What am I looking for? Obviously two things first... I like a shop where they know what they're talking about and I like a shop that has competitive prices. But for the most part, I think most shops can offer those standards.
Are they knowledgable?
There are shops that employ more "retail" type workers. They ride bikes and know product. But they don't live bikes and know the ins and outs of bike mechanics. Honestly, though, most bike shops employees are fairly knowledgable. And if you're not talking to someone who is knowledgable, chances are you're a few steps away from someone who is. If you don't have a reason to trust their answer, ask someone else who's working for their opinion.And pricing?
I've learned that shopping at a local shop means you'll pay a little bit more than you will on the internet, yes. But most local shops are pretty much in line with each other on costs. There are plenty of apples-to-oranges comparisons in price, for sure. But just because one shop only carries $3,000 bikes and the other carries $300 bikes doesn't mean the expensive option is a rip-off. That's probably comparing apples to oranges. Most item-for-item price comparisons come out pretty even at shops.
So what do I look for? I've learned that I really like a small shop. The guys at BGL know me. And I'm not just talking about being buddies and hanging out at the shop. They know my type of riding. Loyalty means that they've heard your stories. They've seen how you take care of your bikes (or don't take care of them!). They know your budget. They know you'll be back so they're not just trying to sell you this one thing to make a few extra bucks. When my bikes have a problem that's not easily identified, they listen well, and make every attempt at finding it. It's not a sales tactic. It's a customer satisfaction tactic. Being a small shop helps that customer relationship. I don't have to walk in and explain the whole situation again and again.
A small shop that knows you will say, "You need this [BLANK] because you're hard on [BLANK]'s," or "No, you need this inexpensive [BLANK], because the way you ride, this inexpensive [BLANK] would last you forever. That pricey one is overkill." A small shop will keep an eye out for a solution that's not right in front of them. A small shop that knows how much you love to ride will want you back on your bike when you're not riding it. They won't want cost or what's in stock to determine your riding. They will want you to determine your riding. A small shop needs you as much as you need them. So they'll go that extra mile. And if it's a one-or-two-guys-do-it-all shop, it means they love to ride. If they're willing to work on bikes, talk bikes and ride bikes all day, their passion will work to your benefit. They love bikes, not sales. That's a good thing.
I think it's good to try everything. Go into shops and see how they great you. See if they ask about your riding. See if they're excited to hear your answer. I know there's a lot of non-hardcore riders that read this blog, too. If you have questions let me know. For you other readers, how do you choose a shop? Anything I'm missing?
And here are my disclaimers...
For one, please buy local. There are times that I order off the web. Sometimes it can't be beat and I want to ride, not save. But lots of times its worth a call to the shop. I'm blown away by folks that end up paying a tiny bit less for something they've never seen. A local shop will back you up. A local shop will sell you what you need, not what you think you may need. At least make the call.
Also, Bike Green Lexington doesn't pay me to write this or give me free product or anything. This is purely my opinion. They did give me two schrader valve caps recently but they weren't for me. They were to deliver to another customer (See? I told you they were good.).
Get out there.