WSJ: A Beginner’s Bike Shopping Experience

WSJ Screenshot

In an article on the Wall Street Journal website, Jane Hodges describes her experiences as a beginner shopping for a bike at a number of large retailers in the Seattle area. I found it an interesting look into how a large majority of non-enthusiasts probably experience the bike purchasing process.

A couple of things in the article jumped out at me. One, it’s highly unlikely a beginner can discern much about a bike in a 10-minute test ride. This leads me to believe it’s important for beginners to understand the shop’s return policies in case they end up with the wrong bicycle.

Secondly, unless they have a friend who knows bicycles and can help them through the process, beginners are pretty much at the mercy of the salespeople in the stores they visit. This places the onus on shop employees to ask a lot of questions and listen carefully to what their customers are telling them, because as we all know, riding a bike that’s inappropriately matched to how it’s used is a major deterrent to long-term bicycling.

Read the article

17 Responses to “WSJ: A Beginner’s Bike Shopping Experience”

  • Brian G says:

    May have been an enjoyable article if it wasnt black print on a dark gray back ground!
    The first two sentences made my eyes hurt. :)

  • Alan says:

    It did that to me too. Hit the refresh button on your browser and the white background will drop in.

  • Jesse says:

    Very interesting…the last time I walked into Greggs I was totally and completely ignored by the cluster of sales staff chatting away by the register. I am glad to see that the folks at REI mentioned a longer test ride, however what none of them seem to have brought up is riding several options, maybe at different price points, just for comparison.

    Anyway, thanks for the link, gotta love seeing hometown articles in major publications!

  • townmouse says:

    I’m beginning to think you go shopping for a bike shop, rather than a bike. Once you’ve found one with staff who understand where you’re coming from, they can probably order you almost any bike, but if they don’t really get what you want out of a bike the chances are you’ll end up with the wrong one.

    I got my bike from a bike recycling project, after a long email conversation with the guy in charge about what I wanted, and then a short test ride. Despite only trying two bikes and leaving the rebuild process up to them, I ended up with what has been my perfect bike for the riding I do – and I think that’s because they understood exactly what I needed, maybe even better than I did.

  • Alan says:


    “…however what none of them seem to have brought up is riding several options, maybe at different price points, just for comparison.”

    Yup. In my view, this is absolutely necessary. Brings to mind a fellow bike commuter who went from a low-end hybrid, to a fancier alu/carbon hybrid, and is now asking about my LHT because he can’t carry enough on his new bike. This all in a span of 3-4 months. A knowledgable salesperson who asked all the right questions up front and truly had his customer’s best interests in mind could have saved him a bunch of time, money, and hassle.


  • Alan says:


    “I’m beginning to think you go shopping for a bike shop, rather than a bike.”

    I agree. The difficulty for beginners is locating those special shops with highly knowledgeable staff and access to something other than mass market products. The large, mainstream shops will most likely be the first they encounter because those shops tend to dominate the advertising space.

  • Elliott @ Austin on Two Wheels says:

    I think the bike shop experience is one of the biggest problems with the bike industry. In general, it is very tech/male dominated and extremely unfriendly to beginners. There are exceptions, but I’ve found this to be the rule. Don’t these guys understand the bike industry has been contracting for nearly 20 years? A change in customer experience and a little education on how to lay out retail space in a welcoming manner is in order.

  • Fergie says:

    I worked at bike shops on and off for about 5 years in the San Francisco bay area. The primary thing you need to know about bike shops is, it’s a club. Mostly male, but the club members wish that more females would apply for membership. Bike shops are set up primarily to serve club members, usually meaning enthusiast riders who fit the club profile. Different shops have different club rules, but the basic one is that of inclusion/exclusion. You either get in, or you don’t. That doesn’t mean that the shop won’t sell to non members, it just means that you won’t get much attention or interest if you’re not a member and not a prospect.

    Remember, clubs are the basis for all North American cycling and the bike shop is really no different. When bicycles were first starting to be used here in the late 19th century, clubs were essential for members’ safety and protection, as cyclists were targeted as reckless speedsters who scared the horses. Not much has changed, unfortunately..

  • Fergie says:

    I think it’s hilarious that the article is written in the third person, although the author is clearly only talking about herself. The royal we? ‘We are not amused by these bike stores”. Har.

  • Bernie says:

    I’m definitely a novice when it comes to bikes. I bought my current bike 3 years ago & used it infrequently until August when I went car-free. Reading the article, I am convinced the author told the stores they were a journalist. When I got my bike I shopped at over half a dozen stores in the SF Bay Area. I was very up front that I was looking for advice, guidance, and recommendations. I got little to no help, and no store looked at bike fit or told me anything about it (and at 5’2″ I’m a short rider, so it’s an issue). Now that I rely on my bike more, I’ve been thinking of upgrading, but that last stressful experience makes me want to “make do” rather than deal with bike shops again. I can’t say enough how valuable newbies like myself find the bike 101 stuff you experienced riders put online. One of the reasons I like ecovelo is the discussions — people share their (sometimes conflicting) opinions, and it helps me think about and learn how to improve my own riding experience.

  • Alan says:

    Hi Bernie,

    Thanks for your note. I’m sorry to hear about the negative experiences you had in the bike shops you visited in the Bay Area; that’s extremely disappointing to hear. I’d encourage you to go searching for a shop that will accommodate your needs, armed with the knowledge you’ve accumulated over the past three years. They’re out there, though they’re obviously not easy to find.

    Best of luck!

  • Richard Masoner says:

    Very insightful comment from @Fergie — I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about cycling as a club.

  • Friday roundup » Cyclelicious says:

    […] Newby look at bike shops in the Wall Street Journal. The journalist — an admitted non-cyclist — looks for inexpensive path & pavement bikes at Performance, Sports Authority, REI, and Gregg’s Greenlake Cycle in Seattle, WA. Via. […]

  • john Riley says:

    People who don’t know anything about bikes KNOW that more gears is better, lighter is better, aluminum is lighter, carbon is even more better, mtbs are rugged, etc. Does a sales person sell them what they need, or what they want?

    It is hard to predict which person is going to go deeper into cycling, and which is going to take a few rides and then put the bike in the corner of the garage.

    Even the knowledgeable buyer may have issues about leaving an expensive bike in a rack while at work, etc.

    P.S. SF bike shops suck. I miss my old Toronto bike shop:

  • Darryl says:

    I pretty much had the same experience myself two years ago. My criteria were the same as this buyer, although as a male, I needed a much larger bike. I ended up with the Carmel and I’m still very happy with it, although I now own several different bikes with different geometries.

    All the ride clubs (from the different shops) were ill suited for the casual rider though. While all sponsored weekly rides, they were mostly sport riders on road bikes. As for myself, I’m much more interested in social rides like a “bar crawl”, critical mass, or restaurant hopping. A good mix of different types of people including hipsters, fixies, city bikers, and vintage folks is way more fun!

  • Pete says:

    I would imagine that many neophyte cyclists make not actually have a very good idea of what they want, and thus rely yet more on the ability of their LBS staff to discern their real needs, and steer them in the right direction.
    In all honesty, this is a tall order for a six-figure career salesperson, never mind a bike shop employee making what a shop can afford to pay them. Add in the pressure to sell what the major brands are selling, and it’s a wonder anyone gets on the right bike at all.
    It seems that well educated consumers is the best solution we can hope for. It’s doubtful the LBS busineess model will ever encourage utiliy cycling.

  • jheri says:

    I lived in the US for awhile and now live in Denmark. The difference in bicycle shops is dramatic. Here the bicycle is a very important tool for getting around and, for most people, not mostly for recreation. More than half of the riders happen to be female and many bike shops are at least half female. I’m sure there are male clubs where guys worry about the recreation aspect and very fancy bikes, but they aren’t in the mainstream. A bike shop that isn’t competent and able to serve the average rider quickly goes out of business.

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