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If you can fix bicycles, department stores need your services badly!

As it turns out, department stores need someone to assemble and tune their bikes on display, and they need someone to put the mountain of bikes which come in for refunds back in good working order. You do it in the back rooms of the stores, using your own tools.

They will pay quite nicely for this service, up to $30 per hour, depending on how fast you can work. They don't pay you by the hour, or if they do offer to pay by the hour, you should politely decline. What you want is "piecework," in which they pay you for every bike that you process.

The bikes they sell are not like the bikes in dedicated bicycle stores. Most department store bikes are the very least expensive that can be engineered to look and act as much as possible like the more expensive bikes. So, you have to act accordingly. While in a bicycle store, you can spend over an hour to assemble, tune and test a new bike, in a department store, that's the kiss of unemployment! They can't pay you very much per bike, so you've got to do what you can quickly. But it is a quandary. If ever a bike needed careful attention to protect the customer, it is a department store bike. So you've got to be expert enough to know what really matters and ignore the rest. For instance, if you are good at bike repair, you'll know that virtually every front derailleur cable eventually rusts solid. So a drop of oil is in order on each new bike. You'll also know that wheel bearings which are just a bit tight will loosen up by themselves with little damage, so those can be ignored. You know that overshifts into the spokes are bad news, and an expensive problem for the customer, so you'll make especially sure that the rear derailleur is well adjusted. And you'll know that wet brakes on steel rims are dangerous, so you'll try to convince the department store to let you install better brake pads on each bike. (Good luck!)

As for refunds, most department stores get lots of them. They do not have a trained staff who can ask the customer what went wrong and take the time to make it right. They just give the money back. Often the returned bikes have wasted wheels, torn up grips, or broken cables, but are otherwise serviceable. The stores will pay you to quickly get those bikes up and running again. The stores will then resell the bikes at a slight discount as "out of the box" bikes.

You must be careful to communicate with the store people and do things the way they want them done. For instance, you can't just go pull a brake cable off the shelf to replace a broken one. They have computer-controlled inventory, and want to know where that cable went!

Also available at the stores if you want to deal with it, are other product lines such as ping-pong tables, lawnmowers, and barbecue grills.

Another income that can come your way out of this is that when customers who have purchased bikes need bike services, the personnel at the department stores may tell them to visit you. You may get literally dozens of new-bike assemblies and repairs per week from this source. These are nicer assemblies, because when people come to you with their bikes in boxes, you can offer two versions of the assembly: Quick and dirty like the stores want, or careful and slow at a higher price. Most people will opt for the more expensive assembly, if your price is reasonable.

Some of the department store chains may have arrangements with companies who do in-store servicing or assemblies on a large scale, and others may try to have their untrained personnel do it. But others will be very glad indeed, if you simply walk in, talk with the sporting goods manager, and offer your services!

The hardest store to get is the first one. Once you have one, you can approach all the others in your area as a professional. You can say, "I'm the guy who does the bikes for XYZ Company," and that'll be much more impressive to the sporting goods manager. But don't worry about that first store over-much. They're likely to say "yes" to anyone who appears sincere, intelligent and can help them take care of that mess of broken bikes in the back room!

If you find that your community is already sewn up with an outfit that services the stores, this can be to your advantage. Get a job with them, let them take care of the paperwork while you just fix bikes, and enjoy the ride.

You'll be paid weekly this way, and that can be nice compared to the way most stores pay. They like thirty to ninety-day invoices. And they never pay early!

 

Eventually, you can become an independent. The store personnel will know you after awhile, and will respect you as an individual, and may come to understand that they save money by paying you without the middleman. Or, you can get other stores as an independent by saying you have worked for the agency who fixes the bikes at "XYZ Company."

Taking this conversation as far as it will go, you can also start out as a one-person operation, and then hire others to help you service more stores. Be careful who you hire, however. I once sent out two friends who were mechanically inclined - professional bicycle mechanics in fact - who came back laughing from one store. I asked them what was up. They told me that one bike was missing a handlebar stem wedge. To fix the bike, they glued the stem into the steering tube with five-minute epoxy. I sent them back to the store. Fortunately, that bike had not been sold yet. They had a heck of a time getting that icky old glue out of the steering tube!

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