Supply Chain Reaction

 Bikes, E-commerce  Comments Off on Supply Chain Reaction
Feb 212012

Supply Chain Chaos

If you’re a dealer cog in the complex drive train of bicycle sales, a big gear in your system started turning last weekend. You might not have felt it yet, but you will.

This was the first year I didn’t attend Frostbike, a mammoth bike industry get together at the mothership of the industry’s most formidable distributor, Quality Bicycle Products, in Minneapolis. I’d like to think I didn’t attend because there just wasn’t any challenge in it, given the incredibly mild weather the Twin Cities had this year–at least, compared to last year, when our flights home were canceled and we had to rent a car and idle through a 300-mile white-out at a blistering fifteen miles an hour while subsisting on cheese curds and counting wrecked cars to pass the time. Sadly, not attending this year means I missed something that’s been many years in the making. Bicycle Retailer is describing it as a “war”. The mighty Q’s El Presidente and Raison d’Etre All in One, Steve Flagg, called out some large retailers, including Amazon, in a pretty unequivocal way:

“I believe that our industry is losing the war against the Chain Reactions, the Wiggles, the Amazons. We think that together with all of you we can address this problem.”

Well damn. This is a tremendous statement. If it doesn’t seem to tremendous consider that QBP’s headquarters is very much in Minnesota, where the average denizen could be handed a foamy-mouthed possum instead of a burger at a drive-through window, and just politely drive away for fear of hassling the store manager and maybe getting somebody in trouble. In fact, this statement translates from the native Midwestern parlance just about like this:

And just what does QBP intend to do about it? According to BRAIN’s article, Flagg is quoted as telling the gathered dealers:

Via mobile device, a customer in a shop could log on to a QBP service with access to its stores’ inventory and search for a specific product. A map would pop up indicating the nearest shops that have the product in stock or that will have it in a predetermined number of days.

If a retailer is selected for same-day pickup, the customer would pay for it online and then be asked if they want the product installed at the shop. Flagg noted this would play to local dealers’ key strength and offer what online competitors can’t: service, warranty information and deep product knowledge.

“I believe we have the capacity in 2012 to do this.”

BRAIN has a known weakness in what I believe is generally considered “journalism” and involves things like follow-up questions, and, having not been there, I’m left to wonder if Flagg was merely musing here (as he did one year when he asked the gathered dealers clamoring for him to basically make them all web sites why he shouldn’t just become the biggest on-line dealer himself), or if this technology is on the short list of to-dos at QBP. Even if this idea is only that, though–merely an idea–it marks a technological answer to the problem of mobile price shopping apps released by the likes of Amazon–an issue heretofore only addressed by Specialized, who only whined about it and used for their own political ends. To be sure, QBP stands to experience their own political gains–not to mention top line growth–in pursuing something like this, but a trademark QBP distinction is also evident: this helps local dealers.

But showing us a shiny new weapon in the battle for independent bike shops is only a small part of the significance of this statement. I’ve long been rambling on about how local bike shops need to get their asses on the Internet and start staking their claim to bicycles in the digital age, or stop whining, give up and become a repair-only shop.This newly announced stance by the major player in the wholesale distribution space is a big deal for reasons that might not initially be so obvious. In singling out a particular type of massive on-line retailer–the digital equivalent of Walmart–and pitching a new mobile technology for local shops, Flagg is legitimizing the Internet as a means of selling bicycle parts.

The minute you’re pro-actively heading onto the web to pursue sales, you are an “Internet retailer,” and this is precisely what Flagg had to sell at Frostbike this year. Whether the mobile app involved takes us to a local shop’s web site to make a purchase, or tells us where we can walk in their door is, ultimately, inconsequential here. He is suggesting the IBD move from “gatherer” to “hunter.” That’s a big deal. More importantly, he’s letting us all know this is not a drill, and he’s not a guy you should ignore. Even if Flagg wasn’t one of the smartest people in the industry, listening to everything he says very carefully would be wise, if only because of the huge quantities of industry intelligence and analytics his company is constantly gathering. Add the fact that he is one of the smartest guys in this or any other industry, and you’re looking at a genuine warning for all IBDs. Far be it for me to say I told you so, but with or without QBP’s help, dealers need to do something now.

Friday’s Fifteen Minutes and the Power of 300

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Feb 172012

Over the past six months I’ve thought a lot about a new type of retail shop. You know how all bike shops are supposed to be “about great service”? I’ve been wondering what would happen in the world of on-line retail, if we redefined that whole relationship between “store” and “customer” to better suit today’s consumer. In other words, can we build the store around the modern consumer. Literally.

To do it, we’d have to figure out what a consumer looks like these days. No small feat, because the definition is changing so rapidly. The blog photographer Jason Lee created for his daughters is pretty wonderful across the board, but this “cookie monster” image might just also happen to be one of the greatest comments ever about identity in the 21st Century. “Interactive” is one of those buzzwords that gets kicked around a lot in development and marketing circles, but I think Lee’s photo is a quiet little statement about where we’re headed as consumers. Despite not having any clear idea how it will look, or where it’ll originate, everyone–and I mean everyone–is looking for something called “social commerce” to be the Next Big Thing. I think–and hope–it’s going to look a bit like this photo.

What the hell does that mean? Well, partly it just means that it’s no longer any fun to support a company that doesn’t support us back. Still blurry, I know, but if I had a highly specific description of “social commerce” to offer, I’d be engaged in some yacht crash derby with young Mr. Zuckerberg this morning, and, having paid Salman Rushdie to write today’s post in my absence, would be subjecting you to some genuinely intelligent commentary about the state of the world. As it is, you have me, showing you bitchin’ Cookie Monster photos.

But we do know the future is going to be about each of us–or some such over-simplification. Already we’re seeing the down sides, including the political ramifications of each of us having our own separate and incompatible red or blue echo-chamber version of reality. (Which reminds me, I need to rewind my Glenn Beck “Time to Buy New Gold Coins and Guns Because We Have a Black President”-edition combination water purifier and Rapture-Watch™ alarm clock. My friends at Goldmine have a great price on some super-rare, chocolate-centered gold coins I can purchase right now as a hedge against Mayan end time currency devaluation.) There’s also the chaos that tends to follow from listening only to those who reinforce the really stupid voices in your head, but on the other side of all this deafening feedback, there could be some music. The only logical extension of where we’re headed is full personalization of the web, including each and every one of us:

  1. Realizing we’re responsible for our opinions
  2. Realizing those opinions are now commodities
  3. Taking an active role in marketing those commodities ourselves
  4. Knowing if we don’t, somebody else will be doing it for us

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve never understood why corporate Facebook pages would have “fans” or why people would bother to “like” Coca-Cola, but of course that’s not entirely true. People like these brands to connect with other people who also like the brands. The brand itself is just the umbrella. And while I still think “me-tooing” something as enormous and bland as Coke or McDonald’s makes even less sense than liking “breathing” or “the sun,” letting people connect over more meaningful brands makes a lot of sense.

That’s a fair chunk of philosophical pondering to boil down to this: if somebody started an on-line bike shop and let visitors make money selling the products, would people do it? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time now, and it seems to me that we’re not going to have “social commerce” until people have a vested interest, not just in the buying process, but also the selling. I can’t figure out why nobody has yet crowdsourced sales.

One answer might be that sharing your own opinions about stuff is easy, but curating a mash of those opinions is hard. While we’re all interested in getting in on things, sometimes none of us what to be a part of what all those separate opinions and ideas produce. Consider the new town bike concept, designed by Philippe Stark, a designer who “has applied his talents to products as diverse as a lemon squeezer and the Virgin Galactic Spaceship,”, not to mention the fugliest goddamn motorcycle I have every personally seen:

Yes, Mr. Stark has turned his attention to the urban bicycle.

According to this article, sponsored by a company selling bike riding insurance in the UK (which surely needs it), Stark “distilled” the opinions of three hundred people from Bordeaux, a city in which, , “ten per cent of trips are undertaken by bicycle,” (which frankly seems low for a European city) to create the “City PIBAL Streamer – a concept that allows the rider to sit and pedal in the conventional way, or stand on a platform and use like a scooter.” Here is the result of that collaboration.

Shitty Bike

"Tonight, we ride in hell!"

Maybe I’m being a little hard on Bordeaux, but of the horrors 300 people are capable of producing, I’m pretty sure this is the most gruesome accomplishment yet. As such, Peugeot has agreed to do the manufacturing. I’m not entirely sure what occurs in Bordeaux that requires augmenting a basic commuting bike with some of the sweet design features of a Razor scooter, but it’s obvious Mr. Stark and his 300 Bordeauxians have given the world something . . . else.

No doubt we’ll be seeing some interesting new social business models in the next six months, but the problem with crowdsourcing will still the crowd.

Friday’s Crotch of Luxury and Self-Esteem Check

 Bikes, E-commerce, Swine  Comments Off on Friday’s Crotch of Luxury and Self-Esteem Check
Jan 272012

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.

The Little Things

 Bikes, E-commerce, Swine  Comments Off on The Little Things
Jan 262012

Sometimes I think that, if I could have three wishes, the first would be for someone to finally drive a stake through the heart of the fashion industry’s fleeting love of bikes, and the second and third would both be for the first to come true, just in case. The image of the $5,000 Bianchi hipster-mobile above comes to us courtesy of a site called “The Pursuitist,” who’s mission is apparently to, “Find and share the good things in life.” Inevitably this seems to consist almost entirely of increasingly elaborate devices designed to take what little soul you might’ve been born with and painfully extract it from your person. According to the article:

Biking is a luxury, and now it has a price tag to go along with it too. Gucci has launched two exclusive Bianchi by Gucci bicycles designed by the brand’s Creative Director, Frida Giannini.

Giannini told us, “The Bianchi by Gucci bicycles perfectly carry forward our codes of luxury while creating a new cosmopolitan aesthetic for those looking to turn heads while on the go”.

However, the Bianchi by Gucci bikes are only available for purchase in London from Gucci’s store at 18 Sloane Street. The white, hydro-formed steel single speed bike (above) costs $5,000 while the black carbon fiber monocoque model (below) is priced at $14,000.”

Yes, as anyone in China can tell you, biking is, indeed, a luxury. I just quoted that in its entirety because I honestly couldn’t bring myself to read through it one more time to pick out only the quotable parts. And no, I don’t have the spiritual fortitude to show you the carbon fiber one, if you haven’t already seen it. I can’t claim to understand what strange force has trapped certain Italian bike companies in the ’80s, but could someone please tell Colnago and Bianchi that most of the pastel-suitjacket-wearing coke addicts who used to represent a market for high-fashion, co-branded bicycle abominations are now either dead or riding Specialized Venges? And everyone knows kids ride Cinellis. Yes, the 21st Century is proving confusing to some companies. Today, managing to have a bike featured on a site next to artisanal mable syrum and $800 amplification horns for iPhones is arguably the most ironic sign of “status” possible.

Still, you have to love how ruthlessly practical bicycles manage to remain, despite the pressure to turn them into luxury items and fashion accessories, probably because you almost always have to actually ride a bike in order to show it off to everyone, and that’s a pretty high barrier of entry for the frail and soul-less.

Besides, everybody knows it’s the #littlethings that really matter. Word in business news today is that McDonald’s is attempting to rebound from their ill-fated #McDStories Twitter social media bloodbath with a fresh hashtag, “#littlethings,” which, hopefully, will be a few more degrees separated from worms in fish sandwiches and “dying inside.” Clearly, some–I’ll go ahead and assume frantic–discussion occurred at Clown Food Central over the past 48-hours, and it was determined that anything even vaguely close to the discussion of actual food products was the real liability in this campaign, and that a new hashtag was needed that was much more difficult to relate back even to their company, let alone the “food.” Hence, “#littlethings.” Brilliant.

Here I’d like to official introduce a new term into the lexicon of social media marketing: to “rainblow.” It means to shield your otherwise disgusting brand, service, or product behind some form of generally recognized piece of undeniable goodness. I believe this is actually one the marketing industry stole from Congress, the original masters of rainblowing our minds by authoring bills with names like the “Children’s Health Act” that actually allows companies to dispose of green, glowing toxic waste by pouring it directly into the mouths of anyone with a household income less than $250,000 a year.

The beauty of the new McDonald’s hashtag is how it boldly says, “Think of the special shit that really matters to you. OK, got it? Now give it to us.” That’s some bold social marketing, right there. It says, “We don’t stand for the shit we expect you to eat. We stand for whatever you think is good . . . whatever matters to you dumbass morons, just think ‘McDonald’s!’ when you picture that.”

Speaking of social networking and the Internets, I haven’t forgotten the official wrap up of my e-commerce how-to segment. All put together, the actual ad is going to look like this:

  • Frame Material: Steel
  • Head Tube Type: Standard 1-1/8″
  • Fork Steerer Tube Diameter: 1-1/8″
  • Seatpost Diameter: 27.2mm
  • Rear Dropout Spacing: 135mm
  • Rear Dropout Type: Standard Geared
  • Maximum Tire Size: 26×2.3-inches
  • Wheel Size: 26-inches
  • Front Dropout Spacing: 100mm
  • Water Bottle Bosses: 1 set, top of downtube
  • Color: Green
  • Size: 18-inch (both captain and stoker)
Here’s your chance to pretend to own a truly exclusive bike. This is the only tandem bicycle hearse in the UK. The Reverend Paul Sinclair of Motorcycle Funerals had this unique bike fabricated for addition to his unique line up of funereal vehicles. Unfortunately, Reverend Sinclair does not feel he’s sufficiently fit to operate the hearse, so he’s making it available in the hope that it will one day find a good home. Own a genuine piece of British history that just also happens to be able to transport dead bodies. Should also be able to transport at least two kegs, 4-8 surfboards, children, furniture, and another bike.

Learn more about the bike on the Daily Mail’s site.


Next, I’ll be walking everyone through the exact little bit of code necessary to create that product listing, and then we’ll be able to start testing that buy button. Before then, I either need to make a tandem hearse to sell, or find something else I need to get rid of. Preferably something smaller than a tandem hearse or a Big Dummy, and easier to fit into a box and ship. #littlethings

Mad Skills

 E-commerce, Swine  Comments Off on Mad Skills
Jan 232012

Everyone needs a skill.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about skills. It must the resumes I’m sending out, the career search process in general, but I find myself thinking about the often blurry concept of “job skills” and what it means to be know how to do something. If this post has a practical use–and I’m not claiming it does–it’s as advice for small business owners, hoping to hire outstanding people who can actually improve a company.

I can remember sitting through an excruciating hermeneutics graduate course many years ago, watching some guys pouring concrete for a new sidewalk outside. After we’d wasted an hour dissecting sentences word by word, painfully trying to comprehend ridiculously cryptic ideas in a book that’s very subject was how we communicate, the professor adjourned the class with the pronouncement, “We did good work today.” A friend of mine and fellow writer of fiction (there were mostly philosophy students in this class, but some of the MFA writers–myself included–had ended up there because we needed the credits) announced matter-of-factly, “We didn’t do good work today.” Everyone turned to look at him, and he clarified: “We didn’t do any work today. They did work today,” he said, gesturing to the work crew outside the window. “What we did wasn’t work.” He was right.

When I went on to put in time as an English professor myself, the lesson I took with me from that class was to always be relevant, always keep the discussion of even the most obscure subjects rooted in the every day experiences of my students. This wasn’t a challenge, because I’d always thought of books as a necessary tool to get through life–a kind of multi-tool that included everything from a life jacket to hand grenades. You learn to read books and think critically about complicated subjects so that you can form your own opinions about things and make good decisions. I regarded those skills as being every bit as crucial and necessary to the average person as a level and nails are to a carpenter.

That particularly bad grad course I’d sat through didn’t have any meaning to me because there was no regard for a product: we weren’t even trying to create anything. To my thinking, the further you drifted away from concrete, tangible productivity–making something–the less relevant any of your gibberish became. Writers were, at least, still driven to create something.

This weekend, Bill Maher pointed out the difference between this photo of Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital

and photos of other famous wealthy people, including Henry Ford standing beside his Model T, Woz and Steve Jobs sitting there with their first computer, and Walt Disney at his desk, drawing a cartoon.

The distinction Maher’s photos made was a powerful one. Seems like too often these days, real money doesn’t come from making anything (except more money). Those gifted at living without creating anything tend to make money from money, and, as we’ve seen, they usually manage to do this by using loopholes, bad faith, and one hell of a disregard for others. Financial services companies can use the term “product” to describe things like Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) and Credit Default Swaps (CDSs), but that’s like saying you’re a rock star because you got drunk and crashed your car. Whoever created those must surely be proud, but I have to believe it’s a different kind of pride than what an engineer or an artist might have in creating something.

With all of this in mind, it occurred to me that the best people I’ve known, those who demonstrate what I consider to be strong moral character, are always people who can make things. I’ve known devoutly religious people, people held in high esteem by their local communities, whom I’d not let anywhere near my kids. This isn’t to say every diesel mechanic is a saint, but, if you think about your business like a child, I’d much rather have doers on board than talkers. Probably the thing that shocked me so much as I moved around my part of the business world–including everything from C-level managers, to business software developers, to mergers and acquisitions specialists–was just little anyone could actually do.

To my mind the world is already too full of people so absolutely incapable of successfully performing even the most basic of tasks that they end up in upper management positions. Sadly, what that can do to a company is pretty gruesome in and of itself. Here are a few e-commerce business rules I’ve learned the hard way.

  • Upper management that’s never engaged directly with the end user is useless. If you’re a consumer-facing retailer or e-commerce store, look for management and operations people who’ve spoken to customers, one way or another, somewhere in their past. Preferably within the past year. Unless you’re Proctor and Gamble, the days of the ivory tower CEO and COO in the retail space are over.
  • Everybody should know how to write at least some code. Yes. Everybody. I’m not talking about hardcore application development, but anyone involved in marketing, management, or creative development for your company should know some basic HTML, CSS, and, preferably, some really basic Javascript. How can anyone make good decisions about business development and marketing if he or she has no idea what’s behind the curtain at a web site? It’s management with zero coding skills that leads to consumer facing web sites with Flash screens that take two minutes to load.
  • Mergers and acquisitions guys have to understand technology. Without the ability to understand how Company A is making their donuts–or at least be able to comprehend the analysis of someone who does–how can anyone making business development decisions put a real price tag on merging it with Company B. There are cases where even two relatively strong companies, brought together by a weak M and A team, become much less than the sum of their parts due to incompatible technology.
  • Marketing people should have some experience in sales and customer service. This matters not just because they need to understand the consumer’s point of view, but because they need to understand the process of their own salespeople.
  • All managers are part-time chief technology officers, especially CFOs. The basic costs associated with something like an e-commerce site can vary enormously and most companies would do well to have a watchdog along every checkpoint. If you’re paying $25,000 a month for web hosting, and don’t know enough to realize you could be paying less than $1,000, don’t assume the IT department is going to take the time to set you straight. They’re still busy trying to get the reconditioned phone system you bought on sale to work properly.

The list could really go on all day, but the basic idea stays the same. All those job ads that include phrases like “creative thinker” might not be going far enough. In order to be a creative thinker, you need to have an arsenal of skills from which to generate ideas. You need to know how to make stuff and do stuff. I’d like to think that America in particular can reverse the current trend toward generating wealth without actually producing anything useful. Maybe Mitt Romney’s a nice guy, though I doubt it, and there’d have to be documented video proof of Mitt eating a live baby for him to scare me more than Newt Gingrich, but I think there’s something inherently wrong when separating value from reward. That image of the Bain Capital guys in suits stuffed with money is the America you end up with when the people making the most money have the least to offer.

Singing Toothbrushes and Simple E-commerce

 Bikes, E-commerce  Comments Off on Singing Toothbrushes and Simple E-commerce
Jan 202012

I woke up this morning to the results of last night’s snowstorm and a Groupon ad on my phone for singing Justin Bieber toothbrushes.

Imagine for a second brushing your teeth while Justin Bieber sings in your mouth. I’m no stock broker, but you have to wonder about the Groupon’s valuation sometimes.

On my agenda this morning, besides remembering to hate neo-retro mop tops and considerable snow removal, I’m dedicating five solid minutes to lamenting the demise of Maverick. I hate to see any frame manufacturer close, let alone one that was at least trying something different, but, as a guy who spent actual money on a Maverick fork, I can’t be all that broken up about it.

Lately, I’ve been incredibly busy doing many things that generate absolutely no meaningful income for me. So many things, in fact, that it can be difficult to remember them all, let alone get to them. I’m writing some articles, and–with the obvious exception of this blog–I tend to put a lot of thought into things I write, so those have pulled me away from studying Node and some other nerd stuff. For the two readers or so out there interested in the latest update on the suspension system, there have been some positive things happening behind the curtain, but don’t expect a prototype any time soon. Somebody smarter than me’s involved now, though, and that’s kickstarted my desire to keep putting in those hours. I still believe in the design–probably now more than ever, because now, whenever I start to doubt myself, I remember that Newt Gingrich thinks he’s a tremendous asset to all Americans. Anything’s possible if you’re willing to be completely delusional.

For the probably one person out there trying to ride the rapids of my E-commerce Small Business Empowerment rants, which might sound like John Kerry trying to explain how a toaster works to anyone who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about selling things on the Internet, I just mentioned some solid, simple and free photo editing methods available for doing basic touchup. I wanted to also mention that WordPress itself has enough features to let you do just about anything without even bothering to look around. In fact, having worked with a bunch of image upload and manipulation programs, and even made some (will write code for food), the bundle of stuff you can do in WordPress is pretty impressive.

For instance, there’s this Surly Big Dummy frameset I’ve decided to sell. I’ve taken a bunch of photos of it, and WordPress lets me upload those images in bulk, and automatically groups them in a gallery for me. It’s pretty slick.

The only pain in the ass part is accidentally getting other images grouped in with that gallery–either by selecting them accidentally or by trying to add a fresh image to your post after having dropped your gallery in. Seems WP gets confused and keeps adding new images to the old gallery, which is a bit of a drag. If you write your post and then put your gallery in last, though, all should be well.

Here’s the WordPress inserted gallery of shots of the Big Dummy I’m selling.

Not fine art, but they’re clear and should answer just about any questions about the frameset.

For the next step, I’ve set up a PayPal test account, which isn’t particularly difficult, and basically gives you a fake credit card to use for development purposes.

Then I checked out WordPress shopping cart extensions–of which there are many–and picked up a free one called “WP Ultra Simple PayPal Shopping Cart.” There are lots, but this one had good documentation and, once you have the PayPal “Sandbox” (development area to test your fake credit card) set up, adding an “Add to Cart” button to your blog is as simple as pasting in some text. Another nice thing about WordPress, if you don’t write code at all, is that you can install plug-in extensions like Ultra Simple Cart just by browsing through the available extensions, selecting one, and clicking “Activate.” Pretty straightforward stuff.

Now all that’s left is to put all of this together into a blog post that would let somebody buy the Big Dummy, or anything else we’d want to post. I could see this exact method being pretty useful to any local shop interested in:

  1. Reaching customers by writing about what they know.
  2. Potentially selling off some closeout items to test out this e-commerce thing.

Again, if you’re a business, you’d want to check with your vendors before just posting anything, as there are some restrictions, but for selling off demo bikes and outdated merchandise, I really want small retailers to know there’s an option outside of eBay or Craig’s list, and it’s one that actually helps build your own brand, instead of driving people away from your shop.

A Thousand Words for Zero Dollars

 Bikes, E-commerce  Comments Off on A Thousand Words for Zero Dollars
Jan 182012

Google's censored doodle for January 18th, protesting SOPA.

I just finished sending e-mails to my various representatives, expressing opposition to SOPA, so it seems like a particularly good day to be talking about what the Internet can do for you. On a day like today, it’s nearly possible to imagine a level playing field, where communication and information between individuals isn’t owned or controlled by anyone.

So it’s a good day to look at some free resources that are out there to help small businesses ease into the wild and wacky world of e-commerce.

I’ve been stressing all along the value of creating good content. Lest you think it’s just me, consider this short article from, bemoaning the absolute lack of quality content out there. If the big companies–in every industry–were getting content right, some of what’s described in that article wouldn’t be possible; there’d be no opportunity to distinguish yourself among a bunch of white noise, because all the big companies would have already nailed content. But they haven’t, so there is. And that’s where your authenticity and knowledge as a small retailer comes in handy.

So to communicate that, you want to polish up your content, and it’s never been easier. Let’s look at images.

The old adage “An Image Says a Thousand Words” applies more than ever when it comes to digital merchandising. Maybe video will overtake images at some point as the most valuable media asset for a web retailer to generate sales, but it hasn’t happened yet. There are so many methods for searching out quality photos on the web or taking and filing away photos these days, that I don’t think it beneficial to waste time here on the obvious steps like “buy a camera” and “upload” your photos.” Suffice to say, cameras capable of high-quality photos are available for next to nothing, and most phones today take half decent photos, if not the quality of a dedicated camera. Keep in mind, we’re looking for web quality here, which isn’t as demanding as print quality, so you don’t need to hook yourself up with a $6,000 camera in order to sell things on the Internet. Another non-factor is uploading and storage. There was a time when just getting photos up to a site required a file transfer program or some ingenuity, but everything from Flickr to Google+ will let you upload and organize images pretty easily, and storage size is a non-issue. Better still, the recent versions of WordPress I’ve been discussing as the foundation of our first e-commerce configuration make uploading images, or linking directly to them from a storage area by inputting the image’s URL (the thing that’s in your browser’s address bar when you’re viewing a single image) extremely easy. Bottom-line: taking and storing images is a non-issue.

Other details are more important, though. Here are some things to consider when getting ready to “merchandise” or put a product up for sale on-line.

  1. Find Photos from the Manufacturer or Take Your Own?
    It’s almost always better to own your assets–in other words, take your own photos. This is true for a bunch of reasons, including that authenticity you hear me blathering on about so much. People want to see what you have, not the generic image. Potential buyers don’t like seeing the same factory photo everywhere they go, and they’ll often find unique photos more compelling, provided the quality isn’t poor. If you’re only listing a few products to test the e-commerce waters, you can usually shoot a bunch of photos of your product yourself, another advantage to being a little guy. If you absolutely lack a physical space to shoot photos or for some reason can’t unpackage an item for photos, using an image from the company’s site may be your only option. Never take an image from an on-line retailer, and be careful in general, as photos are property. There are cases where even the manufacturer doesn’t want its photos being used by unauthorized people. When in doubt, shoot your own photos.
  2. Shoot a Lot of Photos
    You want to take as many photos as possible, from as many key angles as possible. Have the potential buyer in mind. He or she may want to know even the slightest detail, so, if it’s a bike frame we’re photographing, don’t hesitate to get photos of the underside of the bottom bracket shell. Whenever possible always take a photo of what’s included in the box, another preemptive way to answer a lot of questions for consumers, and even how the item will be packaged when it arrives. Your goal is to put the potential buyer at lease with the decision to buy, and that means making him or her as familiar with the items as he’d be if seeing it in your store.
  3. Don’t Over-Edit
    Sometimes you need to crop a photo or resize it in order to make it look its best, but avoid fancy stuff like trying to cut a bike frame out of a busy background. These things often end up looking worse than if you’d just snapped the photo and posted it. Don’t go crazy trying to make it perfect, or it’ll look worse than a basic photo.
  4. Pay Attention to Your Background
    The setup for the image, and understanding what it says about your product and about you, is very important. There’s no point in offering up terrifying examples of bad images from Craig’s list, because BikeSnobNYC has made an absolute art form of it. Suffice to say, pay attention to what you have in the background, and what it says about you (I once had someone send me a photo of his personal commuting bike to help him determine proper handlebar position, and the image included a woman holding her head in her hands in the background). You shouldn’t be expected to spend three hours on each photo, cutting out the image and setting it against a new white background, but you should be able to touch it up as necessary to make sure it helps potential customers feel comfortable purchasing from you.

  5. Understand Consistency
    You might not have that much room for your photos, and it’s OK for viewers to see some extra stuff in the background of your image, but you need to keep some aspect of the photos consistent from one photo to another. If you’re taking pictures of whole bicycle, you may want to vary the location of their photos, but try to maintain some cohesion from one round of product photos to the next. If a close up of the drive side crankset was taken for one bike, it should be taken for others. Why? Because some aspects of repetition build comfort for your consumers. In the earliest days of my original e-commerce store, I had no room anywhere for photos on rainy days, so I took every gallery photo of a customer’s bike on the shop couch. It became a rite of passage to see a great, custom-built bike up on the same couch–so much so that customers who’d built their bikes up at home often sent in photos of their own bike on their couches (I can only imagine what their significant others thought about those photo shoots).

Regardless of how “DIY” and simple your site and your approach to merchandising some products, it’s just a fact that graphic design will come into play, and that’s where today’s free resources come in handy. For most people photo editing means Adobe’s Photoshop, but for the work most of us will need to do, Photoshop is overkill. Here are some free alternatives that will do the basics (crop, resize, sharpen), along with my personal choice.

First, consider the web-based photo editing services out there. They’re everywhere now, and probably it’s only a matter of time until WordPress bundles drastically better photo editing capability right into their already good image upload and file management system.

Picnik handles most of what you could need without any fees or hassles, and it’s particularly good at adjusting exposure to and shadows to help smooth out otherwise inconsistent images.

Picasa is a Google product that can be bundled with Google+–Google’s social networking platform, which I’m found to be a much better place for storing and managing information than interacting ala Facebook. If you like to tinker, you can configure a decent little image assembly line out of these Google products, and Picasa itself offers decent features like side-by-side image editing and borders.

FotoFlexer bills itself as “the world’s most advanced online photo editor,” and they might be right. You can smooth and fade in FotoFlexer, and it works well, which is pretty rare for online image editors, and the layout and overall functionality scored high with me. Of on-line resources, I’d spend some time with this one, though the downside is that they make you watch ads.

Gimp. That’s right, “Gimp.” Unlike on-line editors–which all seem pretty obsessed with letting you create stupid neon effects and stuff, the Gimp is a free, open source Photoshop replacement. Is it as good as Photoshop? Oh hell no (though die-hard Gimp fans would argue this). Is it really freaking amazing for a free program? You bet. For years, I handled all graphic design work for a three-million dollar e-commerce store using only the Grimp. I even used it to queue up print ads, which I then imported into another free vector-based editor to get ready for magazine publication. You can trace and cut out image content in the Gimp, do extensive effects work like dropping shadows, and generally do everything you can do in Photoshop, and there’s an extensive library of free resource material out there, as well as dedicated Gimp how-to books. It’s not as polished as Photoshop, and it’s not perfect, but you can run a decent sized company without investing anything in graphic design with this program.

Displaying quality images of your products doesn’t just increase the odds that they’ll sell; it also helps market your store as a brand. It goes to your reputation. Perceived reputation of an on-line store is one of the top considerations of shoppers, and they associate thing like organization and image quality with a well run operation. Even if you’re a very small business–hell, even if you’re just one person selling something–there is a tremendous advantage to professional-looking content, including cleaned up images, and it’s surprisingly easy now for anyone to display unique, high-quality images.

Occupy the Internet, Small Business Style

 Bikes, E-commerce  Comments Off on Occupy the Internet, Small Business Style
Jan 172012

Ah, the Internet, that terrifying behemoth hell-bent on destroying small business in America. Or not. You know how politicians start to talk about the evils of class warfare only after a large enough percentage of Americans are poor enough to face a little pepper spray? How class warfare isn’t ever brought up in relation to, say, an orchestrated effort to carpet bomb the middle class? Well, there’s a similar bit of tomfoolery afoot when it comes to the Internet. Only when the Best Buys and Targets of the world start to get hurt by the likes of Amazon do The Powers That Be start to swivel their fat, old white heads in that general direction to figure out which party has the most money and can be declared a winner. But what about the mom and pop stores? As I pointed out in the past, Amazon has been strangling small retailers out of existence for some time now–or that’s not entirely accurate: they’ve been leading them to their candy cottage in the woods with a trail of gumdrops, boiling them down to bones and sucking out the marrow.

But that doesn’t have to happen to all small retailers.

As I’ve argued, the absolute worst mistake a small business can make is to believe “Amazon” and “the Internet” the same thing. The Internet and its possibilities far exceed Amazon. It belongs to all small businesses, and if you’re not using it, you should be.

My friend Kyle posted a link to an interesting article in the New York Times that supports the notion that “little guys” still have a place on the Internet. The gist is that some consumers will pay more to support local stores–regardless of where those “local” stores are located. In other words, a guy in Kansas might by drumsticks from Drumworld near Pittsburgh, instead of, Musican’s Friend, an enormous web retailer, or Amazon. The article raises some good points, but also fails to flesh out the actual consumer making these decisions as anything much more than altruistic. In fact, there are plenty of self-serving reasons why consumers choose to shop with smaller e-commerce companies, and chief among them is product knowledge and attention to detail. Amazon can process millions of orders a day and offer low prices, but are they truly a resource for a lot of what they sell? Can you call someone at Amazon and talk drum sticks, or espresso makers? What about rear mountain bike tires, saddles?

Sure you can have reviews on mega-sites, but there’s a place on the Internet for qualified opinions, and actual quality product information, too. That place is the small retailer’s site.

Before the whole Specialized vs. Volagi madness took center stage, I was looking at some practical and specific ways for any small business to easily test the e-commerce waters. We looked at the importance of becoming a knowledge base for people, an authentic and trusted source of quality information, and from there we moved into getting specific and setting up a basic WordPress site. Today I’m offering some organizational tips and organizational resources to help you get ready to merchandise your product on-line.

Know Your Product Categories and Attributes

Even if you’ll only be posting one item at a time, trust me, you need to know that product’s category and its attributes. Category is a relatively simple term, but give it sufficient thought. You might not have a fancy database to work with right now, but, trust me, life will be much easier for you later on if you start thinking in these terms now. So I have this Surly Big Dummy frame and fork (aka “frameset”) I’m thinking of posting up here for sale. How would I categorize it? Start super-broad and then zoom in. Here’s on example.

Sports and Outdoors > Cycling > Frames and Framesets > Framesets (include the fork) > Commuting/Cargo

Try to define your category first, then check your work against the overlord of all things taxonomy and classification, Google:

Google Product Taxonomy Example

Now change your category structure to make it like Google. Why am I acting like such a badass when it comes to Amazon, but shrinking from going against the Google grain? Because Google’s in the business of getting your products found by people who need them. Think your product is unique enough that you need your own taxonomy and should ignore Google’s? Make sure you haven’t been drinking, and then model it as closely as possible, because chances are you’re wrong, but always keep in mind that you can be more specific than Google. Once they stop at “bicycle frames,” for instance, I might keep sub-dividing into “frame” and “frame and fork” categories. Whatever you do, never be more vague than they are. Why not just check the Google link I’ve provided first? Because you want to train yourself to think in terms of categories. It’s like crunches for the rippling six pack e-commerce abs you’ll eventually have. One day you might be sitting in a room listening to a pitch from a search engine ranking specialist, and suddenly realize–thanks to your well developed understanding of this stuff-that he’s full of shit. You’d be surprised how big an advantage instinctive organization can be when it comes to getting your information found, and making site visitors happy.

“Attributes” is by now a technical term in the world of content management systems for serious e-commerce companies, but everyone should use them. Simply put, they’re aspects of a product that lets people compare it to other similar products. “Color” and “size” are examples of very common attributes, but when thinking about what you want to sell, you want to be much better organized than just listing these really common attributes (sometimes referred to as “options” because they’re the attributes that most often show up in pull-down menus on product pages). Knowing a fill list of your product’s attributes means answering all questions a consumer might have–consumers tend to like that. For examples of bad or completely missing attributes, try to buy something complicated off Craig’s list. Here’s an example from the Big Dummy frameset I’m going to sell:

  • Frame Material
  • Head Tube Type
  • Fork Steerer Tube Diameter
  • Seatpost Diameter
  • Rear Dropout Spacing
  • Rear Dropout Type
  • Maximum Tire Size
  • Wheel Size
  • Front Dropout Spacing
  • Water Bottle Bosses
  • Color
  • Size

So that’s the list of questions you want to be able to answer for your site visitor. Think of the resulting set of attributes as “tags,” because all attributes are essentially information tags that help people find things. And by all means refer to Amazon and other retailers already selling the item in question, and check out their attributes, too. There’s always a chance they thought of more attributes than you have, and your goal should be to answer all of the customers’ questions as quickly and easily as possible.

From here we want to look at some free and simple resources that are out there to help you merchandise your product. That’s where we’ll be going next.

Do It Yourself

 Bikes, E-commerce  Comments Off on Do It Yourself
Jan 132012

If you build it, they will come. Then you can run them over.

So you want to be able to sell stuff on the Internet, eh? There’s eBay and even Amazon, but, if this blog has had a common theme of late, it’s been pushing independent retailers–particularly bike shops–to start thinking about e-commerce, and to take charge of things themselves. Given the huge shift in consumer shopping patterns, I think it’s borderline inexcusable that so few retailers have yet to expand onto the Internet in at least some way. Selling things on eBay is great, and can get you added exposure for your shop, but it won’t build the same kind of following that a blog will, and why send people away from your site, when it’s just as easy to sell them stuff right there in your blog?

My particular angle is that small, aggressive and hard-working but underfunded businesses should be leveraging the Internet as much as possible, because there’s never been a better equalizer in the world of business–or the world, in general–as the Interet. With the right approach, small retailers can compete with much larger companies.

Some entrenched brick-and-mortar retailers–the kind that tend to strangle the smaller and sometimes much more dedicated and knowledgeable retailers–will bitch that nobody should be allowed to sell anything on the Internet and all this needs to stop, these kids with their punk rock music and texting, etc., etc. To these retailers I would only say, don’t worry, guys. This whole Internet things is just a fad. You can go back to sleep now.

While I’ve been offering some general advice about first steps retailers can take, I hold particular disdain for business consulting bullshit-mongers who make big promises to small businesses based on vague concepts and expensive products and services. Having searched for small business resources on-line myself, I know what it’s like to try to find answers to even the most common questions about taking a business on-line. The sheer number of graphics-heavy sites that lack any substance whatsoever, snake-oil salesmen pitching “SEO” ranking systems, and “white papers” about “synergizing the maximization of your ROI” is staggering.

The services industry built to support small business can be a vague and spooky place. I’ve always hated that.

So in thinking about ways small businesses can begin selling products on-line, I wanted to be specific. So far, I’ve stressed the importance of having content. Your shop is a brand. That brand doesn’t just sell products; it sells itself–its customer service, its knowledge, its story. Establishing a brand is the first and most crucial step in integrating e-commerce into your business. Once you’re generating content, though, it’s time to look for really inexpensive ways to start selling stuff.

Again, a personal goal is for my advice to be based on doing instead of talking, so let’s look at one very specific way you make your first Internet sale. This is a work in progress that I’m going through for the first time myself, and we’ll only cover the first part today.

Start Selling On-line, Part 1: WordPress

The first step is to set up a WordPress blog. I should have written “decide on a platform,” but just use WordPress. You may prefer a different method for communicating with your customers, but I recommend WordPress for a few reasons. First, it’s a totally developed “ecosystem,” which is a fancy bullshit term that’s come to mean “an organized place with rules and standards so that lots of people can contribute to it.” That means you can bolt-on all kinds of capabilities. Second, it’s pretty simple and stable. Enough people are using it that lots of resources exist to help you get questions answered, and it lets you do a lot without knowing much, if anything, about writing code or how websites work. My eleven-year-old writes her own book review site for kids using a WordPress blog. If you already have your own basic web site, there are also ways to embed a WordPress blog pretty easily, which is nice.

Another reason to use WordPress is that my detailed instructions are going to pertain to it, though a lot of what I write can be extrapolated out to apply to similar systems.

Step 1: Get Some

You can sign up for a free WordPress blog pretty easily. It’ll have ads and stuff, which sucks, and won’t have as much room to store images and videos, and won’t let you customize that much, but, well, it’s free.

A cheap alternative is get a domain name and to go to an inexpensive host. If you go this route, you’ll want to pick out a domain name–like (that one probably isn’t taken). My goal isn’t to go through how to set up a domain name here, but I can offer help with that, if anyone out there needs it. E-mail me. Usually, you can just contact a host and they’ll help you out from there, but they charge more, so consider going to a place that specializes in domain name registration, like,, or Yes, the GoDaddy guy can be a sexist prick who murders elephants and they supported the flaming bag of shit that is SOPA, before caving and fighting it, but they’re cheap, and really all domain name registrars are massive assholes. If you go this route, just close your eyes and pick one.

After you have a domain name, you want to find a host. I use Bluehost, and for something like $6 a month or so, you can host a site–a bunch of sites, actually–on a server there. Most importantly, they make it incredibly easy to install WordPress, and many other things, on your site. I recommend you find a host that offers this easy installation service, as it makes your life so much easier. Bluehost literally has a feature on the dashboard that lets you manage your site called “Simple Scripts.” Click it and you’ll see a bunch of programs you can install right into your site files with one click. Instant WordPress site.

One additional advantage to paying a little for your own domain name and host is that you can have your own swanky e-mail addresses. No more, “” Setting up e-mail accounts is also outside my scope here, but easy to do. Use the form at the right to contact me if you need help. Again, with just a little guidance, this is really easy to set up.

My goal is to make this a really basic–and extremely specific–introduction, so that’s it for now. Anyone interested in taking me up on this, please feel free to comment or use the e-mail box to contact me, and I’ll be happy to help. I would love to help any small bike shops out there.

Next week, we add the ability to sell stuff. I have a Surly Big Dummy frameset I’ve decided not to build up, and that will be our 40lb guinea pig. Before you know it, you’ll be a freakin’ Internet entrepreneur. Or at least able to unload that set of Tioga Farmer John’s tires you still have right from your very own blog.

The Social Graft

 Bikes, E-commerce  Comments Off on The Social Graft
Jan 122012

Andy Warhol prophetically said, “Everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,” which tends to increasingly sum up what passes for life here in the 21st Century, but he also said,

An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.”

Maybe a little more prophetic. Imagine how many artists there are on the Internet right now, how many pieces of art we step over in the street or delete from our inboxes. Imagine the scale of some of these works. From credit default swaps to the Kardashians, “Hoarders” to Silicon Valley, we’re crawling with art–though I’m pretty sure today we call it “content.” As the walls close in we become increasingly connected to everything around us, social networks seem like the new Model-T assembly lines of a different kind of industrial revolution. Now we’re all content providers. Now we’re all artists.

Might as well sell that shit.

I’ve been writing about e-commerce and what I see as the increasingly low barrier of entry for businesses not yet selling products on the Internet. For any small business that still feels the task is too daunting, I’d recommend redefining your idea of “e-commerce.” Given all the white noise around us each day, forget “launching an e-commerce storefront” and begin by asking yourself what about your brand has value to people.

You can offer products to people later, but if you’re not already busy selling your own brand to the world, it’s time to start. The popularity of business books claiming to offer the secrets of “delivering great customer service experiences” suggests how you run your business, not what you sell, is what really matters. Products can be added later, but you can be marketing your store to everyone right now.

I think this is what burned me about that letter Specialized’s founder, Mike Sinyard sent to his dealers recently. For all the lip service brands like Specialized pay their dealers about the value of customer service and achieving a great customer experience, it’s completely counter their business strategy for you, Mr. Independent Retailer, to market your own brand above all else.

Some things to think about:

  1. Do you consider a bike company’s “concept store” to be competition? How about a concept store six states away from you?
  2. What defines you aside from the brands you sell? “Service” is a bullshit answer. What about your service is better than every other shop anywhere?
  3. Draw a circle around your market on the map. Now draw a circle around your demographic.
  4. What are the three best things about your store’s web site? Do you own them?

You are a brand. Joe’s Bike Shop is a brand. It has relationships with customers and with vendors, but if we steal the “social graph” concept from Facebook for a second, let’s look at how you’re connected to your life-blood: your customers. Do they shop with you only because of your location? Only because of the brands you offer? Or does something else drive your sales? Put another way, is it you that connects with your customers, or do you connect only by proxy, though something else, something you don’t control?

“Social graft” is a term I like to use to describe the ways big companies are increasingly making direct contact with their end users, bypassing their own traditional dealer networks. Specialized can sell tires directly to your customers now, while you’re still stuck waiting for somebody to walk in your door. That’s bullshit.

If I sound a little militant about this, I am. This is a critical time in a battle too few retailers seem to notice. See, I believe small businesses are the best thing about Capitalism, but, just as the Middle Class is being strangled out of existence in America, so too are independent businesses, stores that really do have something to offer the world, independent of the products they offer. The struggling independent bike dealer is the quintessential example of this.

The irony here is that it’s never been easier to sidestep the limitations of your physical location, and the Powers That Be, those brands that try to control your business. Forget all the marketing bullshit you’ve heard about social media and why it matters to your company. The real reason it matters is simply because direct connections matter. Social media isn’t just about your lead mechanic giving the world constant Twitter updates about his favorite breakfast cereals, or about sending out e-mails to announce sales. Sure, it can be about both of those things–if they offer value to people–but really it’s about understanding the new opportunity you have to speak directly to potential customers anywhere in the world. It’s time to define the value of your own brand and get it out there for people. There are plenty of other companies that want to get between you and your customers, but you have a nearly endless number of tools to keep that from happening.