Style & Then Some

In praise of independent bike shops

A recent visit to two very different bike repair shops has left me ruminating on the indie vs chain store debate.

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My bike, as much as I love it, is very old and often in need of repair. Not that I mind – I  think the ancient frame and rickety wheels act as a theft deterrent in this bike crime-ridden city (according to TFL, 50 bicycles are stolen in London everyday). But it does mean a lot of visits to the bike repair shop.

Until about a year ago I used to frequent Dial A Bike, the tiny workshop squashed between the market stalls of Strutton Ground off Victoria Street. It was a one-man-band set up, well-priced and I liked supporting an independent trader. But when Dial A Bike sadly closed, I was forced to go to Evans Cycles on Vauxhall Bridge Road.

I probably went to Evans about half a dozen times over a year, and at first it seemed OK, although the prices were noticeably higher that Dial A Bike. But after the seriously unsatisfactory service I received on my last visit I won’t be going back.

The problem was with my back wheel. The tyre seemed to be rubbing against the frame so badly that you could hear the friction and it got to the point where I couldn’t turn the pedals. I took my bike down to Evans on my lunch break and handed it over to a guy who took it downstairs to the workshop and reappeared five minutes later saying everything was fixed and there would be no charge. So far so good right? Well, no. I got back on my bike outside and the problem was still there.

I returned to Evans after work and left, ten minutes later, dumbfounded by the lazy, inattentive approach I had witnessed. There was a different guy on the shop floor this time. I explained the problem and he said he thought the mud guard was rubbing against the tyre, but he couldn’t really work out where. He said the wheel was old and could do with replacing, then he started looking at the chain, saying it was a bit loose.

Now, I’m now bicycle expert, but it was clear the issue here was nothing to do with the chain. Finally, he suggested I could ‘mess about’ with the rods that connect the mud guards to the wheel and see if I could fix it myself. Now I’m no business expert either, but I thought the point of a bike repair shop was to repair bikes? This guy, whose manner could at best be described as laid back, seemed like he couldn’t care less about whether he repaired it or not. I was quite baffled, and I decided to get a second opinion.

Boy, am I glad I did, because my experience at Balfe’s Bikes in Kennington was spectacular in comparison. I took my bike in to the shop on Kennington Road and a friendly chap (I think from this page it was Tom) hoisted it up and said he thought there was a problem with the axle. I left it there and he called later to say indeed there was, the axle had fallen apart inside (bear with me on the technical details here) and to check I was OK with the £25 charge for a replacement. He also called back shortly after to say it was all done and ready to pick up. I gave it a test run after doing so and it seemed the tire was still rubbing slightly. No problem, said Tom, see how it goes and if it looks like the mud guard needs replacing too come back and we’ll do that and won’t charge you for the labour. I did just that (it cost £34.99) and now my bike is good as new – well, old, really. So not only did Evans leave me feeling distinctly unsatisfied, they also lost out on £60 of my custom.

What’s the moral of the story here? That independent bike shops are always better than big name branches? Well, obviously, not always. Clearly, in this customer service contest Balfe’s obliterated Evans, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say this is a common finding in the indie versus chain store debate (Evans Cycles has 48 branches, Balfe’s has three). I’d wager there are many different reasons why smaller retailers of all kinds – from bakeries to bike shops – tend to offer a more pleasant shopping experience. Maybe it’s because they’re more keenly aware of the value of word of mouth, knowing that building up a trusted reputation breeds customer loyalty. Maybe it’s because, in contrast, huge chains tend to have a more target-driven culture which leads to lower employee satisfaction and higher staff turnover. I can only speculate in this case, but I definitely know where I’ll be heading when my old but beloved bike is next in need of attention.

What do you think? Have you ever had a similar experience? Do independent shops always offer better customer service? Leave a comment below.


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This entry was posted on March 24, 2013 by in And Then Some and tagged , , , , , .
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