When Neil Wechsler first got his start in the cycling business, his partner had one unusual rule: no more than four bikes were to be sold. Per week.
Of course, this was Urbana, Illinois in the 1970’s, home to the Fighting Illini and just a hair over 34,000 residents. With both Neil and shop owner Paul Nicholson balancing work and graduate studies at the time, their self-imposed quota was the only way to ensure that each customer received an ample amount of personalized care and attention.
Fast forward 40 years and those experiences have proven to be influential to the bicycle enthusiast from the midwest. Alongside his wife Mary, Neil opened Montlake Bicycle Shop in Seattle in 1980 – now one of the city’s most trusted names in cycling. And while both his location and the industry have changed dramatically over the decades, one thing has remained indispensable to his success: a dedication to treating his customers well.
Experience Seattle’s Best Cycling and Customer Service for Yourself:
“You know, my experience at Paul’s Bicycle Shop has carried forward completely,” says Neil. “Our focus then, and my focus ever since, has been on figuring out what we can do to best serve the customer as an individual. Huge chain retailers use enormous amounts of data to find ways to sell consumers as much as possible. We just talk with you to figure out the best way that we can help.”
This kind of thinking is at once traditional and, somewhat paradoxically, ahead of its time. In an industry oft derided for its narrow focus, Neil and his team have found success in the simplest of gestures: treating all cyclists, regardless of style or ability, with respect.
“We have no particular expectation about what someone is supposed to know or not know,” he says. “When someone comes to us, they can expect to be listened to. They can expect that we’re going to do whatever we can to solve their problems. Our team is here to help the full spectrum of bicyclists, because we want to them make the most of the opportunities that riding can offer.”
To help make good on that promise, Montlake Bicycle Shop supplies one of Seattle’s most extensive rental fleets, including everything from tandems and tour bikes to hybrids, carbon road bikes, and full suspension MTBs. It’s a way of extending their service outreach not only to the city’s 20 million annual visitors, but to countless local cyclists looking to test out a new bike before purchasing as well.
“For Seattle, I think we have a particularly broad range of bikes,” says Neil. “Rentals make up about 5% of our business, which is a significant amount without being too big. But it can be a big part of the work. The times when rentals are busiest for us are usually the same times when the store is at its busiest.”
Which is why Montlake Bicycle Shop recently paired up with Spinlister Pro, allowing them to streamline the bike rental process from start to finish. “Certainly we like having a reduction in forms,” says Neil. “The fact that Spinlister has built in insurance for us is fantastic. That’s a tedious part of a rental, and it might be the biggest improvement from our old system: how much time it saves getting a customer in and out. Cyclists don’t want to be standing around the store doing paperwork – they want to be out riding.”
And he should know. An avid commuter and recreational rider, as well as a former bike racer, Neil is keenly aware of just how much quality riding there is to be found around the Emerald City. His shop’s longevity has made it possible to attract a staff with the same passions, creating a positive feedback loop that allows Montlake Bicycle Shop to connect with cyclists from just about every discipline and destination.
“We’re very clear on that point: everybody in the store has a helpful attitude,” says Neil. “There are so many different things you can do with a bike, and not everything will make sense to everyone. So whatever it is our customers need, we have the resources and the people here that can really help them.”
It all boils down to a belief that perhaps best sums up Neil’s approach to cycling, and one that has guided his “customer first” approach to shop management since road bikes were commonly known as ten speeds. “Whatever way you choose to ride a bike,” he opines, with an honesty that can only come from experience, “it almost always makes your life better.”
Article Header Image Credit: Matthew Roebke