Money is emotional. And oddly enough, it is through bicycles that I have come closest to really understanding what this means for our society.
There is something about a bicycle shop that trigger’s people “good/smart consumer” button, and they go into full used-car dealership mode. They kick tires and do the bicycle equivalent of slamming doors (they bounce up and down on the front shock of the mountain bikes). They insist on comparing bicycles and the cost of bicycles to cars. “Look how much this bike is! (usually a bike that costs $2500 and up) That’s a car!” Or alternatively, “You could almost buy a car for that much!”. They snicker and think about how some people are suckers. They want me to list technical details that mean nothing to them; there is a basic assumption that more is better (except for the price). Why bicycles trigger this response and not TVs, cars, furniture, McMansions, etc is beyond me.
Okay. Bike and cars are not analogous. $15,000 will get you the best bike on the market and it will be a technical achievement and a work of art. $500 gets a road machine that will be great for you, your community and the planet. It will last forever. It needs no fuel and compared to cars, extremely little maintenance. Bikes are incredibly strong and light and offer the hope a utopian future where Mankind, Planet Earth, and technology work together in perfect harmony. Cars are none of those things. Nobody goes into a car dealership, looks at a $70,000 car, or a $90,000 car and thinks “I can almost buy an airplane for that much!”
The worst are the people who ask about the cost of a replacement part – say a new tire and inner tube (~ $45), then, upon being told the price say “I can almost buy a new bike for that much!”
You see there are department store bikes which sell for between $60 and $300. And even though these bikes are of such low quality as to be criminally dangerous, people are hypnotised by the price tag. One of the biggest issues bike shops face today is the sticker shock generated by customers who assume that $150 for a bike is a reasonable price to pay.
But it gets weirder. Here’s an example that happened to me personally just the other day. A man dropped off two Mongooses – notoriously crappy Wal-Mart bikes for a basic tune up. Working on these bikes is like digging a whole in sand: no matter how much you dig, the sand falls back into the whole. So it goes with repairing these bikes: it’s nearly useless. No amount of tuning can chance the fact that the bikes are systematically built to be cheap and only work long enough for the customer to buy them. It’s hard for a bike mechanic to escape the conclusion that the person who bought a Mongoose doesn’t care about biking, and doesn’t understand a bike’s quality or value.
And so it’s very hard to do a good job on them. The man who owned the bikes came to pick them up and examined them with a critical eye with amazing attention to detail. And so he quickly found many flaws. I’m willing to admit my mistakes in tuning this bicycle, but I can’t help but wondering: where was this man’s critical examining eye when he bought the bikes from Wal-Mart? Why do we hold bike shops to high standards, and let Wal-Mart get away with everything? It’s hypocritical to buy a Wal-Mart bike and then take it to a bike shop and expect perfection.
It’s the price tag. It’s hypnotic. And for people who don’t bike but want the occasional fun, and the image of successful middle-class-ness that a family bike ride brings…the price is right. Finally, it’s about instant gratification. Many times have I explained the difference between a $500 Trek and a $150 Mongoose and every time I am struck by the inability of my arguments to penetrate the mental mists created by the far more tangible dollar amount.
I even get philosophical. “It’s not a bike,” I say. “It’s exactly the least cheapest possible assembly of thing to get you to think that this is a bicycle. I argue that it is designed to be sold on its price and nothing else. You’re buying the image of a bike, not the actuality of a bicycle. People don’t listen. I argue that the advantages of a quality bike pay for themselves many times over (considering that you will inevitably have to buy many new Wal-Mart bikes or at the least, replacement parts for the Wal-Mart bikes). People don’t listen; people don’t want to listen. They just want that price.
So here’s the big crime here. Aside from an example of how our society is complicit in destroying small businesses (we say we want them, but we really don’t). It’s that the Wal-Mart’s of the world have managed to make us all complicit in their scheme. Wal-Mart spreads the true costs to us all. And that is their secret. Wal-Mart pays large bike conglomerate to design the cheapest possible series of bikes; made by cheap low quality labor and then shipped to the US where it is again assembled by cheap low quality labor. Americans caught up in the Rat Race and keeping up with Jonses then buy the image of owning bikes from Wal-Mart, who makes the profit. Then, the true cost of the Wal-Mart operation is borne by bike shops (in this example) because we have to do our best to make this fake bikes into real bikes because people think they are getting real bikes from Wal-Mart.
And they do this for every single product. We buy because we want the image. But we can’t afford it. The world can’t afford it.