Support your local bike shop | By Phil Hall

Phil talks the rise of the superstores, internet merchants and the struggle of local bike shops

Some time ago I alluded to one of my all-time favourite movies, the classic “Support your local sheriff”. This light-hearted comedy never fails to give me a giggle every time it turns up on TV and it’s definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it before (and even if you have).

'Support your local Sheriff"
‘Support Your Local Sheriff”

Jason McCulloch, played by the late James Garner, arrives in your typical lawless western town on his way, as he constantly reminds us, to Australia, and finds it in the grip of your archetypal band of local bullies who all belong to the same family.

Reluctantly accepting the poisoned chalice of the sheriff’s badge he manages through a combination of guileless good humour, cunning and a bit of lateral thinking to subdue the baddies, bring peace to the town (without firing a shot) and capture the heart of the mayor’s daughter before being ready at the end of the film to ride off into the sunset.

M*A*S*H’s Harry Morgan, Jack Elam and Walter Brennan play the other main roles with Joan Hackett playing the role of the mayor’s scatterbrained daughter.  Like I said, definitely worth watching more than once, despite it being made such a long time ago in 1969.

But this is not a movie review – it is however, a plea for all of us to support our local bike shop. Now I hope you will forgive me if I return, for a moment to PI (that’s Pre-Internet) and take a quick look at how it used to be done.

For a start, once the Japanese invasion hit full-swing in the late ‘70s there were lots of bike shops. Manufacturers and distributors thought nothing of supplying bikes to more than one dealer in the same town and there was good money to be made in selling bikes and accessories with a healthy margin being available to retailers who were prepared to work hard and push the product.

In Wollongong, where I lived during the early ‘70s, there were at least half a dozen big shops with some smaller ones as well, this despite the town’s close proximity to Sydney. Multi-brand franchises were around but the staple was the corner bike shop where personal service and familiarity ruled.

As well, the mail-order business was still active with dealers and suppliers sending out impressive catalogues from which buyers could select the products they wanted, pay through a bank draft and have the items delivered.

In Sydney there were several large accessories shops that were a bee hive of activity every Saturday morning as out-of-towners made the day of it browsing for and buying items that their local shops couldn’t supply. Who remembers Omodies? All in all, things were rosy.

Of course, it couldn’t last. Competition drove the prices down and the first thing that was cut was the dealers’ margin. Rents and prices for utilities rose correspondingly and it became less and less profitable to sell bikes.

At the same time the cost of maintaining an inventory of spares went up due to inflation, a bewildering array of bike models and the fluctuating value of the Australian dollar.

Fast forward to today and the scene is so different. Multi-brand franchises are an accepted part of the scene as dealers try to be all things to all men (yes, I know). The larger shops have spelt the death knell of the small operators who have almost completely been squeezed out of the market.

Big, glossy and impressive has replaced little, greasy and gloomy. And the winners have been the consumer, make no mistake about it. And then there is the internet, that limitless motorcycle store that you can visit, browse and spend money at 24/7, without leaving the comfort of your own home.

It all looks rosy, doesn’t it? Perhaps not. The advent of the internet has impacted our lives in so many ways and has changed our buying habits as well. Why go out on a Saturday and troll around the shops when it is so convenient and easy to buy online?

Well, for a start, buying on the internet, for all of its advantages, and there are plenty of them, is totally impersonal. Earlier this year I attended the funeral of one of motorcycling’s true icons, Kevin Cass.

Cassie was a local legend and the funeral was replete with so many anecdotes of how he had gone about his racing, his engineering and his retail activities. Now I am just old enough to remember a couple of Cassie’s shops in Wollongong and I can tell you that they were a wonderful motorcycling experience.

Going to the shop and browsing and buying when you could afford it, was an intensely satisfying experience. The staff knew you and you knew them. The more familiar with you they became the more they were able to meet your needs and the guy behind the counter became more a friend than just the guy who was selling you stuff.

Away from the shop, involvement in motorcycle sports of all kinds strengthened that bond between customer and staff and many lifelong friendships started and were encouraged by the interaction between the guy behind the counter and the punter who needed a clutch cable. The personal touch was so important and now it is totally lacking in the online shopping experience.

But it’s not just the online experience that is less than satisfying. A divide has grown up between the motorcycle retailer and the accessory retailer. Whereas the dealer was the “one stop” shop, now he has to compete with stores that are solely dedicated to selling accessories. They don’t sell bikes, but they sell everything else.

They purchase in huge quantities and get better deals from the suppliers due to their economies of scale. Yes, the local bike shops still sells helmets and chains but he has to try and do so in competition with large accessory stores as well as the limitless competition provided by the internet.

Is it any wonder that the smaller retailers have long since gone to the wall?

The difficulty is that, by and large, we buy on price and the local motorcycle shop, more often than not, runs third in the race to be able to provide you with the best price. The internet will nearly always be the cheapest, followed by the big name accessory stores.

So where does it leave the local shop? Many are acting proactively, broadening the base of their operations to offer services that are not offered online or in the big shops. Coffee shops are becoming part of the scene, again, an essential and intensely personal aspect of retail that is a niche that only they can provide.

For all their size and huge range, the big accessory stores are a lot like Bunnings and, in my experience anyway, a lot less engaging due to the lack of the customer identifying with the sales staff.

It is a much more attractive proposition to walk in, have someone greet you by name and have the time to shoot the breeze with you than being handed around between the staff until someone is found who can actually answer your question. That is a real turn-off for me.

There is no doubt that retail has changed fundamentally with the advent of the internet and the superstores. But has it changed for the better? Is it all about price and convenience? Well, for this old pensioner for whom price is always the most important consideration, the answer is no.

Yes, I occasionally buy online and I sometimes use the superstores but, in the end, I prefer the personal touch of my local bike shops. Now I will be the first to admit that I am lucky. There are plenty of great retailers in Wollongong. I admit that I sometimes feel guilty buying from one at the expense of another but I do try to buy locally as much as I can.

Please understand that I am also sympathetic to the plight of rural and isolated motorcyclists who have no local bike shop. You do what you have to do in these situations.

But, for those of us who have the choice, can I put in a hefty plug for the local bike shop? The guy who set up a business, mostly paid for out of his own pocket. The guy who pays staff, phone bills, electricity bills, superannuation and workers compensations payments for his staff, who pays water and gas bills, advertising bills, money to the companies who provide him with his stock and so on and so on. Is it any wonder that he finds it hard to compete with the virtual stores?

The old Honda ad in the ‘60s used to say, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.”

Regardless of your brand loyalties the proverb could be updated to today’s scene and it could say, “You meet the nicest people at your local bike shop.”

Support your local bike shop!