I am an owner of a brick and mortar bicycle store, so my opinion is perhaps not entirely objective.
I would recommend buying a bike on the internet only in the following cases:
- The bike you want is unusual, not available through any local dealers within reasonable distance, and no other bike shop in your area is willing to order it for you.
- The bike you want comes from a reputable dealer or manufacturer outside your immediate area, and that dealer is willing to stand behind the product, no ifs ands or buts.
Otherwise, get your bike from your local bike shop. Here is why you should avoid buying a bike on the web.
- The deal may seem sweeter than it is. Often, the shipping costs alone will offset any advertised savings. Your local dealer figures freight costs into the price of the bike. This is why local shops often appear to have higher prices. (Contrary to popular belief, unless you buy your bike from a private party, the outfit selling you the bike will still charge you applicable sales tax, even across state lines.)
- Assembly will cost you. Regardless of what the internet description may claim, any time a bike is shipped, it will require professional assembly upon its arrival. (How hard can it be? Click here.) Unless you are a skilled bicycle technician, you will have to pay for the service at your local bike store.
- You cannot try before you buy. I can't tell you how many times customers come in armed with information about a particular brand of bike, and convinced that they want to buy it, only to change their mind completely once they start test riding all the options.
- You have little recourse if the bike doesn't fit. You can usually send it back, but it's costly and inconvenient. Finding suitable replacement might take a lot of trial and error. On the other hand, your local dealer can help you find an alternate size or model, and trade out some key parts to make sure the bike fits you an the way you ride.
- You have to pay your local dealer for any follow-up service. Most local shops offer a complete care package with any bike purchased. For instance, our follow up service at Rapid Transit Cycleshop includes free 30-day checkup, a tune-up at the end of one year, free tube and labor on flats for one year, free labor on anything related to the regular maintenance of the bike, and on installation of any accessories. If you didn't buy your bike through the shop, this follow-up care can easily add up to a couple hundred dollars.
- In case of problems or warranty issues, you may be on your own.
What if you just can't find a bike you really want locally? First of all, if it is a standard upright bike, and you simply like a particular brand and mode that your dealer doesn't carry, go ahead a try comparable bikes that they do sell. You may find they are just as nice, and meet your needs very well. Very often people call us asking if we carry Trek, but what they really want is a decent, affordable city bike.
If the bike is a highly specialized brand, or something unusual, like a recumbent, an adult trike, or a folding bike, don't assume your local shop can't get it for you. Go ahead and ask! If there are really no local dealers of that product, no one has protected territory, and the manufacturer should have no problem sending one to your local shop. If one shop isn't willing to do it, try another.