By James Moore, Moore’s Bicycle Shop, Hattiesburg, Mississippi
When I opened my bike shop in 1984 an eight-year-old boy by the name of Greg became a daily visitor. Greg lived in the trailer park next to my shop and sometimes had to be chased out so I could wait on customers or meet the day’s repair deadlines.
One day Greg came in as I was visiting with a friend and I thought I’d have a little fun. I told Greg that it appeared that his nose was loose and that if he’d let me I’d tighten it up a bit.
As Greg approached my work bench I reached for my ratchet with a 13 millimeter socket and placed it on his nose and made a few clockwise revolutions with the tool. When I removed the tool I noticed a round grease mark on Greg’s nose. My friend and I chuckled and wondered how long it would be before Greg noticed.
A customer walked in and before I could greet her, Greg approached the lady and asked if she knew the owner, Mr. Moore. When the lady indicated that she did not know me Greg said, “Mr. Moore is my best friend in the whole wide world.”
Feeling bad that my joke was at Greg’s expense, I reached for a paper towel and told Greg that he had a little grease on his nose. Later I would learn that Greg’s father had been absent for years and that his mother spent a good amount of time in the county jail leaving his older brothers to raise him when they were not in trouble with the law themselves.
Greg taught me that day that my role had the potential to be much more than just another retailer on Main Street. I realized that I was embarking on a journey that would bring me into contact with folks from all walks of life and that if I looked for the opportunities I might be able to do more than just sell and repair bicycles.
My business eventually relocated away from the trailer park and I never saw Greg in my shop again. I often wondered if he had survived his childhood with all the odds stacked against him.
When driven by passion and executed with excellence, the local independent bike shop is the greatest retail institution in America today. That’s a pretty bold statement but I think I can easily make my case. While some of the following qualities may apply in some cases to some other types of retail, only the local independent bicycle shop consistently possesses all the following attributes under one roof.
The local IBD serves the widest diversity of clientele of any other small retailer. We sell high dollar bikes and gear to the enthusiast in one transaction then we sell a patch kit to a homeless person as we teach them how to fix their flat. In both examples we fill legitimate needs for the customer but often the smaller transactions makes a greater difference in a customer’s emergency of the day.
In the earlier years of my business Rosetta, an energetic young African American in her 40’s would come to my shop in a taxi with her bike in the trunk. I’d listen to Rosetta talk about how she used her bike daily to run errands and check on the elderly in her impoverished community as I did the repair quickly, realizing that the taxi meter was running throughout her visit. Rosetta’s visits frequently brightened my shop with her exuberance for life over the next 25 years.
My sister worked with me in the shop for a few years and one day made a comment I’ve never forgotten. Debbie told me that I had a rare ability to effectively communicate with folks like Rosetta about the tribulations of her life one minute while also being able to speak with congressmen and senators about national policy needs the next. After thinking about that statement I realized it was true. It was true not because of any talent I had, but because of the diversity of daily interactions I was privileged to have experienced as a local bicycle shop owner.
Another reason that I consider the local independent bike shop to be the greatest retail institution in America today is that we are the kindest, greenest retail activity to our planet. The very nature of our product reduces consumption of limited world energy resources. Millions of car trips daily do not occur because of the utilitarian nature of our product and services.
Our individual stores recycle tons of cardboard, metal, and rubber annually with some shop owners donating the income from that recycling to local charities.
We actually fix things that break. What other retailer still does that? In this age of planned obsolescence and disposable commodities, what other category of local merchant still routinely stocks parts to fix items purchased (and ridden) half a century ago? I do, and I know you do too.
And while we may not always make the connection, every time we repair a bicycle we are in fact recycling the entire bicycle. Were it not for the existence of our bicycle repair services, a bicycle’s first mechanical failure would be its last failure as its disappointed owner would have no choice but to roll it to the curbside awaiting the next trash pick-up.
Further proof that the IBD is the greatest retail institution in America today is the fact that we are the healthiest business to our customers both physically and financially.
Charles Packer came into my store with a bent wheel on a worn out Huffy bicycle. Charles topped the scales at over 350 pounds and the bike was his only way of getting around. I straightened his wheel only to have him return within a week with the same problem.
I had the conversation with Charles that we’ve all had with our customers about the differences in quality between the bikes we sell and those purchased in department stores. Charles agreed to invest in an entry level Giant mountain bike with my assurance it would serve him well.
Up to this point Charles only rode his bike when he had to be somewhere or needed to pick up essentials, but being on a good bike for the first time in his life, Charles began to discover the joy of cycling as he began to ride just for the sake of riding.
As Charles began to ride more he began to shed pounds. As he lost weight he also began walking daily. Over a year Charles went from over 350 pounds down to a very fit 180 pounds. By this time he was riding every morning and walking in the afternoons.
I did not change Charles Packer’s life for the better. Charles did that himself with courage and determination but the existence of a bicycle shop in his community willing to show him that a bike could be more than a loss leading commodity hanging from a department store ceiling was the catalysts that set him on his journey.
Our willingness to quickly ‘get a guy back on the road’ so he can get to his minimum wage job has allowed more than a few struggling souls to keep their jobs. How often have we arrived at our businesses in the morning to find a customer anxiously waiting with a flat who also asks to use our phone to let his boss know that he will be coming in just a little late?
And we all know that those down on their luck don’t always have the funds for the repair but we still accommodate. We may complain about folks expecting us to help them out for free knowing that they would never expect a chain store to do the same, but that’s a good thing, the fact that they view us in a more humanitarian light than they view any other form of retail.
Through our self-financed advocacy efforts we improve the health and safety not just of individual customers but of our entire communities. Through our efforts it is now safer for kids to bike to school and for all to choose healthier ways to explore our cities.
When driven by passion and executed with excellence, local bike shops give back to their communities in so many ways. We give through event sponsorships supporting local causes. We give through advocacy support at local, state, and national levels.
When a need arises the IBD does not wait for an invitation. Instead, we are the ones inviting others to join us when our communities call. We sit on the community advisory boards, we rally the troops when undesirable change threatens or desirable change is needed. In the words of John Burke, the world is run by those who show up, and we are the ones who show up.
In professional business ethics there exists the concept that businesses should give back to the communities that support them. I’m OK with that but coming from the South I see it a little differently. As the Baptist preacher passes the plate on Sunday morning he likes to remind his congregation that no matter how hard they try they can’t out give God. I believe from my own experience that no matter how hard we try as local retailers we cannot out give our communities – but that should never keep us from trying.
Lastly, I believe the independently operated bicycle shop is the greatest American retail institution because we provide the greatest place to work teaching the widest range of skills.
Name one other retail segment that exposes their employees to accounting fundamentals, merchandising, purchasing, time management, sales, marketing, customer service, consulting, mechanical diagnostics and repair. My employees perform all of the above and I’ll bet yours do too.
Jim McIntyre was a decent mechanic for me but had terrible skills on the sales floor. Jim seldom made eye contact as he showed a bike, seldom talked features/benefits, and almost never asked for the sale.
To make a point with Jim I ran the numbers over 3 months to compare his close rate with the other employees in hopes that his dismal ranking would get him to employ the proven techniques used by good salesmen.
The results of the past months opened my own eyes. It turns out that Jim was by far the most successful closer on my staff. It seems that Jim’s unassuming manner made customers feel comfortable accepting his soft spoken recommendations as they selected a bike and loaded up on accessories on their way to the register.
Jim taught me to respect the creativity of the individual and place more emphasis on results and less on procedures. Most retail institutions would have terminated Jim for non-compliance rather than consider his proven results and accommodate his personalized style.
Jim left my employment upon graduation and invited me to his wedding. I had the chance to speak to his mother before the ceremony and casually shared with her my realization that Jim was a valuable producer for my company because of his special approach to customer service.
Several years later Jim returned to my shop with two young kids in tow. Jim had returned to thank me for giving him a job while in college but mostly to thank me for telling his mom that he had been a good employee.
With tears pooling in his eyes Jim informed me that shortly after the wedding he lost his mom to cancer but it meant so much to him to know that she lived to hear that he had succeeded at something in life.
In addition to sales skills our employees learn to become life consultants.
Our staff serves as financial advisor to the struggling single mom with the department store bike with broken training wheels in one moment and technical advisor to the most competitive athlete with the high dollar ride the next.
While the role of technical advisor to the athlete takes more expertise, the more important role of financial advisor to the mom takes more understanding and human empathy. Yet our staff fills both rolls daily.
The mechanical side of our business teaches critical thinking skills through the complexities of diagnosing problems with constantly changing componentry and endless compatibility issues. How many times have you returned a call to your shop only to be told, “Oh, we already figured it out”? The greatest life skill we can teach is to teach our employees to think for themselves.
The experiences acquired in our shops often launch new careers for our employees. Morgan worked for me while in college as he pursued a degree in business management. In his senior year he also began working as a waiter at a newly opened Cracker Barrel restaurant.
On a surprise visit the regional manager dropped by the restaurant one evening and took Morgan aside to ask how he liked working as waiter in the new restaurant. Morgan replied that the job was OK except that every Friday and Saturday night the kitchen was out of baked potatoes by 7PM and Morgan had to disappoint diners for the next two hours.
When the district manager asked Morgan why they routinely ran out of potatoes Morgan replied, “I guess the manager would rather throw away customers than throw away potatoes.” Morgan did not learn the value of each customer through his training at Cracker Barrel but he did learn it from his job at the local bicycle shop. (And I must confess that I learned it from the valuable seminars produced by the National Bicycle Dealer Association)
Within weeks Morgan was recommended for the managerial training program at Cracker Barrel and now manages his own Cracker Barrel in Gulfport, Mississippi and is in line for a regional manager position.
Even when all attempts to manage poor employee behavior fail, we somehow still manage to transform through termination.
How many employees that you’ve had to let go become better employees just for having been shown the line in the sand that you established?
How many of you have also had employees that you had to terminate stay in touch and drop in for unannounced visits years later? It is their way of saying ‘thank you’ for what you taught me even if I did not learn until after I left your employment.
Perhaps the greatest gift we give our employees is that we teach them to CARE. Precious few businesses still do that. We do it better than other retailers because rather than doing it by a page in a policy manual we do it by example with our lives. Jeff Keonig has a hand written sign in the front window of Big Poppi Bicycles that simple promises “I will listen to you.”
In closing, a couple of years ago my daughter had a fender bender on the way to work. I took her car to the body shop and as I was waiting for the estimator to total up the damages a young man wearing a mechanic shirt and a large smile walked up to me from the far side of the cluttered repair area and extended a greasy right hand in my direction.
I extended my grease stained bicycle mechanic hand to his and with a hardy handshake he simply said, “Remember me Mr. Moore? I’m Greg.”
Those were the only words he spoke but the smile and extended handshake said a lot more. They said, “Thank you for being there when I needed someone to be there.” Against all odds Greg had made something of his life. How fortunate are we to have jobs that afford us the opportunities to be there for others.
When driven with passion and executed with excellence, the locally operated independent bicycle shop is the greatest retail institution in America today.
James Moore serves as president of the National Bicycle Dealers Association.