Psystenance

Sustainability through the mind's eye

Business ideas: Utility bicycle shop

Posted by Michael Druker on February 26, 2010

There’s many bicycle shops around here, with at least four on King Street in Kitchener-Waterloo. Each one is filled primarily with bicycles that are designed for recreation, and that incidentally can also be used for getting around town. If you watch what people actually use to cycle for transportation here, it’s those kinds of bikes, and not ones which are well-prepared for the task. As the owner of such a bike, I end up being a fair-weather daytime non-winter cyclist, and I leave the bike at home when I fear the situation may become unfavourable. My bicycle does not prepare me for such mundane things as: rain, snow, road salt, night, luggage, or comfort for that matter.

With the lack of availability of European utility bicycles and current bicycle shops’ interest in maintaining a focus on recreation instead of utility — in Kitchener-Waterloo and in most other North American areas — a utility bicycle shop has the potential to do quite well. I envision a place where you know you will be able to go in and have your pick of many different bicycles that are outfitted for utility: fenders, lights, chain guards, skirt guard / coat protector, a rear rack, an upright seating position, step-through frames, baskets, and internal hub gearing and brakes. Such a shop would sell and maintain quality bikes that are designed for many years of frequent use in all weather. The picture at the top of the post is of a Dutch-style omafiets (grandma bike), which is the epitome of this kind of bicycle. Beyond the regular utility bikes there should be all manner of cargo and family bikes, work bikes, folding bikes, and a wide array of baskets and panniers.

In addition to serving an unfilled niche, such a store would encourage cycling as transportation by making it easier to do. One wouldn’t have to figure out how to haphazardly add all of the aforementioned useful components to a bike, or to worry about whether their externally-geared bicycle will survive the winter. A store with a utility cycling focus would make it easy to buy a bike actually suited to its intended use. It would generally be more expensive (think $700-1000 and up), but still nowhere near what cars cost. Many people would be quite willing to pay for the quality and convenience of a solid European bike that can be used to ride to work or to the store in style and comfort. Particularly when they start seeing others on such bikes. And as cycling conditions continue to improve, so will sales.

To be sure, there are such stores in North America: Curbside Cycle in Toronto; Downtown Bike Hounds in Hamilton; Flying Pigeon LA; Dutch Bicycle Co. in Somerville, MA; Dutch Bike Co. in Seattle and Chicago; My Dutch Bike in San Francisco; Clever Cycles in Portland; and Rain City Bikes in Vancouver. But there should be many, many more. Their absence isn’t the only barrier to cycling, but it is one, and I suspect that in urban areas ripe for cycling (e.g. Waterloo Region), removing that barrier could be good business.

Addendum: Some more shops for the list: BikeBike in Calgary, RedBike in Edmonton, Natural Cycle in Winnipeg.

Addendum 2: In a later post I have a reasonably comprehensive list of North American utility bicycle shops.

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16 Responses to “Business ideas: Utility bicycle shop”

  1. Darcy said

    I was really excited when a bike shop opened up in my neighbourhood (at Albert and Phillip). But it turned out to be a specialist shop for cycle racers. How is that useful? But apparently they’re doing well enough to stick around for 4 years now.

    Racing shops and mountain bikes have an aspirational draw, even though very few people are likely to enter bike races or ride up a mountain. Likewise, “grandma bikes” have obvious marketing problems. Telling people they have to pay more for a bike that merely does everything they need it for is a tough sell.

    That said, I’d love to see a utility bike shop. And I’m probably not the only one.

    • Michael D said

      No doubt there’s appeal in the specialist shops. But there’s also a huge portion of the population that doesn’t have that draw to racing or mountain bikes. Many think cycling is not for them, not because it’s expensive, but because it’s hard. A shop like this would entice such people to consider it.

  2. Gus said

    *adding my voice to the chorus of agreement with this post*

  3. Jonathan said

    I would be careful of assuming that ready availability of “utility bicycles” would encourage more people to ride.

    First, unless you have ready access to street-level parking at both ends of a trip, the weight of a bicycle is not immaterial. I live in New York City and while I do have an elevator, if I come home at night after 9 pm, when the areaway is closed, I have to carry my bike up two flights of stairs to get to the lobby and elevator. Not to mention the significant number of stairways in the parks, or in subway stations.

    Second, many commuters ride for exercise, either while commuting or at other times. An omafiets is an investment in transportation that can’t easily double as a workout bike on the weekend, or on the way home.

    Third, easy accessibility to the mechanical workings is a positive in a commuter bike. Dress guards and chain guards and fenders make it harder to fix a flat or replace the chain on the cog. Most bike shops in New York don’t open until 10 am or noon, so office-bound commuters are on their own with regards to repairs for the morning rush.

    Fourth, the high price of a new omafiets or similar model ($700–$1,200) is a definite disincentive, especially to someone who might not be looking for an every day transportation solution.

    • Michael D said

      People don’t all have the same priorities, but I do think that Dutch-style utility bikes have appeal to a sizeable number of people. Cities that have a large portion of their population routinely cycling certainly seem to prefer such bikes.

      Here in Kitchener-Waterloo, we have tons of space for cars, let alone bicycles. So New York’s troubles are not representative. However, there’s lighter utility bikes for such scenarios as you describe, and for hilly terrain.

      Most people don’t exercise, and why would they need to ride a bicycle for exercise if they use it for transportation anyway? If it matters to them, no one’s forcing them to buy an omafiets.

      You know, I haven’t heard about the horrible issues Dutch and Danish people have getting stranded on difficult-to-fix bikes. I believe the tires and gears/chains are such that maintenance and required repairs are minimal. Not that I’ve really seen people riding around here equipped to fix flats on their recreational bikes (used for utility).

      The price? Sure. It ain’t all things to all people. But it’s also not that much compared to the operating costs of a motor vehicle, or even transit. The decreased car use over many years probably pays for itself. And these kinds of bikes have resale value due to being built for the long haul.

  4. Nils2 said

    In Sweden, most utility bikes are sold by a company called Biltema. Biltema means “car theme”. In the beginning they sold spare parts and tools for cars. Nowadays Biltema offers a wide range of products both for cars and bicycles. Motorists and bicyclists actually go to the same shop when they need stuff for their vehicles.

    I believe Sweden’s most popular bike is this one:

    http://www.biltema.se/Fritid/Cyklar/Dam/Singlespeed-28/

    Perhaps not top notch quality, but very cheap ($160) and definitely worth its price.

    Cheers!

  5. Sean said

    If you are in Calgary – come check us out!

    You can add our shop to the list of utility bike shops in Canada – BikeBike Inc. We carry bakfiets style bikes, Yuba Mundo, Batavus, Pashley, and Xtracycle.

    We have been open for about 6 weeks now and Calgarians seem to be enjoying our unique bike shop.

  6. Jonathan said

    Michael, in your original post, you concede the popularity of bicycles designed for recreation, saying, “If you watch what people actually use to cycle for transportation here, it’s those kinds of bikes, and not ones which are well-prepared for the task.” I am naturally skeptical of arguments that deprecate the choices that people have actually made in comparison with the writer’s preferences.

    It makes more sense to me to assume that the riders you’ve observed bought recreational-style bicycles with the intention of using them for recreation, and that shopping trips or commuting are secondary uses. Data from 2005 suggest that 45% of Canadians participate in “active leisure activities,” such as bicycling.

    Of the two populations you discuss as being ripe for utility bicycles, the first, current riders, have already chosen to ride mountain bikes or hybrids or “recreational-style” bikes, as you call them. If they switch to omafietsen, they get the benefits of the omafiets that you’ve enumerated, but only at the margin: fenders allow them to ride on rainy days, for instance. Thing is, they are already riding on sunny days on their current bicycle. It may not be worth it to them to invest $700 in a bike that would allow them to ride an additional 30 days a year (riding a utility bike is no warmer than riding a mountain bike).

    The second group is people who can’t find a utility bike. Since as both you and Sean point out, utility bicycles are for sale in Canada (the shop you mention is in Toronto, only 75 minutes by auto away from Kitchener), I would presume that cost, not availability, is the limiting factor in market penetration. As the demand for utility bikes grows due to improvement in bike facilities or rise in automobile operating costs, I would expect that more, cheaper utility bikes would enter the market.

    • Michael D said

      You know. Having to drive for an hour and a half to get to downtown Toronto to even see a utility bike? I don’t think that counts as easy availability. There are very few utility bicycles around here, and people who might want one would not be able to find them in any of the probably ten bicycle stores in the region. Most wouldn’t care enough to look further. I certainly didn’t find it an easy experience to get a bicycle from Toronto, as you suggest.

      As far as I am concerned, the availability explanation is quite a strong one, and there is a large population in this area that would be interested. I’m sure there is a large population of existing riders who would not be, and that does not concern me. With ten bicycle shops, one that focused on utility bicycles would have a market. From what I can tell, there are many people in this area who get a bike specifically for utility and transportation, not for recreation; these are the ones who would benefit from a better selection.

      • Jonathan said

        Michael, I am really intrigued by your idea, “If cycling is to be mainstream, most people should be able to avoid caring about cycling.” It’s a little hard for me as a fervent cycling enthusiast to swallow, but I’ll do my best.

        In my opinion, selling products to people who don’t care about them is not really a great business idea, and I suspect that this is at the root of the bike-shop exclusivity problem that you touch upon. People who open bike shops like bikes and want their customers to like bikes too. But perhaps the customers don’t really want to care about bicycles? Those people go to Canadian Tire and buy this, which comes with fenders and a rack for $250.

  7. Scott F said

    “It would generally be more expensive (think $700-1000 and up)”

    Nice blog. This, the cost issue, is why I don’t buy a really nice commuter/town/utility bike. I’ve thought about it. If I could pay $700 once, and have a great, well-built bike that would last me decades with minimal maintenance, I’d be saving up right now.

    However, I know that realistically, I’m looking at paying another $700 to replace it in 6 months to a year, when it gets stolen. Maybe that’s pessimistic — but I’d be worried constantly.

    I bought my current bike used for $125 a couple years ago, and have spent over twice that amount on maintenance and adding fenders, a rack and lights. It hasn’t been stolen. Still, it’s not so nice as to make itself a target. The seat is ripped, the paint is faded. If there’s six bikes locked to a rack, mine is unlikely to be the one someone tries to steal.

    I feel safe using a bike that looks cheap and dilapidated while still being a quality ride. I’m scared to invest in something every bike thief will lust after, and that I’m likely to lose.

  8. Charley R said

    Hi there,
    I’d like to say that the homely and incredibly utilitarian hybrid commuter bikes made by many big-name North American manufacturers are fine alternatives to these Dutch bikes. I’ve read several articles about Dutch bikes that compare them only to mountain bikes and racing road bikes, while completely ignoring hybrids. Why doesn’t the author even mention them?

    I feel like it’s sort of a culture war: these bikes are a recent trend, and come from Europe, so they must be better than North American hybrids. In fact, the hybrid is likelier to be cheaper, more versatile, and lighter. Ever take a heavy Dutch commuter up a real hill? My hybrid has a triple just for that- I’ve even taken it on fully loaded bike camping tours. What about going down the hill- does this Dutch bike even have a front brake, or is it only equipped with a coaster brake on the rear? I’ve got strong V-brakes on front and back, and have used all that power to save myself from numerous right hook attacks!

    To address some of the authors other concerns: I didn’t feel that adding fenders or a rack to my hybrid was a “haphazard” process (the shop just threw them right on). I ride throughout the winter (in sunny Portland Oregon, no less), with no worries about my bike “surviving the winter”, and I have full fenders and a guard on my chainrings. If you really care all that much, then there are hybrids with internally geared hubs. The author thinks that there needs to be specific stores to sell commuting bikes, but hybrids can be found in almost every single bike shop I’ve been in (I’ve been to two shops that only sold expensive road bikes). And they’re ubiquitous on the streets where I live. Obviously, the American people have caught on to something the author has missed.

    Really, I think this argument is about style, because the utility of the hybrid is equal or greater (the weight of those Dutch bikes, come on!). The author of the post prefers the stylish, perhaps faddy look of the European bikes, neglecting to inform his readers of the unheralded options that actually exist. Or, maybe the shops on his street actually don’t even sell hybrids. In which case, that sucks, man, and I’m sorry to hear it!

    • Michael D said

      And how many of those hybrids on the road actually end up with the “accessories” that can be added to them? Most hybrids I see on the street here don’t have fenders, for instance, and the ones that do tend to have crappy ones. Yes, the shops here do stock hybrids, and I’m sure they’ll install additions if you know to ask for them.

      So you’re absolutely right that nearly all of these things can be added to a bike. And internal hubs can be found on an increasing number of bikes (though not always internal brakes), and there are indeed some more upright bikes. However, we tend to turn down “optional” things as unnecessary or as something that can be added later — but then don’t get around to it or care enough. European city bikes overcome that by providing everything you need in one package. There’s no reason North American bikes couldn’t do that, but generally companies here don’t appear interested. Bike stores could certainly do that themselves, and that’s a reasonable way to go.

      A style of bike that’s enjoyed continuous popularity in Europe for nearly a century and in China for half a century — a fad? You have got to be kidding.

      • Charley R said

        It’s nice to have a well written, well thought out debate on an internet comment forum for a change!

        Euro-style commuting bikes are not a fad in Europe, obviously. But track bikes have been ridden since before the turn of the century, and their current popularity in the US is certainly a fad. I think the Dutch bikes are a fad in America. When clothing stores in New York are selling them, and when rich urbanites who aspire to a “green” lifestyle are buying them, they’re a stylish fad.

        Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the actual working class people who ride the “recreational” bikes you don’t prefer (they ride at night, in the rain, during the winter; they ride to day-labor hiring sites and while delivering pizza, among a host of other jobs) will suddenly have $700 to $1000 to plunk down on a bike, if only there was a shop that sold these bikes! Or maybe the fair weather commuter who rides to Portland from an outer suburb on, say, a 15 to 20 mile round trip, will give up his fast road bike and backpack combo to instead pedal in comfort for an hour, one way, on a Dutch bike. But only if he could find such a bike to buy!

        There are many commuters who need a rather fast bike, in order for commuting to make sense. A Dutch bike is obviously more practical for short trips in flat places. Not having been to the Netherlands, I can only say that it’s my impression that their cities are built on a much more human scale, and that their cities are flatter. Our cities tend to be more spread out, and our work and shopping centers more distant from out residences, no? I ride 4 miles to work, and 2 miles to the grocery store. While those distances aren’t particularly long, I think many North American commuters have similar or longer commutes. The time penalty for a slow bike can end up doubling my travel time. Not so big a deal when it’s 5 minutes turned to 10 minutes, but quite a difference when it’s 20 minutes turned to 40 minutes.

        I live near one of the shops you mentioned in your post (Clever Cycles, in Portland), and I still see LOTS more hybrids. In Portland, a shopper could buy any kind of bike they could dream up! I still see lots of hybrids (and almost as many single speed bikes with no rack, no fenders, and little utility).

        In a similar vein, I’d like to point out that people may forego buying fenders and racks because they never intend to use either. Lots of people don’t like riding in the rain. Fenders obviously ameliorate the problems associated with wet weather, but they don’t keep the rain off! Also, some people might prefer to carry a backpack. I actually didn’t use a rack during my first year of commuting, because I preferred to use a backpack. You said that you don’t see riders on bikes with these accessories, and then suggest that they’re lazy about it, or that the companies should sell bikes with these accessories included. Fair enough on the second count. But the consumers make that choice for themselves, and in a sense, for the companies as well.

        When we look to Europe for solutions to cycling problems here in North America, we often overlook simple, unexciting, local alternatives. I sort of felt the same way about the Oregon Manifest Constructor’s Design Challenge (found here: http://www.oregonmanifest.com/ ). While I loved getting to see the finished bikes, I felt that the premise (that American consumers didn’t have access to good everyday bikes) was just false. Maybe we should stop blaming other people for our troubles (“they should open a shop with Dutch bikes”, or “they should sell bikes on which the choices about fenders and racks are made by the manufacturer” ) and look around at the myriad solutions various commuters have come to here on our own shores.

        On the other hand, if a person’s initial commitment to riding a bike is positively influenced by the style of the bike, power to them! If cycling’s positive cultural associations begin to outweigh its’ negative associations, then more people will ride.

        And obviously, here in Portland, many shops specialize in bikes that are intended for everyday commuting use- I’d also add Cascade Cycling and the Community Cycling Cooperative. So I can’t argue with your premise that such a business, at least in a community that has a large number of bike commuters, can be a successful enterprise.
        I just think that not having a shop that sells expensive, heavy, imported bicycles is a poor excuse for a “barrier to cycling”, and disagree that Dutch style bikes would significantly improve the situation.

      • Michael D said

        Thanks for your perspective.

        I’ll just add that this isn’t really about blame, but about access and removing barriers to cycling. I agree that Dutch bikes aren’t for everyone or every place, but they are a good example of something that works and is easy enough for regular use by a large proportion of a population. The ease and hassle-free aspect is worth emulating. The cost (which in practice can be much lower than that figure) and weight can be a separate matter.

        The point about distance is a good one. I would suggest that one of the biggest opportunities for cycling in North America is in those places that actually are of reasonable density, or that are becoming such.

        “In a similar vein, I’d like to point out that people may forego buying fenders and racks because they never intend to use either.”

        Exactly. However, these predictions may be accurate partially due to self-fulfilling prophecy. Once we have that naked bike, the bike significantly guides how and when we cycle. This may be easier to overcome for those of us who comment online about cycling than for people who don’t really care about cycling. If cycling is to be mainstream, most people should be able to avoid caring about cycling.

  9. Slow in all seasons said

    My quarter-century plus Bridgestone started out its life as a recreational road bike. It got a kickstand when it became obvious I needed one. It was “hybridized” with straight handlebars when an (auto, of course) crash left me with neck problems. When I actually started commuting on it, it acquired a rack, fenders, lights, folding basket and waterproof bag.

    I think it cost me $300 new, and it’s my daily ride. Makes me smile.

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