Posted by: nickgerlich | February 21, 2008

Mellow Yellow

And now for something completely different.

I realize my topic du jour is e-commerce this semester, but every once in a while I run across something with a general marketing and business theme that just piques my curiosity. Especially if it happens to involve one of my sports heroes.

LanceSo I was quite naturally intrigued when I read this week that 7-time Tour de France winner (and fellow Texan) Lance Armstrong plans to open Mellow Johnny’s, a new Austin bike store with an emphasis on bike commuting. If ever there were a biking town in Texas, it would be Austin.

As for the name, Mellow Johnny is a nickname Lance picked up when he was on his incredible run as TdF champion. It is a poor Americanization of maillot jaune, which translates as “yellow jersey” from the French. Its pronunciation comes out something like “mellow john.” The race leader and ultimate winner wears the yellow jersey.

I do not doubt the need for a serious shop that not only sells the complete array of bikes and accessories, but also caters to commuters who either need specialty supplies, or just a place to park their bike and shower. It is a novel idea, and Armstrong hopes to see his town become more like Portland OR, where bikes and bikers are everywhere (regardless of the weather or the time of year).

My big concern is whether the shop will thrive after the initial buzz wears off. Think about it: The tourist value will be huge at the beginning, simply because of the name. Folks will be stopping in not just to kick tires, but also to see if, per chance, Lance is also hanging out there that day.

Kind of like going to any celebrity-owner restaurant and expecting to find the star behind the bar serving drinks.

There is always great risk in hoping for the transference of cachet from one domain to another. At the end of the day, the product and total experience must still be compelling, regardless of who owns the place.

Heck, even a person like me could do this. While riding bikes are about the only obvious thing Lance and I have in common, there is also one other glaring behind-the-scenes truth: neither of us have retail ownership experience.

Oops.

So, if I had the dough, I could launch a similar store down the street, but without the famous persona attached. After the dust settles, if I do a better job delivering the goods and creating the shopping experience, I will likely prevail.

The retail bike industry is a tough nut to crack. The vast majority of bikes sold in the US are through discount merchants like Wal-Mart and Toys-R-Us; only serious devotees patronize the specialty shops. A few shops, like Richardson BikeMart, have carved a niche and done exceptionally well, but for the most part, these things are a labor of love.

I do not wish for nor predict failure for Lance. I wish for this to be his eighth yellow jersey. I just hope that after all the tourists have stopped dropping in that Austin embraces its hometown hero and his shop because it rides circles around everyone else.

The route is long and steep, but if Lance tackles business like he tackles mountains, he might just be the first to the top.

Dr “I Eat His Dust” Gerlich

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