors offer killer discounts but not much in the way of customer service. LBSes offer good, often great, customer relations but can’t low-ball on pricing. Caught in between is the customer, tempted by savings but guilt-ridden when he or she has to take the bike or part in for help with assembly, maintenance and replacement. Sometimes Web parts don’t even match up with the bike.

Most LBSes will oblige the Web customer, but neither party can feel good about it.

Some shops try to compete by giving “bro discounts” and free 90-day service to customers. But the increased segmentation of the bike business — certain brands doing “exclusive” business only with select shops, which must meet often onerous quotas to qualify — means that even the loyal customer cannot always get the part or frame he or she wants from the LBS. I once got around this frustrating roadblock by ordering off the Web a frame that my LBS could not obtain, then taking it to the shop to do the build. The shop still made money, and I didn’t have to feel guilty about bringing the bike back in for service.

Not that a Web retailer can always get the part or bike you want either. Offering discounts means low overhead (with little to no customer service) and volume selling. The “killer deals” on a typical bike site often match, to the dollar, the killer deals on all the other bike sites. Usually it’s outdated stuff or excess inventory the vendor or manufacturer needs to move.

There’s another pitfall to ordering over the Web: Return policy. It costs the consumer time, hassle and money to return stuff — and that’s if the site will even take it back. And there are examples of fraud: A friend returned a wheelset once, only to be told that the wheels had arrived completely trashed. He had no recourse — the Web vendor was simply lying to get out of giving him a refund or replacement set.

Finally, Web deals often involve substandard merchandise, unfortunately. I’ve had personal experience with parts and accessories that either were “seconds” or defective, although they were advertised as over-the-counter. Tires, tubes, clothing, wheels, parts — you can wind up with everything from last year’s model to outright blems.

That won’t happen at an LBS, particularly if you have a good relationship with it.

Aiming to bridge the vendor gap, the Backcountry sites represent a first for bike retailing on the Web. Web vendors typically sell both road and mountain gear. Hucknroll and RealCyclist focus on the increasingly disparate disciplines. It’s a great idea, because spec’ing the parts for both an Intense M6 and a Fondriest TF2 would practically require a master’s degree in engineering. You either ride one or the other, not both.

Ergo, training for site gearheads “is pretty intense,” Robertson said. Recently Backcountry sent 60 sales people to Grand Junction CO to ride and learn bikes that they’ll be selling. It rained, Robertson said, but the wet didn’t undermine the vibe.

Another intriguing aspect to the new sites has to do with community-building. They will permit posting from customers, a la Amazon and Yelp — with the focus on specific gear. There won’t be wide-ranging forums or egroups — you can go to or Yahoo! for those. But in terms of information-sharing on bike stuff, including customer feedback, Backcountry wants Hucknroll and RealCyclist to be destinations. (For a taste, check out the site’s blog.)

The sites are still in ramp-up mode, adding merchandise almost daily. For now, they’re fast, clean and stylish. There are some convenient features, such as shop by manufacturer or price.

It will take a month or two, Robertson said, before all the features are in place and inventory is filled. In keeping with full–service mode, “We don’t want to do ‘special order’,” he noted — the kind of deal where you ask for a specific item and get told, oh yeah, we’ve got that, and then wait for three to four weeks or more. The aim is for the sites to have stuff on hand, ready to go out the door, without the usual delays for drop-shipping from god knows where.

(Comment: Good luck with that! I inquired about a new bike recently at my LBS and was told it would not be available in the color and size I wanted till September. That’s right — when the heart of the riding season is over. Such is the lag time of dealing with frames made in Taiwan and sold in America. Backcountry will have to front some serious cash in dealing with boutique manufacturers like Intense and Santa Cruz to attain quick order turnaround. More power to ’em if they can pull it off.)

The timing, coming in the midst of a recession-cum-Depression, is a bit dicey. Shimano quarterly results were dismal and overall bike imports to the U.S. down 31 percent in Q1. But Robertson said the wheels were in motion (so to speak) before the economic downturn. I wish ’em luck, they’ve got the right idea, but it won’t be an easy ride (er…so to speak).

No matter what the future holds, Backcountry gets props for snarky press releases: is open for business is here

  1. that Huck N roll press release was the worst press release i have seen in years. check for the comments as it seems i wasn’t the only one who didn’t appreciate the style or attitude of the press release. Bass Camp Comm should be ashamed of themselves if their client actually had to pay for such an awful press release.

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