i want a public bike // 24 Mar 2010

PUBLIC Bikes is Rob Forbes' new company -- he previously founded Design Within Reach -- and next month they're bringing out a line of simple, upright, unisex bikes with a modern look. They're great looking bikes, perfectly designed for that stylish handlebar basket you've always wanted.

Diamond-fence

But what makes PUBLIC interesting isn't necessarily their bikes -- it's their distribution model. The choice of options for their bikes is simple -- you'll pick from two frame styles, four colors and three gear configurations (1, 3 and 8-speed) -- and you'll make those choices online. It's a bit different from how you probably bought your last bike; instead of selling through bike shops, PUBLIC is going direct to consumer. Mostly.

From their Join Us page...

PUBLIC is establishing a network of preferred bike shops that will receive bicycle shipments and assemble PUBLIC bikes for customers in their city. If your bike shop is known for superior customer service, professionalism, and you are interested in assembling PUBLIC bikes on demand for a competitive flat fee, please send an inquiry to bikeshops@publicbikes.com

I don't know much about the business models of neighborhood bike shops, so take everything I say here with a grain of salt. But it seems to me that if like most retail goods their margins are slim going to slimmer, then the act of selling bikes becomes the loss-leader for establishing a relationship with the customer to sell them accessories and ongoing service. Which means that it makes perfect sense for PUBLIC to take the act of marketing and selling the bikes out of the hands of retailers...and instead find the right bike shops to deliver service.

They aren't completely abandoning retail, however. They want to find complementary outlets to showcase their products.

Publicbikes.com is the primary source for PUBLIC bikes, but we have identified a few businesses whose products complement the PUBLIC aesthetic, so we will also offer our bikes through these outlets. If your business has a showroom to showcase and sell PUBLIC bikes alongside your core product offerings, let's start a conversation.

This obviously isn't a mass-market play -- you won't be seeing PUBLIC bikes in Wal-Mart or Target. PUBLIC gets to focus on what it wants to be good at: building a high-end consumer brand and fostering a direct relationship with the customer through their site...while leaving the "last mile" of high-touch customer service to local retailers...who aren't really retailing.

It'll be fun to see if they can pull this off.