CHICAGO, IL (BRAIN) — If there was one common thread among the four shops visited during the first day of the Chicago Dealer Tour, it’s that the retail business here is a family affair. Several stores we toured are in their second, third or fourth generation of family ownership and leadership, with several fathers transitioning the day-to-day duties of running the operation to their sons. As such, many are steeped in family tradition.
But their approach and clientele was as diverse as they come, running the gamut from a high-end pro shop focused on custom builds with a penchant for U.S.-made frames, to a bread-and-butter shop with a moderate assortment of affordable bikes for everyday riders of all ages, to a multi-level, multi-brand superstore where choice reigns supreme.
Making our way Northeast and back, our group tallied some 30-odd miles on multi-use paths including the Lakefront Trail, the North Shore Channel Trail, the Sauganash Trail and the North Branch Trail as well as many bike lanes and the freshly painted green lanes on Kinzie Street, Chicago’s first protected bikeway. No shortage of bike lanes and paths, but potholes keep riders alert and their eyes from wandering too far from the road.
The day ended with a visit and reception at SRAM’s headquarters where Chicago commissioner of transportation Gabe Klein talked about the city’s bold plan to have more than 600 miles of bikeways by 2020.
Here’s a recap of the shops toured on day one:
Edgebrook Cycle & Sport
At this longstanding family-owned and -run business on Central Avenue at the edge of the city, it’s all about getting families, kids and commuters the bikes and service they need. James Kersten Sr. bought the store some 33 years ago from the late Chicago road and track racer Al Stiller and today runs it with the help of his wife and son.
Like many shops in Chicago, Edgebrook started as a Schwinn store, then branched out into other brands including Giant and Raleigh. Today it moves some 600 to 700 Fuji, Giant and KHS bikes—its main suppliers—during a solid year, or 800 or so in a great year.
Close to several trail systems including the North Shore Channel Trail, the Sauganash Trail and the North Branch Trail, the store caters to commuters and casual riders looking for hybrids and urban bikes. The average bike that rolls out the door goes for between $600 and $700. More recently Edgebrook has seen more triathlon first-timers come through its doors, and Kersten’s son, Jim Jr., said the store does a fair amount of “triathlon upgrades,” such as adding aero bars to an existing road bike. Chicago has a strong triathlon scene with a host of sprint and long-distance events regularly drawing hundreds.
Still, the elder Kersten says the biggest challenge he faces is not competing with online sellers but mass stores that often sell some of the same accessories and parts at cost or under cost. Costco, Target and Dick’s Sporting Goods are all within four blocks. “It’s tough; it’s a war,” he said. “Bikes are crossing over, car racks have crossed over. Many times you can find car racks 75 percent off from the price I get from a distributor. It’s hard to market.”
Jim Jr. noted that there’s a need for better communication and cooperation among Chicago dealers, and he’s heading up an effort to revive the Chicago Area Bicycle Dealers Association (CABDA), which dissolved in early 2000 but put on a successful trade show for many years.
Get a Grip Cycles
Walk into Adam Kaplan’s and Kevin Corsello’s Irving Park store on Chicago’s north side and think “pro shop.” There’s nothing inexpensive hanging from the walls or parked on the floor. And as we walk in Kaplan is setting up a Cervélo P5, spec’d with Shimano’s new 11-speed electronic Dura-Ace. The button shifters for the $15,000 bike’s carbon 3T aero bars (yes, that’s what a customer paid for this fully tricked out ride) had just come in.
There’s nothing unique about Get a Grip Cycles’ floor layout, merchandising is modest, and the store takes a minimalist approach to accessories and apparel. But this shop says “pro” loud and clear. Looking for another China hybrid? Want a me-too carbon frame from some no-name factory? Go someplace else. What drives Kaplan is the notion of creating a cyclist. It’s all about talking to customers, finding out how they want to use a bike, and then creating the best possible fit for what they need.
“I’ll have a customer come in and tell me they want to do a tri. I’ll ask them how many they’ve done, how many they want to do, and then I may put them on a road bike and tell them to ride this,” he said. That bike may be a $3,500 Serotta, but if that customer truly gets into triathlon he or she will be back to buy something like a P5, Kaplan said.
Kaplan has been a bike-fit aficionado since he took his first fit class from Ben Serotta in 1998 in Berkeley, California. At the time he was working for Bike USA in Southern California. He had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in fine arts and as a cycling enthusiast began working in retail.
Kaplan and Corsello also have a penchant for American-made products, and Seven is a leading brand for the 1,500-square-foot operation. They also own a fit studio and small showroom in another area of Chicago.
Parlee, Firefly and a wall filled with Litespeed frames say USA, with Kaplan noting the recent addition of the Chattanooga, Tennessee, brand to its stable. When asked if titanium is making a comeback, Kaplan says, “Yes, in a big way.” And then he nods toward some Ritchey steel frames hanging on a nearby wall. “I like metal,” he quips.
Ron Kozy is a Chicago retail legend who takes time to show us around his multi-floor operation on Milwaukee Avenue. It’s housed in a 1920s building that had once been part of a dance hall. That and three other stores keep Kozy dancing full time.
As for brands, think selection. Or as Kozy puts it, “People want choice.” And choice they get: Fuji, Specialized, Cannondale, Jamis, GT, Guru and a dozen or so other brand names. It’s an eclectic collection—and then there's the electric bikes.
There’s a future in e-bikes, Kozy said, and he wants his operation positioned for growth. Stromer, iZip, Pedego, E-Moto, Torker and Prodeco make up part of his inventory. And as Kozy sees it, several of those brands eventually will be the next Trek or Specialized in the world of e-bikes. He wants in on the ground floor.
Kozy has been selling e-bikes for the past four years. “Hopefully, they’ll get better and stop changing everything,” he said. Service is an issue, he acknowledges. For example, a customer may bring in a two-year-old model for repairs and he can’t get parts to fix it. Batteries need regular recharging and controllers go haywire all too often. “But if it were easy, then everybody would be selling them,” he said.
If there is one thing Kozy could do without it’s the digital world. “It used to be we’d close up and go home and you were done. Now I go home, it’s email—it’s always something. It just never stops. There’s always just so much more to do,” he said.
Kozy is bullish on cycling’s future in Chicago. The city is stepping up its game when it comes to improving commuting—building accessible bikeways, bike lanes and greenways. And he should know. He took over his father’s store at age 17 after his father had passed away. Much has changed in the world of cycling since 1960.
When asked how long he had been running the operation, he said “53 years, four months and seven days.” That makes him 70, and he still works seven days a week. But his son, Paul, now works with him, and Paul’s two children could come into the business as well. “That’s four generations. We’re really a family operation,” he said with pride.
Oscar Wastyn Cycles
Belgian framebuilder Emil Wastyn migrated to Chicago in 1910 and opened a bike shop. More than a century later Wastyn’s grandson Oscar Jr. and great-grandson Scott continue to keep the family-owned store alive.
Over those 100 years the Wastyns have moved the shop a few times, but the business has stayed within a few blocks with each move. And it remains proud of its long cycling heritage in Chicago with bikes the Wastyns built and raced under their own name or for Schwinn’s Paramount division hanging in the showroom.
In addition to bad weather and the economy hurting business, Oscar Wastyn says lots of small, new shops have opened around him, taking a little bite out of his business. “It’s just part of doing business, but it’s something I don’t remember happening before. It used to be someone would open a big shop and either make it work or not. Now there are lots of little shops that just focus on part of the business,” he said.
The shop’s bike-building background means straightening a frame, fork or rim is all a part of the service it provides. Wastyn says repairing wheels or forks other stores say are ruined wins them new customers and accounts for a majority of their service revenue.
The family-oriented shop is closed on Wednesdays, but given unfavorable spring weather Wastyn says he may have to break that tradition to recover some of the sales he has lost.