24-Hour-Bike Shop: convenience and profit?

Mark Hallinger
24-Hour-Bike Shop: convenience and profit?

Mark Hallinger chats with a shop owner about the rationale behind adding a shop-specific vending machine to his parking lot.

We live in an era where bricks-and-mortar stores need a serious plan to find a place in an evolving marketplace. What’s been happening to retail over the last decade or more goes way beyond customers just buying things from paper catalogues, via mail order. Those who have been around more than a few decades will remember that long-ago challenge to bicycle retailers.

I was in a shop the other day and saw a bike storage bay labelled “Amazon”. Customers are having bikes shipped directly to that store for builds. Some will say that’s enabling the enemy, others will say “We’re making money and getting people into our store.” Time will tell, I suppose.

What else might be a part of the brave new world of retail? Selling a niche, specialty bike like Brompton or the likes probably puts your store on the map and differentiates you a bit. Advance repair experience or something like expert fitting knowledge is certainly something to sell – that has really never changed. Some stores offer yoga or other services in the same space as the bicycles. And bike shops that sell coffee or coffee shops that sell bikes seem to be on the rise. Importantly, having your shop and its people perceived to be part of the local cycling community seems to only be increasing in importance for many bicycle retailers.

About a year ago, and again last month, I saw a bit of this in action. While riding an early season Spring Classic about 100 kilometres from New York City in the small town of Hopewell, New Jersey, I noticed that the host shop, Sourland Cycles, had a vending machine in its parking lot replete with multiple small bike shop items.

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The “24-Hour Bike Shop,” is a visually compelling, small idea that is potentially a way to steal back a bit of business ... just a wee bit. A very wee bit, apparently. More importantly, it could garner some publicity and be a very visible way to support the local community. The machine – purchased used
– has been deployed for about two years now. “Loading it was fairly simple,” says Michael Gray, owner of Sourland Cycles. “But the testing and programming took a few trial runs, to set prices and messages.”

The machine is stocked with a variety of small items including chains, master links, tubes, cables, tyre levers, patch kits, multitools and cables. While many items fit within the coils that came with the machines, Gray did have to order some larger coils for certain items. It is set to only be used with credit cards, to avoid the hassles of dealing with change and potential vandalism/theft. This does mean that it costs a small monthly fee for a wireless connection to process card sales.

Notably, there is no food or drink for sale. “Having a license for food was not the issue,” says Gray. “But in the sun and heat items would go stale or bad. Also we didn’t want compete with the deli across the street and two other popular cyclist coffee shops in town.”

Indeed, Gray says that the entire idea of the vending machine – and the “public access” floor pump next to it – was really more about courtesy than profit. “[The machine] was designed to be a benefit to the community which shows that we are bike-friendly... a visible symbol that shows we know that the bike community has needs that don’t always match up with retail hours. That was the explanation to the zoning board that [initially] wanted me to put the machine in the back, under the stairs and out of sight.”

While the vending machine may look good and prove that Sourland Cycles thinks about its place in the community, Gray says it may never pay for itself. He says it does not really sell a lot of product, averaging less than US$50 per month on average. Given that the cost of the machine was around US$4500, profit is at best a multi-year possibility. “I have more people taking pictures of it than actually using it, but that was kind of the point – it is a definite gesture to the cycling community,” says Gray.

Sourland Cycles is located in classic small-town New Jersey, with a lovely “mountain” land preservation area adjacent to the town. Some say the term “Sourland” comes from the brownish clay sediment in the rock, with sorrel being an old term for chestnut brown horses. Others say it reflects the simple fact that the hilly, rugged terrain is too difficult to farm, and thus sour.
Bad for farming means good for riding in this case, especially
for those of us who like hilly
roads that sometimes turn to hardpack gravel for a few miles. There’s a series of Spring Classic rides here put on by local organiser Kermesse Sport that are 15 or 20 per cent on dirt roads. It’s a great place for riding.

That said, it’s not a mass participation cycling area like
a trail head with miles of flat, paved car-free trail. Would a vending machine that sold bike parts be a bit more effective
if it were located at a location like this? “Certainly, the trail head idea with a vending machine has been done in other cities in the US, Minneapolis and Portland to name just two that I know of,” says Gray. “I have to say that I can’t take credit for this idea, as I know a good idea when I steal it. My friend Tom Lonzi, of Tom’s Pro Bike in Buffalo, NY, has one outside his store too.”

Tags: ibds , opinion

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