Thursday, September 13, 2012

Is REI an LBS?

For the longest time, I've had REI's website linked, on the RH sidebar of this blog, on the list that falls under the heading titled "Support Your LBS".


At the time I built the list, I had a friend and friends-of-this-friend working there, and it seemed pretty justifiable to include Goliath on the list of Davids, since wages were being paid to locals (albeit out of giant corporate coffers) and therefore funelling back into the Spo economy. And more importantly, because I would be a hypocrite, since I spend money there and since I've been touched by their terrific service, including warranty service, that really focuses, at the macro level, on making you feel like you matter. Because you do, at the macro level. And let's be real - they have tons of low and mid range shit in stock, that targets your macro, mainstream bike consumer appetite, because they have such amazing buying power.
Having the link there has always naggled at me a bit, but I was able to file it into the low-level buzz folder, so it was easy to ignore. Or in other words, not enough to do anything about it.

I was treated to an amazing conversation tonight, with someone who understands Spokane bike business extremely well. I learned a lot, but the big head-slapping, how-could-I-have-not-understood-this moment was when he explained to me how much pressure REI puts on our LBS's, with their annual sales events and 20% discounts and all the marketing hypnotism they possess. Which translates to how much bike revenue they suck up and effectively limits how many LBS's our community can support and what said LBS's can do in terms of living wages and benefits for their employees.

So back to the original question: "Is REI an LBS?" They're certainly working hard to make you think they are.

I'm channeling Dustin Hoffman's character from Rain Man at this point: "Definitely not. Definitely not." Can't believe it took me this long to reach that conclusion.

I've no intent to slam REI. The answer to the question of where and how to responsibly and valuably spend your bike dollars isn't simple. As of tonight, though, REI's off my LBS list. I'm human and therefore attracted to their clothes and camping gear and all other manner of outdoor bling and when I need some bike part at 7:30 at night and no one else is open (let me just be honest) I'm glad they're here. And I'll walk through their doors many times again and they'll certainly welcome me back as one of their fine macro customers, but I'll think a lot harder about the coin I'm dropping and who's pocket it's dropping into and especially with bike stuff, how my spending is affecting our true LBS's.

There's still only one place you can get real, micro (aka "personal") service and that's at the LBS level, and just speaking for me, it's important. So I'll be putting some money where my mouth is.

14 comments:

Travis said...

To continue the discussion, Do you support local outdoor shops like Mountain Goat Outfitters and Mountain Gear for camping gear? They both carry the same brands, at the same prices as REI, they just put the $ back into the local economy instead of the macro.

Pat S said...

Travis, good point, I was actually thinking about that overnight. I've certainly spent money at the local shops but have to admit that REI is often my default, or first stop. I think some renewed consciousness is probably in order.

John Speare said...

This is a great question. Liza worked at a LBS and at the REI shop for a while. While REI is a corporate entitiy -- IMO, that doesn't put it on the same ethical plane as places like Walmart -- unlike *most* (not all) LBSs, mechanics at REI will have benefits and options for moving around the company -- within or across stores.

As for mechanics at the local REI, i'd put Gaz, Dan, and Jason up agaisnt any of the other great mechanics at the other LBSs.

The "bigness" of REI and it's buying power, makes it a formidable competitor to the LBS -- but that bigness also allows REI to give back to communities in a real way: REI makes a point of putting money back into the local recreation/outdoor/conservation pool.

To be clear: i'm not suggesting that other LBSs don't contribute -- just look any local race and see the swag from LBS's -- or Mountain Gear's presence at just about every big bike event. My point is that in these ways, REI acts like a good local shop too.

If I'm sounding like an apologist here, maybe I am -- but the LBS biz is one of the hardest remaining brick/mortor enterprises around: REI is a threat, but I think the Interent is way huger. REI is a local/physical target --

There's not a single LBS person who hasn't encountered the guy who bought some cheap thing online and wants the LBS to provide service for it -- or worse, who brings in a print-out of some web page with a ridiculously low price and expects the LBS to match it.

Here's a part that will piss off LBS aplogists. Show me a shop ANYWHERE in a 50 mile radius where Jane Doe, no racey bike person, can go and look at many different urban/city/comfort/trail bikes? LBSs in this area just don't have a handle on this demographic. They can't let go of their racer/performance roots.

In the end: I say REI should stay on your list. Whether it's called an "LBS" can be up for debate.

(btw: my "prove your not a robot" string starts with '559' -- that's what i'm talking about -- is that some kind of partnership tie in w blogger and 26InchSlicks?)

Anonymous said...

REI may not be an LBS, but it is organized as a member cooperative. Members can vote for the directors (not that we actually do) and get a share of the profits as a percentage of your purchases (the famous dividend).

Although cooperatives are not always benign, and usually get worse as they get larger, imho REI is a relatively good actor. Mostly they're giving economy of scale in purchases. Without REI, I couldn't afford a lot of the good shit.

I think worse actors are probably truly corporate entities that often undercut on price, prefer to locate in strip malls, pay workers badly, etc.

Scale also means that, unlike ma-and-pop stores, REI has a design shop that produces new, and often very good gear, under the REI brand. (Admittedly, some of this gear appears to be generic knockoffs, shhhh.) Unlike resellers like Big 5, REI's total culture from store to directors does give the sense that they reflect the culture of sport participants.

Also look also at where the goods at your LBS (and REI and Big 5 and Walmart) are manufactured; its not black and white. When everything everywhere is made by low-wage workers abroad, nobody has clean hands.

I'd suggest that REI is a middle road between LBS and truly corporate entities.

It would be a clearer distinction if Performance opened up a shop in town. That would be the real nightmare for your LBS.

Anonymous said...

REI is Cabelas for hipsters

Cabelas is the General Store for posers.

I shop at all of them because I'm a hipster redneck poser.


rory said...

I'll step back and ask, what are you referring to with "LBS"? it's an interesting time for brick and morters. any business has to always ask the question "what am i providing to the community that they are willing to buy?" successful ones seem to market the idea rather then the actual product. REI sells adventures. Apple sells apps. if a bike shop focuses on selling bikes, they're not going to get very far. however, a bike shop that focuses on selling the idea of biking get's further.

Bike shops that involve themselves with activities for their customers will go further then REIs or Performance Bike Shops, I would hope. While REI sells some basic bike adventures, Spokane is ripe for selling more then the basic. there are plenty of good road or mountain rides to be had. better yet, a bike shop focusing on fashionable commuting would be awesome as well.
engage the community...

Pat S said...

John, Anon1, Rory (Anon2, your comments notwithstanding):
Thanks for the great, thoughtful responses. I've spent the last 24-ish hours dwelling on this topic for no other reason than that I have a fine-print statement on my blog encouraging my tens-of-thousands of readers to "support their LBS", and in light of some fresh perspective I received yesterday, it was time for me to re-evaluate what that meant, so that (at least I could delude myself into thinking that) I could more clearly understand what that meant.

It's not a black-and-white issue; it's grayer than ever. And mass-market forces will render any of my lame viewpoints and miniscule expenditures pointless, so it's just an excercise. But I don't give a krap, it's an important one. What I intend to do is to stucture where and how I spend my bike dollars as if they mattered in shaping my vision of the local bike shop landscape. I don't wish REI gone . . . I love having them here because they have a great selection of stuff that you can get your hands on and feel. And because they have late hours and great sales on name-brand gear. And because they're good citizens. But one of the things they've never offered me is a quality personal relationship/friendship that I've found a number of different times at the true LBs's (defined as locally-owned by people that live here in Spokane and that are likely making financial sacrifices because they love what they do) that I've dealt with over time. Nothing against them, I just don't know how they ever could. They're too busy dealing with the masses that are driven their way by the mothership.

Those LBS relationships, even though they're rooted in commerce, well they're real. Because the bond is a passion for bikes. Not that the REI mechanics/sales staff aren't passionate about bikes, but the mechanism just doesn't allow them to share it on an intimate level, like an LBS does.

So I've asked myself quite a few times what it is I'm trying to say here and I'm sure you've asked yourself that question far more times, but it's that I like what the true LBS has to offer and I want to be more conscious about how I spend my bike dollarz in proportion to what I value. It's that simple.

Geez, how did I get off on such a serious tangent. Not my style. Enough, then.

John, 559? Busted. Shit, you bastard. I was in kahootz with blogger - we were gonna split revenues on the next big marketing kraze . . . . the five-fifty-niner. Hey, it's way more PG than the sixty-niner, which was my second-choice scheme for getting rich, and something I was exponentially more excited about . . . getting porn stars and like-minded wannabees on bikes. Back to the salt mines with me, then.

Erik said...

REI is certainly no Walmart, but don't let the rhetoric on wages and benefits fool you into thinking they do that for all their employees. "Full Time Status" is required in order to get insurance, and if the management only puts you on the schedule for 35 hours a week, they don't have to give you shit.


REI is not a place that professional bike mechanics flock to for work. Any skilled and experienced wrench will look for a shop that actually cares about the quality of the build and the repair work. A real bike shop can survive on bike related business and nothing else in the warm months, maybe ski equipment in the cold months.

Bicycles are a specialty. If you have to push kayaks, hiking boots, and plastic toys along with the bikes, you ain't runnin a bike shop. If you make your living in bicycles, you don't want REI on your resume'.

The mechanics I've known at REI have all been fresh out of U.B.I. with zero prior experience and just couldn't find work anywhere else. Ask around bike shops and most of them will tell you that they really don't see REI as a threat to their business because their staff is generally very inexperienced with bicycle product. This is one of the truly screwed things about REI's bike department: They'll only hire a mechanic with a certificate from one of the only 2 accredited "bike schools". This is outright goofy. Even UBI acknowledges that their "pro mechanic's" course is only worth - at best - a very basic understanding of a limited range of equipment. Walk into REI as a legit mechanic with a decade-long resume' and a laundry-list of references and they'll completely ignore you.

"So your $2,000 rig needs a complete overhaul? That'll be $200, now hand it over to the graduate of a 2-week UBI course."

I feel bad for their customers, more than anything.

Judy Iscariot said...

Where would Jesus shop?

I'm thinking Pedals to People.

Pat S said...

Judy (if that is indeed your real name), true.

But I can't support the creation of "WWJS". We already have more than enough acronyms/initialisms.

Jesus Christ [REAL NAME]™ said...

Pat (if indeed that is your real name), be not anxious about where you shall shop. Surely your father in heaven sees your need for abnormally large tires and will provide them for you.

Anyway, I don't bike. I had a grocery cart I "liberated" from Rosauers and was happily pushing it around town distributing loaves I found in a dumpster. (I passed on the fishes, phew!) I can tell you this much--we didn't have any me-damned security cameras back in Galillee! Me H. Christ! Dude can't even wander onto Gonzaga's campus, feed the ducks, and mock a priest or two before BAM! I got SpoPo-ed from here to Sunday.

Anyway, glad to see folks on bikes. Walking on water is a piece of cake, but riding one of those is a miracle.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I hear Lance Armstrong calling...

Allah, the Comassionate, the Omniscient, And So Forth And So On [REAL NAMES]™ said...

LOL, yo Jesus, try riding a TRIcycle. Get it, the old "three-in-one"? LOL, OMM, I crack Myself up.

FWIW, I think Lance did it. You're about to hear a confession. If not, and if it were Me, I'd threaten his other ball and then go heavy on the mercy when he cracks. But, Your call.

Hey Bro, I've been trying Your Peace-on-Earth schtick over in the Middle East, notice? Maybe you could give me some pointers? I'm kinda rusty.

I mean, I LOVE My followers--excellent cuisine, Ya gotta admit--but they get so damn EXCITED!

Mohammed is still pissed at that video. I TOLD Him, stick with the "no representation" and beams of light clauses, but He claims they promised George f'n Clooney not some cracker with a paste-on beard! Now He's stuck with trying to buy back the rights, but it's all over the webz. Holy Shit.

Anywho, You got crazies enough of Your own. That Romney, hello?

My best to Your Mom. Say hey to Mary Magdalene. (Wink wink, nudge nudge say-no-more.)

Love,

Allah

Krishna [ANGLICIZEDNAMEFORGORAS]™ said...

Hey Al, Damn, you are looking All-Powerful these days, love the abs.

Yo J, you riding cross this year? Just kidding!

Hey, see You's at the Buddha at 4:20, if You's know what mean!

Gopal

Loki said...

I didn't even know Mount Olympus had an LBS. Very cool. I'm just waiting for Zeus to walk in and do his RELEASE THE KRAKEN bit.

Wish he'd never seen that movie. I actually miss the original Titans, they brought a certain grandeur to godliness.