To buy a bike online or through a local bike shop is a question people are increasingly asking. It’s a legit question, since the online buying of everything, including bicycles, has taken off, especially in this era of the global COVID-19 pandemic. So what are the pros and cons of buying a bike online vs. buying from a local bike shop (also known as an LBS)? I’ll break them down.
We’ll start with pros and cons of buying from an LBS, then move onto online sales. At the end, I’ll tell you which method I prefer.
Local Bike Shop: Pros
Knowledgeable Staff. They not only know the bikes, but what will work best for you given the local terrain. This is true for the different types of bikes, including mountain, road, hybrid, gravel, and other bike categories.
For instance, the county I live in is very hilly. So if you do a lot of road riding, you’ll want to look at lightweight bikes that zoom up hills. If you’re in a bustling city, the staff will probably steer you toward something like a hybrid bike with a more upright riding position, giving you a better view of traffic.
If you’re looking at mountain bikes in my neck of the woods (north-central Maryland), the local staffers will know that you don’t need the same kind of mountain bike around here that you would if you’re riding around Durango, Colorado.
Bike Fit. This is likely the most overlooked item of all when it comes to the in-person buying experience, but one of the most important. Having the bike adjusted specifically for you can make a huge difference in your enjoyment. An improperly fit bike can cause soreness, pain, and even injury over the long term.
The first thing the staff will help you with is getting the right-sized frame. I’m about 6’ tall, so I ride a 58cm bike. I have a friend who’s 6’8 (I like drafting behind him), and he rides a 62cm bike.
Other factors include saddle height, how far you have to reach forward to grasp the handlebars, and setting your cleats properly if you use clipless pedals. All these things are crucial to get right. The online folks can help some with this, but not nearly enough. In the shop, they can put you on the bike and see how well everything fits.
Test Ride. Most LBSes will let you test ride a bike before buying. This is another big advantage. You don’t always know if a bike will be best for you until you’ve been on it. You need to feel the weight of the bike, how it handles, how it stops, how it responds to your pedaling. Bikes are personal things, and if you’re going to spend the money, you want to be sure it’s well spent. I took my Trek Domane out on a decently long ride before plunking down the money. I’m glad I did.
Personalized Service. I know pretty much everyone at my LBS, and they know me. They know my bike (they should, since they sold it to me!). Sometimes when I’ve needed a quick fix and was in a jam, they’ve helped me out immediately. We have a relationship now—they know me, and I know them. That’s worth a lot to me.
Supporting Local Businesses. The bicycle industry, in general, runs on thin margins. Most workers aren’t in it to get rich, but instead because they love bikes. They take pleasure in selling bikes, fixing bikes, and helping people enjoy their bikes.
Beyond that, I’m a strong believer in keeping your dollars local whenever possible, helping to keep these stores open and other bicycle lovers employed. When we buy stuff online, it cuts into already small profits.
Local Bike Shop: Cons
More Expensive. There’s not much getting around this one. It’ll cost you more to buy local, since there’s a ton more overhead with a physical location.
…and, um, that’s about it. That is, unless your LBS is run by unscrupulous or incompetent people who only care about the initial sale, and try to gouge you or nickel-and-dime you to death. And those kinds of shops do exist, although they’re a rare exception to the rule. Again, most people get into the bike biz because they love it, not because they want to make a killing. (That’s the exact same reason I went into journalism. I knew I wouldn’t be living the high life, but my passion drove me to it.)
Buying Online: Pros
Price. This is the reason I would say that 90% or more of people buy online. Without the overhead of physical stores, you usually get more bike for your money buying online. That can often mean an upgraded component group—say, from Shimano 105 to Shimano Ultegra, for example. Companies like Canyon, the most well-known online seller, have better-equipped bikes for the money.
It’s not so much money that you could upgrade from a steel frame to carbon fiber, but it can be a tidy savings.
Convenience. You can buy a bike from your laptop. You don’t have to leave the couch if you don’t want to. If that kind of thing appeals to you.
Safety. This one is COVID-19 specific. You can buy without human contact, which is important to many these days (the pandemic is still raging as I write this, in February 2021).
Location. If you live far from any LBSes, it could save time over driving many hours to find a shop (I mean real bike shops, not Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club or other place that sells junk bikes.) You would have to be quite remote for this to be much of a factor, as most towns of any size have an LBS, but who knows? Maybe you live in McBride, Canada, like one friend of mine (grizzly bears regularly roam around his town).
Buying Online: Cons
No Test Ride. You won’t know if the bike is just right for you until you get it home, put it together (more on that in a sec), and take it out for a spin. If it’s not for you, you have to return it and wait for a replacement—then hope that’s the one you want .
A Box. Yep, your bike comes disassembled in a big bike box. You take it out of the box and put it together. Now, this isn’t generally considered a complicated process, but there are some things that can be tricky, like cable tightening. And for someone like me, whose mechanical prowess doesn’t extend much beyond changing a light bulb, the thought of putting together a bike is mildly panic-inducing.
No Service. Where are you going to take your bike when it needs service? That’s right—to that LBS that you stiffed to save a few bucks online. Now, this isn’t to say that the local store won’t fix your bike—they will—but they won’t know your bike the way they would if they’d sold it to you. But in any event, you’re certainly not shipping it back to the online company to fix it.
No Real Relationship. You may not have a single conversation with a living person through the whole process of buying your bike. You can, of course, call them, but you don’t have to. In fact, that’s kind of the point. No muss, no fuss.
But you can’t stroll into the online company’s online store and just look around at all the cool bike stuff. Can’t rub your hand along a pretty frame. Can’t strike up a conversation with an employee there, or ask them about good local riding clubs or the best places to ride or just shoot the breeze. The online place is just where you bought the bike from.
To me, that’s a Jupiter-sized differentiator.
I think the choice is clear. Buy local, if you can. Keep LBSes thriving. Get all the advantages of test rides, a proper fitting, and folks that know the local bike scene, including the roads, trails, clubs, and other cyclists.
Yes, you can still get a lot of that if you buy online—you’ll still take your bike into the LBS for service, and (hopefully) buy clothing, bottles, bike computers and other stuff there. But it’s not the same as buying your bike in the store—having the salesperson spend lots of time finding the perfect bike for you, based on how you want to use it and your budget.
Of course, there may be times you just can’t buy your bike locally—don’t worry, it doesn’t mean you’ll be an outcast. But I believe there’s a satisfaction that comes from helping out your LBS, and it’s a great way to build the relationship. So if at all possible, shop in your hometown first.
Coda: What You Should NEVER, EVER, EVER Do
One last thought: whichever way you go for your bike, please don’t engage in “showrooming.” This is when you check something out at a local store, then buy it online to save money. In this case, it would be a situation in which you’d have the LBS help find you the right bike, then buying that same bike online.
That is just plain wrong. Don’t do it. Value their time more than that.
As Spike Lee says, Do the Right Thing.