At the Bench: Working for Dick’s, Part II

I’m going to make an assertion based on my experience in working retail: Any product that carries an inexpensive price tag does so because one or more corners were cut. Shoddy workmanship, low-quality materials, slow sales that result in profit-eliminating discounts—there are any number of reasons why something will cost less than if you buy it from a specialty retailer. All of the reasons, based on my experience at Dick’s, came into play and none of them ever served the customer well.

The Problem
Saturdays and Sundays at Dick’s were unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in retailing. We practically threw bikes out the door all weekend, from May to September. I’ve never struggled more to keep up with demand. But that struggle was rooted in the fact that we were understaffed for the amount of business we were doing. We could sell out two giant Lindcraft racks that each held 36 bikes each weekend. That’s about three bikes per hour for just two employees to deal with. That doesn’t seem so bad, does it? Not so fast.

Come Monday morning, my manager didn’t like seeing empty slots in that rack, so he wanted the rack filled as quickly as possible. If it wasn’t full by the end of the day Tuesday, I got a talking to. That resulted in us racing just to get parts hung on the bikes so they looked assembled. Coiled cables would hang from brake levers and saddles would be cocked at funny angles, but we got the racks filled.

Our cheapest least expensive bikes went for $200 to $300. We’d sell out of the $200 bikes on Saturday and then sell the next most expensive bikes after that. Not many people came in looking to drop $700 on a mountain bike. I suffered frequent, literal headaches from the fact that those least expensive bikes (the Diamondback Outlook) were so poorly assembled at the factory that the rear hub usually had loose cone nuts and to adjust them properly I needed to remove the rear, bolt-on wheel, remove the freewheel and then tighten said cones, then reassembling everything. Worse, that freewheel was rarely ever fully tightened at the factory, so while it was easy enough to remove, it meant that the derailleur set screws were improperly adjusted once the freewheel was tight, which meant completely readjusting the shifting.

That alone was a 15-minute process.

So each week, I faced two races. The first was to get the rack filled so my manager didn’t bitch at me. The second was to spend Wednesday through Friday trying to turn those bike-looking objects into rideable bikes. When I began scheduling a third mechanic for Thursdays and Fridays, I blew my payroll numbers and that got me a talking to no different than not having the rack full. What I eventually learned was that we had a labor budget that wasn’t to be exceeded, no matter how many bikes we sold.

Make ‘Em Happy
As long as bikes went out the door, my manager was happy.

And if those bikes came back with a bent axle or a rear hub with bearings ground into bits of metal the size of grains of salt, I was told to simply hand that customer a different bike because we stand behind the products we sell. Easy. Also, peasy.

My mistake came at the end of each spring and summer month when my returns would be totaled. When asked what the problem was, I explained that the bikes were poorly assembled at the factory and we had a lot to do to get them ready. That was the wrong answer because it meant the poor assembly became my problem, not the factory’s. Had I acted like the bikes were coming back for reasons beyond my control—or had I been cynical enough to play dumb—they would simply have sent those bikes back to Diamondback as warranties. But because I knew enough to know what to correct, I inadvertently made myself responsible. From that point on, each bike that came back became a ding against me. It never occurred to me to lie to my boss and say that the problems were more than I could address.

In effect, I became responsible for feeding a football team with two Happy Meals.

The Promise
And that promise to become the trainer for mechanics at other locations? The very thing that I saw as crucial to making the bike and exercise department as profitable as it could be? That quickly became, “Let’s talk next month.” I was slow enough to accept that answer six times.

The experience so soured me on retailing that I almost left the bike industry entirely.

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