14 November 2018

How Will Brooklyn Pay For A Tax Against China?

About three weeks ago, I wrote about ways in which the recently-imposed tariffs on Chinese goods could affect the bicycle industry.

I presented as clear a picture as I could, not being a bicycle industry insider or an economist who specializes in trade policy (or any kind of economist at all).  So, today, I am going to share part an Inc. article Norman Brodsky wrote based on his conversation with such an industry insider.

Brodsky's friend Ryan Zagata is the founder and owner of Brooklyn Bicycle Company.  I've never ridden any of their machines, but they are praised for being very good at what new urban cyclists--particularly commuters and utility cyclists--want.  From all accounts, their bikes are comfortable and practical.  What I know is that they are stylish enough that one of their models is sold at the Museum of Modern Art's gift shop.

Plus, I must say, Brooklyn's prices are actually quite reasonable.  That could change, although Zagata doesn't want that.

He told Brodsky that a typical model from his company costs about $200 to make.  Right now, he pays $11 on import duties for such a bike, but the new tariffs could hike that to $61.

That leaves him with a dilemma:  Does he absorb the increase or pass it on to customers?  Of course, he could also "split the difference" and increase consumer prices, but by a smaller amount.

None of those options is particularly appealing because, as anyone who has worked in the industry knows, it's a low profit-margin business.  The retail markup on bicycles, percentage-wise, is not nearly as high as it is for such items as clothing and luggage.  Every shop in which I worked made a much greater proportion of its income from repairs or the sales of accessories and parts than it did from selling new bikes.  As I understand, that is the case in just about all bike shops. That's why you don't see year-end half-price or 75 percent off sales on bikes. 

Brooklyn Bicycle Company's Driggs 3

Brodsky asked whether Zagata could have his bikes and parts manufactured in another country like Vietnam.  It wouldn't be worthwhile, Zagata says, unless the move would shave $50 or more off the cost of producing the bike. More to the point, though, are the difficulties that come with such a move: among them,  the research and development--and travel-- costs of sourcing a new factory and having samples made and tested.  Also, he points out, every new model from a new supplier has to be sent to the Consumer Product Safety Commission for testing.  

In addition, moving production would mean losing the relationships they have with suppliers, who understand what Brooklyn Bicycle wants and needs.  "Will a new manufacturer understand what we're looking for and give us the same level of quality?" Zagata wonders.

He might have been thinking of Fuji's experience around the turn of the millennium.  They were one of the last major Japanese bicycle manufacturers to shift their production to Taiwan.  As a result, they didn't have the sorts of relationships enjoyed by other companies who shifted their production earlier.  Fuji's once-stellar reputation fell; it has recovered only during the last few years.

Finally, Brodsky inquired as to whether Zagata could manufacture his bikes in the US. Even if he made the frames, and assembled the bikes, in the US, he'd still have the same problem with tariffs.  "There's nobody in the United States making rims, hubs, spokes, saddles, chains, drivetrains--all the things we'd need, in the quantities we'd need them."  He still would have to import those components, he said, and they would be subject to the same tariffis as bicycles.

(He is right about the lack of American component-making  capacity.  Hubs are made here, but they are all high-end items like Phil Wood and Chris King:  a set would cost nearly as much as most of the bikes Brooklyn offers.  The other components, to my knowledge, are no longer made here:  even Sun Rims, designed in the USA, are made in Taiwan or China.)

At the moment, Zagata says he can't do much more than "watch my competitors."  Without a doubt, many other small- to medium- size business owners (BBCo., at $2 million a year, is considered in the latter category) could say the same. 

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