The local bike shop, with its forest of pricey rides and canopy of rubber tires, can be an intimidating place for the casual cyclist. Sure, the staff are knowledgeable (evidenced by their muscular calves and grease-stained aprons), but it’s hard to shake the feeling that one is venturing into not just a store, but an urban subculture. Which is why Mountain Equipment Co-op’s arrival to the bike-selling business this spring is likely to be welcomed by the average Canadian, who is simply looking for a high quality machine, competitive prices and a comfortable shopping environment.
Of course, that’s not how local bike sellers see it. Several have complained that MEC, originally envisioned as a way for the granola-munching set to source quality outdoor gear, has morphed into a big box retailer (albeit one wrapped in a message of environmental sustainability) capable of disrupting the market. In particular, local shops are concerned that MEC’s status as a consumers’ co-operative (which allows it to pay less corporate taxes than traditional retailers since very little profit is retained) will enable it to undercut their prices. A blog posting on MEC’s website that referred to the retail bike industry as “grey, dusty and dirty” did little to assuage fears. It was later removed.
“This preferential tax treatment affords MEC a huge competitive advantage that permeates its entire business whether from building new stores to pricing based on ever-increasing buying power,” said Pete Lilly, the former president of the Bicycle Trade Association of Canada, in an open letter to MEC’s board last year, when the initiative was first revealed. MEC, on the other hand, says bicycles are a natural step in its evolution, noting that it has been selling bike gear—everything from helmets to reflective jerseys—since the late 1970s. And given the popularity of MEC garb among cyclists, and even hard-core riders, many independent bike shops would be wise to retool their approach, or face a steep uphill climb.