In The Way-Back Machine: Bike Retail in 1890s

Arguably the first person to ever combine bicycle sales with shrewd retail savvy was John Wanamaker. Wanamaker was a merchant who lived from 1838 to 1922. Along with being a retailer he was a religious leader, political figure, a pioneer in marketing, and considered by some to be the father of modern advertising. He was born and for most of his life lived in Philadelphia. He has been credited as the first person to ever take out a half and full page ad in a newspaper and the first retail merchant to hire a full time copywriter. While he sold nearly everything such as furniture, clothing, and tools he was also one of the largest bike retailers in the United States at the time.

An advertisement for bicycles from The Wanamaker Store in 1898. Retail experience and education of the sport were just as important to Wanamaker as price.

One of his more notable achievements was being the first major merchant to offer a return policy and establishing the common use of the price tag. Before Wanamaker, prices were constantly changing depending on a number of factors. If the product was in high demand, the price went up. If the store was busy, the price went up. If you were not a regular customer, the price went up. If you were only buying one instead of two, the price went up. If the store owner was having a rough day or just didn’t like you, the price went up. Many customers saw this as an unfair system while the retailers saw it as smart business. In the mind of the retailer, if demand or costs go up then price should go up as well.

Wanamaker had a vision that all shoppers get treated equally and fairly. To do this Wanamaker introduced the price tag. He believed that there should be one price, all the time, no matter who they were or how often they shopped there. This simple strategy won over customers by the thousands and further established Wanamaker as one of the nation’s best retailers.

Another Wanamaker ad from the 1890s, this one focused on price, quality, and selection.

While the price tag is still alive and healthy today, we have never let go of the idea of a marketplace where price tags don’t exist. Customers feel they deserve both a fair price and better pricing if they have demonstrated their willingness to dedicate themselves in some way to the IBR. Wanamaker’s price tag, as it turns out, is a facade. The bike industry has never let go of negotiable or moving pricing structures. Manufacturers offer better terms and pricing based on the volume and inventory purchased. Thousands of retailers will offer different pricing to their customers depending on their amount of purchase, frequency of purchase, or loyalty to the store. Peter Fader may have said it best, "Charging everyone the same thing and treating everyone the same way, as retailers do today, is 'Six Sigma' thinking which is great for producing widgets on a production line, but it makes no sense in a world where customers are inherently different.”

IBRs have built dozens of systems that allow us moveable price tag. Frequent buyer programs, club memberships, buy two get one free, discounted tune-ups in the winter, or buy a bike and get 10% off of accessories. All of these are strategies to relive the glory days of the early 1800s when price tags did not exist.

Book Summary: Reinventing the Wheel by Chris Zane

It’s not too often you see a book about the business of bike retail. Zane’s Cycles is located in Branford, CT. Here is a short video where Founder/President Chris Zane describes his business, and here is where you can buy the book


Chris claims a 23% annual increase in revenue over the year before is his company’s average growth.

Nothing was focused on how to execute a sale, instead everything was focused on a higher level on how to get the customer in the store and keep them coming back for life.

The book worked like bike-shop specific bookends on any day-to-day work. Before you can execute a sale or service effectively, company visions like this need to be in place.

While the sales strategies Chris presents aren’t new (in fact he tells us where many of his ideas came from) they are new to the cycling industry. While marketing to gay/lesbian communities is obvious for millions of other companies, I wonder how many bike shops look into expanding their market there?

He mentions several times his plan to grow his one store location to 100 stores nationally. Too bad he never details how he plans to do it. Will be exciting to watch as he does.


1. Zane’s average lifetime value of a customer is $12,500

This give Zane’s roughly $5000 profit if they earn maximum customer loyalty

The lifetime value allows them to understand the cost of acquiring and earning a customer

Arguing over a $100 return is not worth losing the customer and their lifetime value of $12,500

If a business does not understand their customer’s lifetime value, they do not know where to begin pricing strategies in service or marketing.

2. Zane’s has a 3-leg stool to their business. Products, service, and price.


Strong relationships with strong vendors and suppliers

Vendors need to be willing to go the extra mile in warranty and delivery

Vendors are not partners. Zane’s is their customer and they expect their vendors to treat them as well as they would treat their own customers.


Satisfaction guarantee. If a customer is not happy with any product they bought, at any time, they can return it for a full cash refund. The author tells a story of a full cash refund he gave a customer who brought in a bike that was 6 years old. The customer then bought a bike 3x the value and has been a loyal customer since. Proving the value of the lifetime customer.

Lifetime free repairs. All repairs that come from general use of the bike are free for life. This focuses his staff to assemble bikes in a manner that demands very little return and strong product education to his customers. The cost of free service is a no-brainer to Chris when compared to the lifetime value of the customer.

Kid’s trade-up program. If a parent buys their kid a bike they can return it for full value towards the purchase of the next size up. While it sounds crazy, this has been a profit center for the shop. The idea that a trade-up program is in place makes the sale easy. Only a portion are traded in and those are donated which earns the shop free marketing and new customers.

Lifetime flat repair program. For $20 you can buy free flat repair for the life of your bike. They sell 4000 of these programs a year and perform free flat fixes about 50 times a year. 4000 x $20 / 50 = $1600 earned for every free flat fix they do. People who ride a lot and are more likely to get flats don’t buy in to the program- they need to know how to fix a flat themselves.


90-day price guarantee. They match any price and then some.

Because the services Zane’s offers seems too good to be true, they match any price their customers can find on a bike up to 90 days after the purchase

When a customer does ask for a price match they give them an additional percentage on top to be sure Zane’s had the cheapest price. 

This discount is acceptable in light of the customer’s lifetime value.

3. Where to put your efforts in marketing

Zane believes that 30% of customers are price conscience buyers, 30% of customers are experience conscience buyers and the remaining 40% can be persuaded to go either way. If you attempt to market to 100% of your customers you will gain approximately 50%. If you market just price or experience you will gain approximately 70%.

Experienced focused buyers spend more, so market your services and the shopping experience. Not the super deals on price. 

Thanks for taking the time to read this far. If you found value in this piece would you please consider sharing it on social? Thanks again. Donny