GARFIELD COOPER, ZENCOG BICYCLE COMPANY
The magnificently hirsute Garfield Cooper, who opened ZenCog Bicycle Company in 2009, says he can’t beat Amazon’s prices. He’s not going to complain – in Jeff Bezos he sees someone who saw an opportunity and took it – but he doesn’t think Amazon will ever be able to do what he does. It’s an old-fashioned concept: customer service.
Amazon can’t put together a bike just so. They don’t have a Garfield Cooper to measure a rider’s arm and inseam in order to adjust the handlebars or seat height. They don’t have employees to advise a customer on problems like chronic sores or who might have a bike seat that would help.
Cooper and his staff have used the equipment he sells. It’s ZenCog-tested. And he’s got 15 years’ experience working on bikes, fixing bikes, riding bikes. Amazon can’t compete with that.
About six times a month, customers will bring in a bike-in-a-box they bought through Amazon and ask Garf to put it together for them. He says he’s happy to take on that business.
“It’s not rocket science to put a bicycle together. But the guys that invented flight were bicycle mechanics,” he says. “There is always going to be service. You can’t get a bicycle put together on the Internet. You can learn how to do it. But I have 15 years of experience and a very good collection of tools.”
I asked if he’d had customers come into the store, look over the stock, maybe even taking a bike for a ride, and then go home and buy it cheaper on Amazon. Yes, he replied, but it didn’t bother him too much, or at least it hasn’t yet. “I’m looking for that customer who wants a relationship with me. And I’m going to give that guy bike service and I’m to give his kids bike service. When something goes wrong with his bike, he’s going to bring it to me and say, ‘Garf, fix this.’”
RON CHAMBLIN, CHAMBLIN’S UPTOWN AND BOOKMINE
Ron Chamblin has been in the book business for almost 40 years. He’s heard the death knell for the small, independent bookstore before: Barnes & Noble, then the Internet and the short attention spans it wrought, then Amazon. He’s still here and doing quite well, thank you – a store Downtown and one in Ortega, 22 employees, $180,000 a month in sales – but he nonetheless doesn’t mince words when it comes to Jeff Bezos’ empire:
“They are a cancer, a growing cancer on the economy. They actually contributed to the decline of the stability of the economy. They are similar to the robber barons. When you have new technology or a new area like the railroads or oil or whatever, people who get in first are going to get strong. It’s no question, they have a monopoly and as they begin to control an even greater percentage of the total products, they do so without regard to the health of the economy. And thousands of small businesses go down because of the total freedom that they have now. We have to put some brakes on this monster.”
Chamblin used to list his books on Amazon; he got exposure to Amazon customers, while Amazon got a percentage of sales. For a while it worked nicely, to the tune of about $14,000 a month. But then, after a dispute over shipping, he suspended the service. Amazon, he says, declined to pay him for four months – an effort to squeeze him, he believes. “The fact that they did that to me conveys to me that they are brutal to anyone they engage,” he says. “They tried. They wanted to put me down. The same thing has happened to other stores, other bookstores, who are mainly now gone.”
Chamblin now sells his books on the site alibris.com. “I’ve told my employees that there are other platforms to sell books,” he says. “I’m not going to grovel to Amazon. I’m not going to behave as if we need Amazon, because if you behave like you need them, they are a brutal cancer and you go down. If anything, we want to move farther away from Amazon. They want to control gain, they want more of a percentage of sale and they want to gain more of the world. Look at that Bezos guy. He’s goddamned frightening.”
JOE BUTLER II, BLACK CREEK OUTFITTERS
It’s difficult to match the convenience of online retail and the prices of Amazon. Joe Butler, who co-owns Black Creek Outfitters – a local company that sells kayaks, canoes, tents, paddleboards, outdoor wear and other adventure gear – points out that someone who, say, needs to buy a pair of padded socks or some sun-protective clothing or a tent for an upcoming camping trip, but also works a demanding job and goes to church on Sunday, might not have the time to come into the store during regular business hours. He instead might go online late at night in his pajamas and order what he needs.
Butler says he’s seen Amazon’s emerging dominance in retail, and expects the company will continue to take more and more of the market share. He can’t fight scrape-bottom prices or the vast plethora of selection online. He can’t help it if a customer comes in for advice and then goes online and buys the item from Amazon. He can’t control customer behavior. This is capitalism.
Butler has responded to the A-threat in two ways: pragmatically, and by amping up what he does better than Amazon or what he believes Amazon doesn’t or can’t do.
He cut staff by the equivalent of two full-time employees last year. He cut his garbage bill by $200 a month. He cut his Internet and other communications cost by $200 a month. He changed all of his light bulbs to LED bulbs. His electric bill went down 40 percent.
But he is also working to turn his retail business into a community of like-minded people and those who might be interested in trying outdoor activities. He holds classes for campers and others in water filtration or in packing food for a camping trip. He offers standup paddleboard classes. He’s turning part of his 14,000-square-foot business into a yoga studio. He doesn’t push product. He pushes knowledge of project.
“I want to give you a good reason to get off the couch. We’ve got to have multiple of those reasons,” he says. “Twenty years ago, you flipped on the open sign and unlocked the door. It doesn’t happen that way anymore. You got to be doing something different.”
MARIA COX, MIDNIGHT SUN IMPORTS AND BEAD HERE NOW
Deep discount pricing at Amazon can lead to deep customer distrust of the small brick-and-mortar store. Sure, they have light bills and rent and employees to pay, but some customers question whether the markup is fair. When a customer shopping at Bead Here Now in 5 Points looked at a pair of pliers used in jewelry-making, he freaked. It was double the price found on Amazon for the same thing. He thought that Bead Here Now was gouging.
“They were selling it wholesale,” Maria Cox, owner of Bead Here Now and Midnight Sun Imports, explains. “Once I pay shipping, my price is higher than that. But this customer left feeling like we were marking it way up when, in reality, that is the cost. We couldn’t sell it for that price.”
Cox says she’s had customers in Midnight Sun take pictures of clothing or other items so that they can look for it at online retailers. And she can’t fight Amazon on price.
She responded to Amazon by changing her
product. She has clothes and jewelry for her stores custom-made in India, Bali, Nepal and Thailand. “I now have my own clothing line that’s only sold here,” she says. “It’s something I moved into. I have my own market.”