While enjoying my morning ritual of fourteen cups of coffee and browsing, I was relieved to see yet another place to custom build your own luxury, multi-colored,
bikefashion accessory. Apparently Villy Customs will let you create just about any color $150 bicycle you’d like for between $400 and $800, thus fulfilling their corporate mission statement: “Luxury. Fashion. Bicycle.” (In that order.)
Because I think a lot about marketing, when I see yet another company with a fancy color-picker feature, I don’t concern myself with the overall shoddy quality of the product or what I suspect to be a woeful lack of customer service (I leave those concerns to the buyers), but, rather, the funny way these companies distinguish themselves from the actual bicycle industry, which apparently sells an entirely different product. See, a “bicycle” is a mechanical device, which needs proper assembly and periodic maintenance, whereas a personalized “Cruiser” or a “Fixie” is actually classified as a fashion accessory, and, as such, apparently needs none of those things. Smartly, the companies offering these fashionable accessories understand that they are “luxury” items in a way that properly designed and functionally assembled bicycles can never be. Cruisers and Fixies that allow potential owners to choose from a rainbow of nondescript components of dubious quality are, in fact, the very definition of luxury. Think of them as small, street-going yachts with chains chattering against improperly installed but festooned-with-painted-daisies chain guards, veritable Bugatti Veyrons of style, oozing down the street with all the passion and aggression a rapidly detensioning and wobbly rear wheel can command.
As such, their companies inevitably have their own marketing pages bolted (threads stripped) right onto their sites. In the case of Villy, this page is smartly filled with the various local morning TV shows that found their products adorable. Who needs function, when Entrepreneur magazine, Modern Luxury Dallas, and Good Morning Texas have featured your business.
Speaking of personalized service, one of my older posts regarding Specialized and the recent nonsense with Volagi received the following comment yesterday:
This is a poor representation of the Specialized brand. I feel Specialized strives to protect it’s intellectual property and it’s IBD network. No other brand is as IBD exclusive as Specialized. They could double there numbers if they sold to everyone and anyone. But they don’t they only want true knowledgeable bike shops representing there brand. Agreed the lawsuit with Volagi is a bit frivolous however if you let one company copy your ideas than soon all will.”
I thanked this person for the comment, and I can appreciate a need to stand up for the many positive things Specialized has done, the clearly great bikes they make, and the support they do offer dealers.
But I had to take issue with both points made in that comment, which are not only inaccurate, but also reinforce dangerous misconceptions about this particular case, and about the relationship Specialized and other vendors have with independent bike dealers. So I replied. And replied. And replied some more. Because, for some reason, I take both of these issues very seriously, and I reject the warm and fuzzy notion that Specialized–or anybody else–bases their relationship with dealers solely on some kind of vague personal respect. It’s an adorable and whimsical idea, but I think the reality has a lot more to do with things like territory, supply chain strategy, and mutual need.
For starters, the intellectual property argument might have some validity if Specialized had actually had any intellectual property stolen, but they didn’t. Just because the battle is over, doesn’t mean you get to rewrite the outcome, or give validity to an argument the legal proceeding dismantled. This whole sad event wasn’t just a bad marketing decision for Specialized; it was a genuine legal proceeding, and its results confirmed they had no intellectual property stolen. The lawsuit wasn’t “a bit frivolous”; it was baseless, and the more we learned about it, the more it seemed like classic intimidation of competition, something I find distasteful. Volagi did not steal anything from Specialized. Your assertion that once you allow one company to steal your intellectual property, others will follow, makes it sound like theft occurred here. What we’ve determined is that it did not.
I’d like to put to rest the bullshit notion that a company like Specialized could “double there [sic] numbers if they sold to everyone and anyone.” I’ve heard this ridiculous assertion put forward in the bike industry time and time again, and it’s the argument of beaten down IBDs with serious daddy complexes: “Daddy only sells through us ’cause Daddy loves us and takes care of us!”
I applaud Specialized’s business model and their execution–they’ve done an amazing job of working within an established system for selling bicycles. But it’s an established system, not something they’ve done out of compassion, and there are reasons they don’t sell directly to consumers. The point I’ve been trying to make is that if independent bike shops don’t start spending less time drinking Kool-aid and more time learning to read tea leaves, they could find themselves caught unprepared for the inevitable. Specialized has already begun selling “selective” products directly to consumers on-line. Independent bike shops should be hedging against even the slightest possibility of that trend continuing, and blind faith in the benevolence of vendors is not a viable business plan.
I honestly do believe dealer loyalty plays a role in Specialized’s decision to restrict sales of bicycles to brick-and-mortar transactions, but it’s a smaller role than you think. There are more valid business forces keeping them from selling direct. Why doesn’t General Motors sell directly to consumers? For certain products, the benefits of consumer direct sales do not outweigh the expenses. The notion that Specialized, or GM, or any company built on a dealer representative platform could flip a switch overnight and begin selling direct to consumers–if only they chose to–is just not accurate. Believing that glorifies the manufacturer while disparaging the role of independent dealers. If you own or work at a bike shop, think of the work you do to sell and maintain bikes. It’s tremendous. So you’re telling me Specialized, or any other company, could just absorb that workload? Even if IBDs continued to offer some support, the actual expenses associated with turning a B2B company into a consumer-facing enterprise are staggering. There are legitimate barriers there.
But what I find truly bizarre about all of this is the screwy logic that lets presumably good bike shops demean themselves–instinctively, and by default. I have a lot of respect for Specialized and their products. I can understand how any shop would be happy and proud to be able to offer their products. Almost nothing should come before a dealer’s relationship with his vendors–but belief in your own business should. By definition, if you’re a quality shop, doing quality work, you should not believe your vendors sell to you only because they’re being kind. Instead of counting on their continued kindness–even as the market shifts all around them–shouldn’t you be making yourself indispensable? Look at a retail brand like Competitive Cyclist and tell me that putting your brand first doesn’t work. Claiming to add value without being able to articulate that value to consumers is becoming obsolete. What’s great about any shop has to be far more than just what brands they carry, but too many shops still place their own self worth in the brands they sell. So Specialized could “double” sales if they let their bikes be sold everywhere, but “they only want true knowledgeable bike shops representing there [sic] brand.” Look at the word “want” in there. Why have you not replaced that with “need”? That’s what you need to ask yourself.