Are Walmart bikes really only for kids? Surely, they can’t all be that bad, right?
I mean it’s the whole stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap mentality. Places like Walmart have an awful lot of buying power. Certainly they have a shedload more than your average bike shop, and even the larger bike shop chains. After all, Walmart is the world’s second largest retailer. So with that said, surely if a bike costs $200 in Walmart, that must mean the same bike would cost $3-500 in a bike shop, right? So can a bike that costs between $80-200 really be all that bad?
The answer, is yes, and, kind of, but it all depends on ….Let me explain:
In life, you get what you pay for. Never was this old adage truer than when it comes to bikes.
Don’t get me wrong, for a lot of things, cheap versus expensive just because you can afford it doesn’t really matter. Take plastic storage boxes for instance. I’ve always bought the cheapest ass ones I could get my hands on. Why? Because I’m just using them to store stuff. What do I need with a $20 plastic box that’s going to sit in the garage where no one will see it for ten years, when two $10 one will do the same job?
Maybe it’s a little bit different with a bike, but the point still stands. Because, with bikes you get what you pay for. But then bikes can also seem to cost a lot of money for what they are; a metal frame with two wheels and some pedals.
It would be so easy with an article like this to just go and flame all the usual stuff when it comes to cheap department store bikes, and you can have no worries on that front, because I will. There’s not enough room on this website for everything that’s bad about buying a bike from Walmart. Let’s face it there’s probably not enough room on the internet for all that’s just plain bloody awful about them.
But at the same time, this subject of department store bikes is just a minefield of misinformation, myths and partial truths. That’s because ultimately it depends entirely what you intend to do with your bike, and what you’re buying it for. For instance I wouldn’t take a cheap bike down some sort of like Beggars Canyon mountain bike trail on Tatooine, but I’d quite happily ride one in the park with my kids.
This is really the nub of the argument both for and against Walmart bikes. On one side, you have what is for all intents and purposes, a faceless massive cheap chain retail outlet, that doesn’t pay its staff a living wage, and sells bikes that are in all probability made by poorly paid workers in China in what are in all probability a less than ideal health and safety work environment. On the other side of the coin though you also have a store that sell cheap bikes that people can afford.
Don’t get me wrong, I dream of one day owning a bike that costs $4000, but in the meantime, I’m quite happy riding my best in class budget mountain bike. I love the way it sounds when I fly past people on their $4000 mountain bikes. It sort of sounds like ‘whhhooossshhhh [changes gear, applies upgraded brakes for corner, and] whhoooshhhhhh.’
Yeah, so right, none of my current bikes were purchased from Walmart, and neither are they top of the range either. But I like them, they do what I want them to do, and they do it well. And they were also the best I could afford at the time. Again, I’d like to buy me a $4k bike, but mortgage, life, kids etc. So I’m cool with that.
And so here’s the thing. What if a cheap bike is all you can afford? That’s cool too. If you’re on a really tight budget and you only have a few hundred $$$ to spare, then what are you going to do? One of the best bikes I ever owned was a busted up rust bucket I found next to a garbage can. And no, I wasn’t going to win any races on it, but for saving me a s**t load of cash on transportation costs, it was a life saver. At the same time however, I wouldn’t want to do tour America on a cheap bike, or that matter enter a race.
But that’s the thing, not everyone is looking for the same thing from a bike. Children for instance have a completely different set of requirements to most adults. My neighbor came over last week to seek my advice on buying a bike for his kid for Christmas.
‘What do you think she wants to get from a bike? I asked. ‘BMX, road biking, trail riding?’
‘It has to be pink, and have a basket on the front,’ he replied.
‘Well that narrows it down,’ I said. I directed him to the local Walmart equivalent.
My neighbor is happy. His daughter will get a pink bike with a basket for Christmas. I was glad I could help. In this particular instance, a cheap department store bike was without doubt the best option. But for grownups, the situation changes a little.
When I started writing this article about the perils of buying a cheap Walmart bike, my initial reaction was to say ‘ why would anyone buy a Walmart bike for $150 when they could get a good 2nd hand bike for the same price?.’
So why shouldn’t you buy a bike for $300 from Walmart, or Target for that matter. I’m not saying you wouldn’t. I’m just saying, you might want to consider the following reasons first….so here goes.
1 – Margins
A $150 bike isn’t a $150 bike.
When you buy a bike you really need to think about profit margins. The store has to make money, and the manufacturer has to make money too. That doesn’t leave an awful lot of room for quality parts. Let’s be generous and say that your average Walmart bike only has a 30% mark up. That means Walmart are still taking $45 of that $150. Of course, once you add in tax and the fact that the original manufacturer took about $20 or $30, there’s not much left for the actual bike. There’s not very much I can add to that sentence. Your $150 bike is built out of components that cost just over half what you’re paying for it. Is that a bike you really want to own?
2 – Department store staff just don’t have the skills…
…or the knowledge or experience to help you. In most cases, this is the really sad truth. Just because they’re working in the bike department today, doesn’t mean that for the last 6 months they weren’t working in the Stationary part of the store. Is that really who you want to be giving you advice about bikes?
3 – No test ride
This is a biggie for me. You can never know just how well a bike fits you, or how well adjusted you are to a bike, if you can’t take her for a test run. A quick zip up and down the aisle, if you’re lucky just isn’t going to cut it: Unless you want a bike specifically to go up and down an aisle, in which case go ahead, buy the bike.
4 – New bikes need TLC
They do. All new bikes need a bit of readjustment after about 30 hours of use. Gears need adjusted, chains need tightened, and brakes need calibrated. If you want your bike to last, and be safe to use, this is pretty much a necessity. Most dedicated bike shop warranties will actually cover this. That service is more than likely not going to come as standard on a Walmart bike.
5 – Become an expert about bikes
There are upsides to buying a Walmart bike.
If you want to become really knowledgeable about bike building and maintenance, then you should buy a cheap department store bike. Cheap bikes are great training grounds for learning how to deal with broken pedals, bent wheels, and busted derailleurs. I can’t lie to you, you will spend a lot more time keeping your bike roadworthy if you buy a cheap bike. Of course, you might get lucky and get a really decent solid bike. Then again, you probably wont.
6 – Bikes are often poorly assembled
This may come as news to you, but some bike shops will actually charge you to assemble your bike for you in the right way. Well, at least the really honest ones will. Some will just have added the cost of assembly into the overall price tag, others eager for your business will ask for a nominal fee, like $20 or similar.
That’s why when you roll your bike out of a proper bike shop, it tends to work. Department store bikes by contrast will tend to be poorly assembled, and sometimes start to fall apart pretty promptly.
7 – Put you off riding forever?
This will more than likely be the case if you are just starting out with riding, and you don’t want to spend a small fortune on a bike of you’re still unsure if bicycling is for you. Buying your average cheap Walmart bike isn’t going to help you. Shopping the bike aisle in Walmart is only going to make you less likely to stick at it. Sure, it seems like saving $$$ on a sport you’re not even totally 100% committed to yet might seem like the rational logical choice, but the decision to go cheap is going to go against you.
Go hire a bike for the day instead, or try taking one a for a proper test ride. You’ll thank me afterward. You know what here’s an even better idea. Go take decent bike for a test ride, and then go sit on a cheap department store bike, and see if you can tell the difference.
8 – Quality bicycles are worth repairing when they break
Of course they are. They’re better built, the working parts are far more durable, and they’re less likely to break down in the first place.
9 – Poor quality parts
What do you expect for $150?
The parts on the bike are incredibly important. Cheap discount bikes don’t just suffer from performance issues. It’s bad enough that sub average parts take their toll on your energy levels, but there’s also some pretty fundamental safety issues that need to be taken into consideration.
Brakes on cheap bikes, even Walmart ones that may have been set up properly, are not going to be as resilient as a proper quality bike. Your stopping distance is going to be a lot more as well. If you’re really after an adrenaline rush, or like the idea of not knowing if the next time you break is going to end your life, why not try some base jumping without a parachute.
10 – Random parts
Some department store bikes come with parts that you just can’t fix if they break. Some of these bikes will often utilize no name brand oddball parts that a) have no orderable replacement equivalent, and b) will cost more to repair as the bike actually cost to buy.
11 – The Actual Construction of the bike
Look, department store bikes just aren’t built for trail riding, or serious road work. They’re just not. Just put the words ‘Walmart,’ ‘YouTube,’ and ‘mountain bike’ into google and see what comes back. It’s discouraging, to say the least. But this is why, I’ve argued above, and will again below, that when considering buying a cheap bike from Walmart, you need to think about purpose. Because that’s what it comes down to, in the end.
A cheap bike is more than likely not going to withstand the physical stresses of anything hard core. But then they’re not supposed to. They were not designed to be pushed hard, or to their limits. Of course those limits aren’t all that high in the first place, so you can’t be all like, ‘OMG MY CHEAP WALMART BIKE FELL APART AFTER ONE DOWNHILL BLACK RUN TRAIL!!!!’
What did you expect for $150-300? The components we’re talking about here, aren’t exactly top of the range, are they?
12 – Being able to depend on the hard thing between your legs
Too obvious? Maybe, but phallic references aside, you need to know that the bike you’re entrusting your life too is dependable. The last thing you need when riding is for nuts and bolts to start falling off when you don’t need them too. Again, with really regular maintenance and checks, you’ll more than likely be ok, but just remember that’s another one of the real downsides to riding a cheap bike; you’ll have to spend more time looking after it, that you would on a more expensive bike.
13 – After sales service
Are you still here?
14 – Fit
Even the most expensive bike in the world is going to hurt you or at least be uncomfortable if it doesn’t fit properly. Pretty much every article out there on the internet, and every ‘proper’ bike shop you ever walk into will tell you the same thing: The single most important thing about buying a bike is that it has to fit you properly. I would argue that this is even more important the cheaper the bike you buy.
The way a bike fits is one of the main things that will decide how well you can perform on the bike. The better the fit, the faster, further and longer you will be able to ride for.
‘Proper’ bike stores and staff will have sizing you to a bike fits properly down to a fine art. I doubt most department store staff really know how to do this. I mean I’m sure there’s some. It’s not like I’m trying to tar everyone with the same brush, but I’m saying it’s much more likely to be the exception in places such as Walmart. Unless you happen to run into a Walmart bike shop employee who rides bikes in his own time as well, then you’re probably going to be sh*t out of luck.
15 – The frame
Ok, so if the fit is the most important for you when it comes to buying a new bike, then the frame is the most important part of the bike itself. The frame is what determines how well that cheap Walmart bike you just bought is going to hold up over time, and how well it takes to bumping along roads and trails and sidewalks. It’s the frame that decides the overall strength of your bike. Now, cheaper frames are going to be made out of good old fashioned steel which isn’t as light aluminum. But steel framed bikes will in general be quite strong, or at least they should be. A good quality steel frame will take quite a beating and require a lot of abuse to give up the ghost.
But this is another one of those instances where even the steel used in department store bikes can be misleading. Because the quality of the steel overall isn’t normally that great, the actual tubes of the frame have to be thicker to cope with the extra stress. The thicker the tubes, the heavier the bike, the less give in the ride, the harsher the ride.
16 – Bike stores also sell total junk
Come on, we all know they do.
They can also be staffed by people who really don’t know what they’re doing. In some respects, this can be even worse than having an ill-informed member of staff in in the department store. At least there you’ll probably not be committing to a major purchase.
17 – One size fits all
Here’s another reason why buying a department store bike might not work for you. We’re right back to the whole stack em high, sell em cheap philosophy. Most of the bikes you’re going to find in a department store tend to steer toward the whole one-size-fits-all deal. That’s probably not quite right, but we are straying into the whole, Small, Medium, and Large territory.
Again, you could get lucky and find that you’re just that perfect ‘medium’ fit, so that’s going to work out for you. But what if you’re not?
So that’s it.
But before I go, I feel I should lay down some more caveats. Some of these are going to tie in again with what I said in the introduction, but I think they’re good enough to mention again.
Firstly, no bike out of Walmart is going to satisfy a hardcore rider. It just won’t. And why would it. People who are genuinely really serious about taking up rising as a serious hobby aren’t even going to look at Walmart or other department stores for a bike. And why would they? They’re looking for the best they can get for the money they have to spend. They aren’t looking for a Walmart bike, and Walmart aren’t looking for them.
But then it also comes down to what you want to do doesn’t it. Not everyone want to own a bike to go down trails. Some people just want a bike so they can follow their kids round the local park, or ride through the local neighborhood with them. As a writer, I don’t think twice about heading out and buying a $1500 laptop when the time comes to upgrade, not just because its tax deductible, ahem, no really… whereas I’m sure most hardcore riders would quite happily spend that and more on a new bike. But if I only wanted a bike to go round the park…then…I…might…consider…Walmart… (That was a lot harder to write than I thought it would be.)
So if you are just looking for something to commute with along the flat, for short distances and/or you’re going to be chaining it up subway stations, and money s for whatever reason tight, then maybe a Walmart bike might be a good option. There, I said it again.
But then, here’s the thing, and it’s a pretty big thing. If you’re going to spend $150-$300 on a bike, you’d be amazed just how good a second hand one would be for that price. But for $150-$300, you really can’t buy a good new bike. And that’s all I have to say about that.