‘SPLAIN’ survey rates Seattle bike shops by how comfortable women, trans, femme and gender nonconforming people feel there

By Roxanne Robles and Tom Fucoloro

Editor’s Note: Roxanne Robles conducted an online survey between September and December of 2019 asking people who identify as women, trans, femme or gender nonconforming to rate how comfortable they feel at 42 Seattle bike shops. Though Seattle Bike Blog did not work on the survey itself, the two of us have worked together on how to present the data. I stand by Roxy’s work. You can read more of her thoughts on the survey on her blog.

Bike shops are vital infrastructure. They are the places you go to keep your bike working, and the experts who work in shops offer hard-earned knowledge that only the most dedicated do-it-yourself hobbyists can hope to match. Beyond just fixing bikes, though, shops can be the heart of a bike community, a place to meet up to have fun or learn.

Because shops are an important part of cycling, it is important they are inclusive and accommodating places to visit. Cycling is marked by a prevalence of not only cisgender men, but able-bodied, white, and wealthy people. Walking into a bike shop can be stressful if you do not fit within these intersections. It is a really common experience for many people outside these demographic categories to be ignored, talked down to, or talked over when they are trying to procure a professional service.

The Seattle Pedalers Looking for Action to Inform (“SPLAIN”) survey was developed to take the temperature of Seattle bike shop culture, to have a better understanding of where people feel comfortable, and to offer a space for them to relay their stories and experiences. People usually start their cycling journeys in a bike shop, looking for a bike — if this experience is stressful, traumatic, or uncomfortable it might turn them off to cycling completely.

We want to be very clear about what these ratings say (and don’t say). The survey was developed with Google Forms and distributed via email, Slack, Twitter, Cascade Bicycle Club’s social media, the Seattle Bike Blog Bike News Roundup and word of mouth. The survey had one page for each bike shop and asked respondents to rate their experience in each shop they had visited from 1 (“I don’t feel comfortable here”) to 5 (“I feel comfortable here”), with a space at the end of the survey for feedback and anecdotes. Respondents were asked to give feedback only for those shops they have visited. There were 90 responses in total. To calculate scores, the responses were weighted and the total was divided by the number of responses for each shop.

Because the survey was distributed organically and respondents self-selected, this cannot be viewed as a scientifically accurate poll representing all women, trans, femme and gender nonconforming people in Seattle. Rather, it is a qualitative snapshot of 90 people’s reported experiences. And people could have wildly differing experiences at the same shop. For example, Alki Bike and Board received a below average 2.78, but the only comment anyone left in the optional text box was, “Alki Bike & Board is the BEST!!!!!” Some shops received fewer votes than others, so their scores might be significantly impacted by just one or two ratings. The total number of votes received is noted within the bar for each shop on the chart.

Bar chart listing shops by their average rating.

The length of each bar represents the shop’s average rating. The colors of each bar break down the proportion of the shop’s 1 – 5 ratings. The number at the end of the bar represents how many of the 90 total respondents rated that shop. For more detail, see the spreadsheet of the rating counts.

After many years of discussing the issue of who feels respected and comfortable in bike shops using generalities, this survey gave people an opportunity to be more specific. And our hope is that it sparks constructive conversations in every shop about what they could do better to treat everyone with respect and to avoid making assumptions about what people are looking for or how much they know about bikes. As discussed in the accompanying interview with Shawna Williams of Free Range Cycles, even a shop at the top of the list works daily to improve how they approach and serve people who enter their door. That daily work is probably what put them on top. It’s a core part of their business.

Bike shops are important parts of our community. Part of loving your community is providing feedback even when it’s difficult to hear. Another part is celebrating. The citywide average was 3.43. We have no idea how this compares to other cities or even to Seattle 10 years ago, but it means respondents find the majority of their bike shop experiences to be positive. That’s good, but we can do better.

And perhaps this survey can also challenge shops to rethink who their customer base is or could be. Men make up less than half the population, and if you cater mostly to men because most of your customers are men, that might be a self-fulfilling outcome. Of course, the major bike manufacturers also play a huge role in deciding who gets marketed to, but that’s another story.

Even from a purely business standpoint, there’s a ton of business out there you’re missing out on if your shop is mostly appealing to men. As Gloria Liu wrote in a June 2019 article for Bicycling:

And some might argue that many negative shop experiences could be an issue of perception — behaviors like condescension, exclusivity, and even sexism are usually more subtle than outright. But bike shops are retail and customer experience businesses, and they exist in a market where customers have alternatives: namely, the internet and even specialty stores like REI… Ninety-five percent of the 332 independent bike dealers who participated in the National Bicycle Dealers Association’s [2017] study reported that internet competition is their number-one challenge…  56% of women and 44% of men have stopped going to a shop altogether because of a negative interaction with an employee…Shops that treat customers poorly aren’t only hurting their own bottom line. Bad experiences in bike shops can turn off beginners or anyone who doesn’t ‘fit the mold’.

Online bike sales cannot replace local bike shops. You can’t take your bike to Amazon to fix your flat tire or troubleshoot why your gears are shifting poorly. And Amazon’s recommended products are based on some sales algorithm, not on what’s best for you and your bike like the advice everyone should get from an expert in their local bike shop.

So thank you to everyone who took the time to complete the survey. And thank you to all the shop owners, managers and employees who have taken the time to engage with these results and use them as an opportunity to learn, reflect and talk about them with your coworkers.

Before publishing, we reached out to every shop on the list to tell them their score, give them a chance to ask us questions and an opportunity to respond if they wanted to. Here are the responses we received as of press time:

From Aaron Goss, President and Master Mechanic at Aaron’s Bicycle Repair (AKA Rat City Bikes):

We have stood behind our services for 23 years, and we invite everyone to visit our new White Center location and the neighborhood that we are a part of.  We have learned to be even more accepting of the Womxn-Trans-Femme community. We apologize for making anyone feel uncomfortable. All are welcome at our shop.  It is a safe space where we want everyone to feel comfortable. We love fixing bicycles and we are really, really good at it! It is what we do best. We are working more on our humanity!

From Erica Boyd, Rad Power Bikes’ Seattle Showroom Manager:

Our mission is to provide an unrivaled customer experience in each and every interaction, so it’s incredibly disappointing to hear that some of the respondents of this survey expressed having a low comfort level at our Seattle showroom.

As a woman of color, and as the hiring manager for our U.S retail locations, I’m committed to creating an environment where our visitors feel comfortable and represented when they walk into our store, and we’re proud to employ many talented and experienced women and gender non-conforming people throughout our company. It’s unfortunate that the seven survey respondents did not leave specific feedback for areas that we can improve upon, but we do take these results very seriously and will use this as a learning opportunity to continue to improve the experiences guests are having at our showroom.

From James at (mend) bicycles:

I think this is an incredibly important issue in the industry and in everyone’s lived experience day to day, in every way.

While I have always been a cisgender white male, I came to cycling and the industry late in life. Even coming from a place of privilege, I had terrible, intimidating, and downright disrespectful experiences in shops before I got my first job in a shop. Even this year I had a mechanic at another shop explain something to me in a profoundly rude and condescending fashion, not knowing my background or relationship to the industry. If it can happen to me, considering my place of privilege, I cannot fathom how challenging, intimidating, or uncomfortable women or LGBTQ individuals must feel in attempting to find a safe, welcoming, and respectful bike shop experience.

When I started (mend) I wanted to have a shop that was open and welcoming to all people. A bike is a means to joy for so many people. A bike shop should be a key partner for everyone to access and enhance that joy. (mend) should be such a shop and while I am heartened that the results of this survey are not necessarily negative, they also do not reflect the experiences I would want every customer to have when they come to us. I want everyone who sees this study to know that I and my staff take this very seriously and do our best everyday to be better.

From Samuel Lettes, Owner of Hello Bicycle:

We are sure that the results of this survey will create quite a stir in the cycling community, and we believe that it should. It is important to remind ourselves from time to time that the cycling industry is not just made of cold machines, but also of the people that adorn those machines. It’s easy to fall into a rhythm when working at a bike shop. One that completes the most repairs. One that sells the most bikes.  One that wonders if it’s financially viable to operate a soft serve machine. We quickly lose focus as to what keeps the whole industry afloat… people. And not just people, but the connection we have with these people. Hello Bicycle would have been long gone, like our espresso cart, were it not for our connections with the Seattle cycling community, and for that we owe you all our livelihood. It is with this in mind that we reflect on our results from the survey and know that we will take a big step back and reevaluate the connections we strive to make on a daily basis in order to open the doors of cycling to all. Thank you to all that participated in the survey, we hope you continue to keep us all honest.

Anyone interested in learning more about how to evaluate their organization and initiate change is encouraged to utilize the resources below:

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12 Responses to ‘SPLAIN’ survey rates Seattle bike shops by how comfortable women, trans, femme and gender nonconforming people feel there

  1. Pingback: How Free Range Cycles works every day to become a more and more welcoming bike shop | Seattle Bike Blog

  2. Thank you so much Tom and Roxy for taking the risk to do this survey and publish these results. Also kudos to the bike shops who responded and are taking the survey results to heart and hopefully making some fundamental changes in their operations, training, and employment practices. I really hope that our entire bike community takes a deep, hard look at what inclusion means and how we all play a part at making our community what it is.

  3. nospandexrequired says:

    Thank you for posting this and sure, some shops will wonder about the scores. Yes, we DO talk about this in inner circles, looking at you Mama Bears. So, I am not surprised how some of the stores ranked. I also wonder what happened at some of the shops, particularly ones with a couple of one star rankings, like 20/20 and BikeWorks which are our go to shops and we appreciate all the help we have gotten over the years. I do LOVE Free Range. G&O listened to me when I got my first e-bike in 2013 while 7 months pregnant so yeah! Also, remember, if a shop got a couple of one star reviews doesn’t mean it’s all bad just it could have been a bad day at that shop. I like to add that some of the shops that ranked in the top 8 let my toddler play with pumps, bells and, at one place, a very expensive bike fork and didn’t get mad or roll eyeballs at me. So, I judge shops on kid tolerability too.

  4. Meghan Pinch says:

    So happy to see this work- this is a fantastic idea and a great way to bring much needed granularity and visibility to this dynamic! Thank you!

  5. Kate McT says:

    Thank you for publishing what must have seemed like a risky post. As a female cyclist I’m in no way surprised by the results of this small survey and feel that it’s pretty accurate of my personal feelings about the shops I’ve used. The ones I return to are all on the top of this list and the ones I refuse to do business with are all on the bottom.

  6. dailydriver says:

    I’m a white male married dad etc. I’ve been to most of these places and, if asked to rank them from worst to first, I wouldn’t have ranked them much differently. Those at the bottom are at the bottom for reasons that aren’t isolated to their gender empathy.

    We all know bike shops where the proprietors are chippy or unprofessional. They’re as chippy to a regular customer white married dad as they are to a gender nonconforming new-comer. I’ve been to 4 of the bottom 5, and I had a bad experience at each and won’t be back (can’t speak to Rad Power). Two are friendly and incompetent, two are expert but abjectly apathetic to all customers. I don’t think the abjectly apathetic shops are hearing this for the first, or even the hundredth, time.

    That said, Free Range really is my favorite shop in Seattle. There’s just no comparison for the type of riding I do.

    • SYH says:

      One of the shops in the bottom-five had a clerk literally scrunch his face when I asked if they had any SPD-SL pedals which weren’t high-end Dura-Ace models. If you’ve been there, you can probably guess which one.

  7. ronp says:

    This is a worthy effort and gives the shops something to ponder. If I were them I would take it as an overall “customer friendliness score” as I think there are methodological issues (sample size, etc).

    I hope you rerun the survey in a year, see if there are changes.

    Can Roxanne and others contribute a list of actionable steps the stores can take to improve their scores? i.e. targeted open house to specific customer categories? Mounting posters/flags stating welcoming diversity slogans? Hiring diverse staff people? etc?

    I have only bought and visited a small subset of the shops surveyed, I am grateful for their high rankings and am happy to continue to support them. We live in a great town for biking and I think with more efforts we can improve it further and provide sustainable economic growth as well.

  8. Brad says:

    I love the idea of this survey and believe it will go a long way in helping the Seattle area bike shops change. To be good ambassadors for cycling, shops need to change the way they address their customer’s needs, rethink their services, and change some of the longstanding perceptions of bike shops. As a former shop owner this is a survey I would have welcomed and would have strongly encouraged my customers to participate.

    My biggest concern with this survey, as it stands, is the number of respondents was way too low to publish every shop’s rating. The upside to publishing results is it brings to the shop owner’s attention the need to address these issues. The low response rate probably skewed the results a lot and cast some of the shops in a light which does not accurately reflect the owners efforts. Almost every shop on this list has room for improvement and there are a few shops, knowing the owners, staff, and hearing customer feedback, their ranking would probably not change much.

    I initially got into the bike retail business because I saw the way people were being treated, especially women and people of color, and did not like how poorly it reflected on cycling. Often turning people off to cycling because they never felt they had a place to go for service where employees treated them with respect. When I had the opportunity to open my own shop, my staff and I chose to make it place which developed a welcoming community. We did this by offering weekly free service pop-ups for bike commuters, women’s specific repair and commuting classes, having women mechanics and managers. In addition, I coached the employees on know how to deliver great customer service. We were not alway perfect but we were always willing to learn from our mistakes.

    In the two years since I have closed my shop, I have worked at two shops to help with operations, improve customer service, and make the stores great places for their customers. Unfortunately only one of the shops had the culture to really address the issues. After talking with the owner, he is pretty upset he scored much lower than, he feels, reflects on his efforts to make a welcoming store culture. I am inclined to agree. I think this is reflective of the very small response size.

    The other store was a bit higher than I would have expected. They do have a few employees who are awesome and very welcoming but unfortunately there is a company culture which makes them the exception. After my experience at this last shop, I will probably be leaving the retail cycling industry but still try to make a positive experience when I can. Most likely through getting the youth more involved with cycling.

    Roxane build on this start. It is much needed.

  9. Peri Hartman says:

    I’m surprised MBR isn’t in the list (9th near Stewart + mobile unit). I went there recently to get my crank bearings fixed. Jesse didn’t have the part in stock, so he took a crank set off a new bike and put it on mine. That was pretty impressive service and with a generous attitude.

    BTW, Wrench is closed.

    Occasionally I get parts at Free Range. Awesome place and very customer centric.

  10. Pingback: Watch: Talking about the SPLAIN bike shop survey with creator Roxy Robles | Seattle Bike Blog

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