This is the Modem World: Fear and loathing in the local bike shop

Joshua Fruhlinger
J. Fruhlinger|11.28.12

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This is the Modem World: Fear and loathing in the local bike shop

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

By now, Cyber Monday is probably as big as Black Friday in terms of sales and retail excitement. According to IBM's Smarter Commerce arm, Cyber Monday online sales jumped 30 percent this year. A few years ago, Cyber Monday seemed to start as a joke, e-tailers heaving a "me too" at everyone returning to work, hoping to pick up a couple extra sales from those who didn't score on Black Friday.

This was, of course, when brick-and-mortar shops still outsold their online brethren. Blockbuster Video still occupied mini-malls; Barnes & Noble sold CDs and didn't know a thing about tablets. There was a quiet respect for brick-and-mortar stores in the quaint nature of Cyber Monday: 20 percent off underwear and free shipping, but that was about it.

While some venture out to the big stores to wrestle for a 32-inch, $149 LCD TV that they'd never buy any other day, the rest of us are content to stay home and pick off the good deals as they float by in cyberspace. We watch videos of seemingly normal people pummel one another in animalistic feeding frenzies just to get their hands on phones, socks and microwaves. And we say, "Yeah, no."

I'm one of the latter set: The notion of entering a store on Black Friday is about as appealing to me as a dentist appointment in the dead of winter, but I'm quite happy to pick off some good online deals.

This year, I was in the market for a new mountain bike. My first move, of course, was to look online where I found a multitude of great deals, free shipping and, of course, no tax. I then checked online communities like where I was guilted into checking my local bike shop. For not much more money, it was argued, I'd establish a relationship with a local dealer who would also service my bike and hook me up with equipment and accessories over the life of the bike.

This sounded nice. I like relationships. So I set out to visit two of the most reputable bike shops in the area, money at the ready, in the dead of Black Friday.

The first shop was set up for the big day with a clearance tent out front full of last year's shoes and pedals. I sauntered past into the showroom and over to the mountain bikes. I stood, staring, waiting for help from one of the three unoccupied salespeople. After 10 minutes, not one approached me. Finally, I walked up to the counter to ask a young, Bieber-esque dude if I could get some help. Without leaving the comfort of the counter, he asked, "What are you looking at?"

"Well, I'm not sure, but I wanted to check out the Specialized and Yetis you have."

"What's your budget?"

"I'm still figuring that out."

He was still behind the counter. I told him I'd come back when he wasn't so busy.

Things felt better as I walked into the next shop. It was a smaller affair without tents, and I was immediately approached by someone who looked like he knew a thing or two about the sport. The guy was nice, but unfortunately I knew more about the equipment they were selling than they did, and this was only after maybe three hours of Googling.

I asked for model comparisons and he replied, "I mean, well, they're about the same."

This was for two bikes with a $500 price differential.

I asked to see a particular pedal and before I could ask to see another to compare, he walked to the back, returned with a box in hand, handed it to me and left me to carefully unpack it in fear of ripping the packaging before I made any purchase decisions. He gave me the feeling that he had better things to do than deal with me.

I thanked him and asked for his card, resigned to do my ordering online and without local love. Perhaps I didn't make it clear enough that I was ready to buy. A friend suggested that I probably looked like I knew what I was doing and that they didn't need to educate me. Maybe I had "Online Deal Freeloader" written all over my face and he knew I was a lost cause.

When I returned home, I dropped an email to my chosen e-tailer asking if they had any Black Friday specials running. A nice person named Mike called me within five minutes and offered a 15 percent discount and free shipping. He was able to explain the difference between various models and helped me pick the best option based on my riding style and experience. He then recommended some pedals based on his own personal experience and threw them in at a heavy discount. He created a custom shopping cart, sent me a link via email and the deal was done.

Maybe it's me -- it probably is -- but I'm pretty sure that I'm of a generation of shoppers who prefer to do their dealing digitally. Pricing, features and customer service appear to be on the up-and-up when it comes to online retailers. The brick-and-mortar versions, however, come off as survival games that, to this path-of-least-resistance shopper, aren't worth the trip.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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