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Outdoor Gear Reviews

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

bikeshopdentist

Was at the dentist today. $2,297.00.

My dentist is excellent. Truly. Does a fine job, professional and current on modern dental techniques. Great staff. Nice guy too.

As luck would have it my dentist is also a triathlete. While I was at his office I picked up his bike and brought it back to our bike shop to do a tune-up on it. He’s got a nice bike. He should.

I got to thinking: Why can my dentist command $2500 for services, but I will only bill him about $90-150 for his bike tune-up that takes about the same time? And before you argue that your teeth are a serious “health issue” I will suggest that your bike brakes are too when you need to avoid a collision with a car.

Why is the bike industry unable to command prices for service and products commensurate with other industries? Why is a doctor, a dentist, a plumber, an HVAC repairperson or an auto mechanic so much more expensive to hire than a bike fitter, bike salesman or bike mechanic?

Why are similar things so cheap in the bike industry, when they are priced consistently higher in other industries?

Like any single economic question, there is not one singular answer. It is worth inventorying the reasons why the bike industry, benchmarked against other industries, is habitually under-charging- especially for service- despite growth in demand and technology in cycling.

U.S. culture teaches us bicycles are children’s toys. Labor rates for servicing a Jet Ski, motorcycle, snowmobile or an RV are similar to automotive repair rates. But fixing a bike is something we grew up doing in our driveway. Our value calibration of bicycle service starts in our driveway as a kid. Because the bicycle industry as a whole remains largely unsophisticated compared to Apple and Tiffany’s stores, that value calibration of bike retailers remains lower than other consumer experiences.

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What can the bike industry do to change the perception that bikes are toys and labor should be cheap or free? There are a few answers, but the most apparent are to provide a more modern and sophisticated presentation of services and an updated visceral customer experience congruent with newer high-end client services and retail.

Let’s go back to my dentist’s office.

Days before my appointment I always receive a text message reminder from his office. They also phone me and leave a message with a reminder.

The dentist’s office has a trained receptionist, a “Concierge”, who coordinates services, attends to questions and generally administers logistical concerns with patients. It is her only job- to facilitate a smooth and pleasant transaction. She also handles the payments. The entire payment process is segregated to a different staff, a different physical location in the building. This helps solidify the payment experience as finite, non-negotiable, consistent and repeatable.

My dentist’s office is clean and modern, beginning with the exterior of the building. The signage and everything that transmits his brand message is attractive. His treatment spaces are spotlessly clean and meticulously arranged, not only for obvious sanitary reasons, but also to transmit the impression that this is serious business.

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Bike shops, by comparison, are less formal places where employees dress in shorts and T-shirts and customers “hang out”. You act how you dress, and you charge how you dress too. The vibe in bike shops is decidedly less professional, and consequently, so are the prices.

For these and other reasons my dentist can command $2500 for a service that takes about the same time and experience as rebuilding his Shimano Di2 carbon fiber triathlon bike. He collects more than ten times the revenue I do for a service that is more similar than dissimilar. And remember my analogy about your bike brakes being as important as your cavities when you’re riding toward an intersection at 20 MPH.

And before old timers argue that a more polished, cleaner, professional approach won’t work in bike shops, I will argue that it likely will, since most adult cycling customers are actually new cycling customers whose benchmark of what a customer experience should be is formed in retailers like IKEA, Apple, Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie– not hanging out with the guys at the local bike shop. In fact, it is likely the only bike consumers that still want a homy, small-town, casual “buddy-buddy” personal feel to bike is the guy behind the counter, not the customer in front of it.

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Change channels.

Tiffany’s is a high-end jeweler made famous by the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and is still famous for a few reasons, one of which is their iconic “Tiffany blue” (trademarked) brand color. Buy any engagement ring of a given size at Tiffany’s and it is roughly ten times the price of an equivalent sized ring from the corner jeweler. It also carries a consistently higher perception of worth and brand identity.

From 2007 to 2015 Tiffany’s revenue grew 60.49% according to Morningstar.com. That is despite the brutal recession in the U.S.

How does Tiffany’s command a price often ten times higher than an apparently comparable product and still increase sales, even during the recession?

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There are several reasons my dentist and Tiffany’s can command more revenue for seemingly similar services and products to the adult cycling industry.

Firstly, they ask for it. And dress for it.

Setting price immediately establishes a value calibration. When I lived in the Middle East I noticed this value calibration is often highly nuanced. The Arabs (and Chinese) invented commerce as we know it today. They know, unless you ask, you will never get the price you want.

Tiffany’s has also established uniqueness and differentiation through their fortunate product placement in a popular old movie and in every brand message they send, right down to their packaging and bags. When a person walks through a high-end shopping mall with a Tiffany blue bag in their hand, it not only calibrates our perception of the customer as affluent and discerning, it also spreads the brand message of Tiffany’s. It’s advertising. And it bolsters our impression of the customer.

By comparison most bicycle retailers use customer bags that look like you should empty a cat litter box in them.

Tiffany’s also maintains a quiet, reverent display and sales environment. A salesperson in Tiffany’s is never interrupted by a telephone ringing on the sales floor. Phone calls to the stores are answered off the sales floor. A phone never rings in the shopping spaces.

Change channels.

e-Bay is backwards retail. People list items, often used, sometimes of dubious value, on e-Bay and consumers compete upward for price in the auction format. Think about that: compete upward.

 Why do people compete upward for price on e-Bay when normal market forces exert downward pressure on pricing in retail?

Two reasons: Time component and repeatability of transaction quality (different from item quality).

e-Bay auctions end at a specific time, and the expiration of an item’s availability manipulates our perception of its value. e-Bay is also competitive since supply on unique items is finite and limited. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Both of those components exert an opposite competitive effect on pricing.

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The quality of the transaction on e-Bay is almost always identical. This is different than the conduct of the seller and the quality of the item being sold/purchased. But it makes a case that the quality of the transaction (separate from the item in the transaction) is a key driver in our perception of price.

If the transaction experience is inconsistent and/or below industry standards it devalues the purchase price. Buy an antique figurine at a local resale shop, pay $10 for it. Buy the exact same figurine on e-Bay, pay $20, $25, $40…. Whatever the final bid is. People negotiate upward in a proven, repeatable transactional template with finite constraints on supply and uniqueness rather than commodity.

How can bike shops leverage these strategies to improve both the customer experience while raising revenues and profits?

The good news is there are tons of opportunities for the bike industry to provide a better experience for its customers. Of course, the reciprocal is that our current standard of customer experience is poor and lagging behind professional offices and forward thinking retail brands like Tiffany’s, Apple and others. Still, this creates a massive “empty space” where bike retailers could be earning more and providing a better experience.

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Step One: Recalibrate the Bike Shop Experience.

Why do you stand in line at a cash register when paying for a $5000 bike when you sit in a comfortable chair at an automotive dealership or at Tiffany’s to pay for your car or engagement ring?

Seated checkout in a non-cash/wrap setting is a small but significant step in recalibrating customer’s experience and perception of what it is to shop at a specialty bike retailer.

Having one staff member in each shift designated as the “Concierge” who greets, directs customer traffic and may also administer the customer checkout experience during slow traffic hours is another key experience quality feature that recalibrates customers’ perception of our industry.

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There are many, many other opportunities for bicycle retail to improve the customer experience by changing the transaction environment and appearance and also by adding tangible value to adult bike sales and service.

In fact, there are enough for me to fill a book with.

A problem in the bike industry is that few bike retailers and service providers are benchmarking outside our industry for ways to make the experience better in our industry. Until that changes, we’ll keep hanging out with our customers before and after shop rides in cool shorts drinking expensive beer while earning cheap wages.

“Nobody knows the future, you can only create the future.” Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba.com.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

BIKEREVIEW10

I wrote my first equipment review in 1977.

I was 15, typed it on an Underwood for a paper newsletter mailed by Schuman’s Schwinn Cyclery in Detroit. I reviewed a skateboard- said it was “lame”.

It was probably my last honest review.

Since then I’ve written hundreds of equipment reviews for magazines like Outside, Velo-News, Triathlete and many others.

Bicycle and outdoor equipment reviews are increasingly shady business. They’re assumed to be impartial- expert opinions on what is good and bad about a bike gadget- based on experience. Consumers use them as “research” to help make a buying decision.

It is one of the great lies of the bicycle industry.

Bike and gear reviews are increasingly influenced by the sales motive. Bike brands and retailers often can’t say anything bad about a product. Their primary motive is selling it. Since few people are being objective- writers or readers, anyone attempting objectivity is punished for their honesty. Customers are scared away from a product if a review contains criticism, even when it is valid. We end up with canned press-release product descriptions that are not critical “reviews” at all.

That’s not right. So, as far as my keyboard can reach, I’m changing that.

There are some reviewers who have established credibility in addition to a paycheck by being objective. I spoke to three of them before writing this; James Huang of CyclingTips.com (formerly at BikeRadar.com); Dan Empfield, founder of Slowtwitch.com and Charles Manantan, of Pez Cycling News.

James Huang is among the most read and respected product reviewers in the bike industry. He began as an independent reviewer with his own blog and earned a reputation for being critical and objective. His candor won him increasingly greater readership- and credibility. From 2007-2015 Huang was the U.S. Tech Editor for BikeRadar.com. He recently went to CyclingTips.com.

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Writer and product editorialist James Huang.

Unlike many product reviewers, James Huang is both a pragmatist and a very good writer. This excerpt from his article The Unattainable Quest for Perfection summarizes the craft of the best writers in this industry:

“More than a decade at this beat — writing about bicycles and bicycle technology — has taught me that there’s no such thing as a perfect product. But I like to think that I have a decent handle on when something contributes meaningfully to the enjoyment and beauty of riding.”

Huang has had the courage to comment with balance in his reviews, and his editors have backed him up.

“I’ve certainly had companies pull advertising campaigns or raise hell with the commercial side of the business but nope, I have never had any editorial modified for commercial reasons. I’ve been extremely lucky in that sense; from what I understand not everyone in my position has been so fortunate. “

When I asked James about how objective he feels other media outlets are with their equipment reviews he told me, “I always like to believe that it’s easy to distinguish between thinly veiled pay-to-play editorial and the good stuff but the cynic in me says otherwise.”

James Huang is right. The fault lies partially with the “pay-to-play” editorial, as Huang suggests, and also with consumers reading reviews.

Here’s why: As a reviewer part of my job is writing about the equipment we use- and sell. The reason I write reviews is for people to buy something. I also write for good rankings in SEO, “Search Engine Optimization”. In many cases I am actually not reviewing, I am selling. That motive makes me one of the bad guys- at least until now.

Search engines like Google and Yahoo serve content to consumers from key word searches like “triathlon bike reviews” using complex, secret algorithms that change daily. No one outside the secretive search engine code writing industry knows how to “cheat” them. Hucksters who sell “How to Improve Your SEO” webinars are guessing. I’ve sat through a ton of them. The only proven way to rise to the top of the results is to serve a ton of original content. So I’ve had to work fast. And sometimes loose.

If you count SEO frequency as the high bar of review success, and bike brands often do, I’m pretty good at it: Do a Google search on the key words “triathlon bike reviews” and hit the “images” tab. You get 14 of my photos served to you on the first page. Most are my original content; some are copied and pasted from something I wrote and then used by another writer- an even shadier practice. I don’t care though, because more is more. In the Internet search engine world the person who shouts the loudest and the most gets heard. That’s been me. And judging by my SEO results, I’ve been doing something right- because readers like to read good things about the products they aspire to and my SEO is strong.

Chris Gustafson is a salesman, and a pragmatist. He gave me the key to writing equipment reviews in one sentence, “Tell me what you want, and I’ll tell you why it’s the best.” His doctrine was “knock ’em where they lean”. And Chris sold a ton of bikes. Because it is human nature that we want our thoughts reinforced, not challenged.

If I were completely honest with my opinions in gear reviews I would write things like, “Even after repeated adjustments we couldn’t get the rear brakes to work very well” or “The bike feels oddly heavy because, when we weighed it, it was.” But then consumers would simply click to the next review that says the crap like, “Light and aero, but stiff and comfortable too!”

Here is my challenge to consumers: You can’t handle the truth.

Consumers search for the single best-reviewed bike using some golden BB metric or measure of “best-ness”. This “research” has fed numerous marketing lies like wind-tunnel white papers, ride review payola and ad dollar ransom.

Bike buyers: look for reviewers with the courage to be critical. Consider balance and understand how you will really use something you are researching. Know that there are no perfect products and look for glaring omissions in sugar-sweet product reviews that gush without reservation. There is nothing wrong with a great sales pitch until it is veiled as a critical review.

I have seen the power of candor in equipment reviews.

In 2002 I did a review of the Litespeed Blade where I wrote, “It is an expensive bike that does not return a high degree of performance for most riders.” That was the good part. It got worse from there.

The (then) President of Litespeed phoned me and asked, point blank, “What will it take for you to take that review down?” My answer was simple, “Fix the bike”.

Three years later in 2005 the company had completely redesigned the bike and the new version was greatly improved. Whether my criticisms played a role I do not know. The shortcomings I wrote about weren’t subtle; any triathlete would notice them. But there was still pressure on me to shut up about the bike’s many problems. It was a rare case where I didn’t cave.

The moment any second party has editorial control over review content, it changes. Most times not for the better. A key ingredient in good, credible reviews is commensurate authority for the reviewer to say what they really think- good and bad. The reviewer needs an editor who will back them up, not shut them down to protect advertising and sales motives. That is nearly non-existent in the cycling industry. A key ingredient in delivering meaningful content is to grant commensurate authority for the writer to express an opinion independent from the sales motive.

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With Jim Felt, founder of Felt Bicycles (left) and Dan Empfield of Slowtwitch.com (center). That’s me with the idiotic expression on my face.

You can sometimes tell the best reviewers by the ones who have been fired. Dan Empfield has been fired from glossy triathlon publications for speaking his mind. It’s ironic since Empfield is a Triathlon Hall of Fame inductee who invented the triathlon wetsuit, the triathlon bike and a host of other innovations in the industry. He is also the founder of Slowtwitch.com, a website that does publish objective reviews and editorial.

“You have to have balance,” Empfield told me. “A few good things, some bad things. Just tell the truth.” Empfield’s simplistic editorial doctrine is refreshing- and useful to consumers using his reviews as an evaluative tool for buying decisions.

Charles Manantan is a tech writer for Pez Cycling News, a credible, dynamic cycling website packed with fresh content. He also practices an objective editorial policy in equipment reviews.

“I’ve had companies tell me that they had more direct feedback and customers from a review on our site than from sites with many times more eyeballs [on them]. I do think [objective] reviews have an influence on buying decisions.”

Manantan summarized the industry of writing gear reviews succinctly and offered an insightful recommendation for a better doctrine.

“Look at an Editor like John Bradley at Velo-News who held his ground rather than kill a story in the face of Shimano pulling ads. You see another popular bike publication get exposed for straight-up “Pay for Play” advertorial reviews being part of a paid advertising package sold to a large manufacturer. I think the biggest negative impact on public perception of bike reviews comes from publications that work on the ‘more content is better’ theory, especially when they don’t want to pay [writers] for the content. Worse yet, they don’t seem to value the quality of the content as much as the quantity.”

So here is my recommendation, and my promise: If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Not every bike can test “most aero”. Every bike isn’t “stiff, but comfortable”. If a review doesn’t contain at least some balanced criticism you likely just got a sales pitch instead of an honest opinion.

And, I promise in the stuff I write going forward to not pull punches for payola or gush garbage to go viral on Google.

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Author Tom Demerly has written a bunch of crap, some of it you just finished.

Now he’s telling the truth. It’s his new thing.