The save $$$, free tune-up myth, and other retail frustrations that make life interesting

This probably isn’t the best place to vent my frustrations as a retailer; the books and consultants tell you that you only want your customers to believe that everything is wonderful and there’s nothing you’d rather do than open the doors at 11am and happily count the drawer when you close. And over 31 years of doing this, more often than not, that’s been true. But-

What got me going on this was a call from a “Yelp” salesperson, trying to convince me to spend a lot of $$$ to promote our shop on their site. Basically, if you typed in “bicycles” and “Redwood City” you’d get the relevant shops with reviews, but at the top of the listings would be one that someone paid to put there, and it would just happen to feature a 5* “review”. So while she’s on the phone I start checking things out, and it quickly becomes clear that Chain Reaction isn’t playing the game. We’re not submitting bogus reviews or telling customers who like us to say nice things about us.

The first part, writing bogus reviews, is simply wrong. We had a former employee post one about us, a ridiculously-glowing 5* testimonial that just reeked, and it didn’t take long to figure out who did it. He, as they say, is no longer with the company, and the post was removed immediately.

But the second part, asking customers to say nice things about us… well, I’m sheepish about doing such things, but that really doesn’t cross over an ethical line. Well, for me, it does, but in the new world order, it’s apparent that my ethical line, the line that must be drawn here, this far, no farther, is in need of repositioning.

Another area that may test my ethical boundary lines involves pricing. I’ve visited a number of shops and the general practice is to artificially inflate the asking price and either claim it’s on sale for what you would normally sell it for, or allow the customer to bargain down the price to the “normal” level. We get seriously stung by this one, because we have a price on the bike and that’s the price it goes for, no iffs ands or buts. It’s a fair price, it’s considerably lower than what the manufacturer (Trek, in our case) lists on their website, and it’s the final price. We see it as our first responsibility to make sure we earn that price (meaning that we help the customer choose the appropriate style of bike, fit him or her correctly, and take care of it down the road… it’s not just them handing us their credit card and we hand them a bike)! We could sell a lot more bikes if we had them listed for a higher price and made deals. And then what about the people like me, who don’t want to haggle, they just want an assurance they’re not being taken advantage of? In many cases, our best customers. They trust us. So we should charge them, our best customers, more for the bike because they don’t haggle?

The latest wrinkle involves “free tune-ups”, a popular near-scam being promoted by various shops. Buy a $400 bike and get free “tune-ups” forever. What’s happening is that people have seriously distorted the meaning of “tune-up” such that it usually doesn’t cover what the bike actually needs, and there are extra charges for things like wheel truing. And if there aren’t, you leave the bike and get it back in pretty much the same condition. We hear these stories; we get the customer’s next bike sale, but we lose that first one because they thought they were getting something valuable for free. What we have always offered with our bikes are free minor adjustments forever. We do these on the spot, tweaking brakes or derailleurs or possibly even minor wheel truing, and get them back on their bike. Fast. Done well. And what I can do in 5 minutes is probably better than mechanics at some shops do in half an hour. It’s not just spending time on the bike, it’s figuring out what needs attention.  So do we solve this issue by re-naming our free minor adjustments “tune ups”? I don’t want to, but my hesitation to change costs us business.

We’ve got a very good staff, we aren’t perfect but if something isn’t quite right we are the place that will bend over backward to fix things. We own up to our mistakes and avoid hyperbole. But these days, that’s not enough, and I owe it to our employees and customers and potential customers to learn to play the game and not let our business erode, business that would be picked up by shops that wouldn’t take care of their customers as well as we do. But please don’t read into this that we’re the only decent shop around. Far from it. We are fortunate to live in an area with a number of very good bike shops, shops I’m even willing to name. Bicycle Outfitter. Palo Alto Bicycles. Calmar. Talbots. Good people running those shops, extremely ethical, people who understand the importance of advocacy and each even offered to help out when we were having some serious issues with my son’s kidneys and I had to be away from the shop for a while. But there’s no question that the good shops, those who will be there for you through thick & thin, are fighting some of the same challenges we are. Ten years from now, I hope we can look back and say things worked out well for us.

This post is a perfect example of my biggest problem. You need to give people something cheap or free and do it in 15 seconds or less. If you have to take the time to explain to someone why they should buy here instead of there, you’ve already lost them. Look at how long this post is. If you managed to hang on this long, then maybe there’s hope. Not for you. For me. 🙂   –Mike Jacoubowsky, Partner, Chain Reaction Bicycles

5 thoughts on “The save $$$, free tune-up myth, and other retail frustrations that make life interesting

  1. This post is a perfect example of my biggest problem. You need to give people something cheap or free and do it in 15 seconds or less.

    Not true; I’m still here. And while I personally have a full bicycle stable for now, and spend a lot more time in SF than Los Altos or RWC, I have sent people your way when appropriate. Such as if they live or work down the peninsula and are looking for a shop that will treat them right and make them happy. Your grassrootsiness works for me, and for you! Keep up the strong work and strong climbs!

  2. Mike,

    I’ve read many of your responses via the NBDA Dealers Digest. I’m not a fan of Yelp or most advertising but I’ll take issue with your statement: “The latest wrinkle involves “free tune-ups”, a popular near-scam being promoted by various shops. Buy a $400 bike and get free “tune-ups” forever. ”

    We do just that. Have for the past 21 years (the original owner created the idea – not us). I’ve owned the Shop for close to 5 years now and see the enormous value in it: to us and the customer.

    You are correct in that some may misconstrue the “free tune-up” concept. We offer “Lifetime free Adjustments“. During the sales process, we explain that all minor adjustments are complementary for the life of the bike under the original owner (or family). We indicate that flats, replacement parts, consumables (tires, pads, cables, etc.) are not part of the adjustment process. Damage and neglect are also not covered – nor is cleaning required to work on the bike (if necessary).

    Generally, for the first few years, we will even take care of hub, BB, and headset adjustments as we feel that new bikes (the $400+ bike-shop quality kind, of course) should not have many issues with these areas. Minor on-bike wheel truing in included. As the bike ages, some of these repairs become cost items for the customer.

    At the time of purchase, we strongly recommend that the customer return the bike to us at least once a year for an evaluation & a free adjust. They are able to bring it to us whenever they feel that the unit is not operating as they expect. Many times, with minor issues, the bike is quickly adjusted without seeing the mechanic’s area (i.e. – poor Q/R adjustment, V-brake noodle corrections, cable &/or housing ferrule issues, etc.). Other times, we are able to catch minor/major items that can lead to greater cost/safety issues if not corrected.

    With all Free-Adjusts (as with every repair), we evaluate the bike with the customer present, prior to taking it back to the mechanic area. This triage allows all parties to understand what may be necessary for a proper repair. We do caveat any intake evaluation that we may not have caught all cost issues with the bike, but will call with our findings before proceeding with any repair not originally discussed.

    Many of my customers feel that our “Free Adjustment” policy is what keeps them returning. They travel from homes where they have to pass by two or more bike shops to get to our shop.

    The number one call I fielded after purchasing the shop in 2006 was “were we continuing the Free Adjustments of the original Shop?” All were pleased that we did extend that courtesy to prior customers for 4 years until 2009. For 2010, we moved them to a $20 charge for our $40 Minor Tune-up. In 2011, all prior Shop customers will pay the full price for a Minor (or higher) Tune-up.

    New-bike customers of the current Shop from 2006 onwards still receive Free Adjustments (at least for as long as I own the establishment). I would strongly encourage the future owner to whomever I sell the Shop to extend the policy forwards – as I did for both new and previous new bike sales.

    Properly designed and communicated to customers, this policy is nowhere close to the “popular near-scam being promoted by various shops” or ‘myth’ with which you take issue. Implemented poorly, I can see where it will cause problems, but that’s just bad customer service. We care about our customers and their bikes – long after the initial purchase and well after they walk out the door.

    Done right, our policy: Brings back customers; Allows us to not haggle on pricing; Keeps our customers’ bikes in better working conditions; and Drives additional sales across the board.

    Just another take on an oft-discussed policy.


    1. Dave: You can take issue with my comment about free “tune ups” but we’re in complete agreement and your policies look like an exact copy of what we do. 🙂 –Mike–

  3. Thank you for posting. Our retail world is changing very fast. Every day/week/month brings new challenges that I wouldn’t have imagined 5 0r 10 years ago. I guess this is why I like this business. Keeps your on your toes. These things should keep my blood pressure high, being able to ride every day keeps it down.

    Thanks again for your insight and we’ll all keep up the good fight! And there is a lot of hope for you.


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