WESTBROOK – According to its owner, Ernie’s Cycle Shop in Westbrook is the oldest independent bike shop in Maine, dating back to 1952, when it was situated on Rochester Street.
This year, after owning the shop for more than a decade, Bruce Wallingford is expanding not only the aging building’s showroom, but also the approach to his business, which he says must adapt to compete with increasing shopping online.
With a new biking season not too far in the future, Wallingford and his wife and co-owner, Sylvia have just completed a significant expansion, which will allow for a larger showroom in the shop, as well as a new lounge area, where customers can wait for bikes to be serviced and watch cycling videos.
The new lounge falls in line with Wallingford’s changing philosophy, which he believes must counter online competition with superior service.
“You can’t buy service on the Internet,” he said. “You can’t touch the products.”
Wallingford said that he’d like Ernie’s, located at 105 Conant St., to become a destination for cyclists, with an emphasis on making the shop a meeting place.
He sells brands such as Diamondback, Schwinn, Mongoose and GT Bicycles, with prices ranging from $90-200 for children’s bikes, $300-1,500 for
adult recreational bikes, and up to $2,500 for high-end road bikes.
Eventually, he wants to install a new track behind the shop.
“They can park in the lot, go mountain biking on the trails across the street, go to the ramp park in Westbrook or the Riverwalk trail,” he said.
He added that there seems to be a common perception that online shopping is more affordable, although many local shops price match in order to compete.
“It doesn’t matter if you can find products on the Internet cheaper or not,” he said. “Generally speaking, people think it’s cheaper on the Internet.”
Chris Carleton, owner of Allspeed Cyclery & Snow in Portland, said Monday that he agrees that the biggest factor to compete with online sales is being able to offer “a good customer service experience. You can’t sit on a bike when you’re shopping online.”
He said that customers sometimes come in, try on a certain product, and then return soon after with the same product that they had purchased online, often for no deal.
“Now we’re going to charge you for service on that product instead of doing it for free,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t think it’s entirely price-driven.”
Carleton said that his shop is also looking for products that are not readily available online, such as limited-edition items offered by some suppliers.
Wallingford, who is 52, said he’s also adding more accessories, as well as making sure he can price match what’s available online. He said his eventual plan is to have more computers at the shop available for customers to browse online, pick and choose parts or bikes through his suppliers, and offer to install the products once they arrive.
Both Wallingford and Carleton said suppliers dictate what their stores can sell online, with some suppliers allowing certain products for sale, and others barring all online sales.
In a further effort to push Ernie’s as a destination for bike enthusiasts, Wallingford has plans for creating a training area behind the Conant Street building, complete with a “cycle speedway,” a small, oval, dirt track. Wallingford said cycle speedways are popular in Australia and Europe and are now a rising trend in America.
“I’d like for us to be a part of that growth,” he said. “We need to evolve to what other shops are going to become, or else we won’t have any business.”
The additional land behind Ernie’s, which will eventually produce the dirt track, was sold to the Wallingfords by their neighbor Ellie Saunders, whose family has owned land along the Presumpscot River for roughly 300 years.
Going forward, Wallingford said, the emphasis must be on maintaining and growing a solid customer base that is loyal to its local shop.
“Bike shops are changing,” Wallingford said. “If you don’t know what to buy, don’t buy it on the Internet, go talk to someone who knows what they’re doing.”