By Marc Peruzzi
I used to go to the packie with my father. If you’re from Massachusetts, you know that “the packie” is short for the package store, which, in turn, is a leftover puritanical euphemism for the liquor store. When you walked out with a six pack of Schlitz or a bottle of Crown Royal in a brown paper bag—that was your package.
One year, the packie entrance displayed an architectural stacking of 12 packs; simple white boxes with black lettering. The boxes read BEER. No Clydesdales. No logos. No symbolic barley. No marketing whatsoever. Just BEER, in a sans serif font. It was the height of the generic movement. The idea? Spend no money on Madison Avenue marketing and sell for less. When my old man wasn’t looking, I stole a chug. Not bad. Tasted like all the mass market American swill of the day.
The generic wave soon faded. Turns out, people liked name-brand soups. But now there’s a new iteration in the form of largely unbranded goods primarily produced in Asia. If you’re a passionate cyclist, you’ve probably seen ads for carbon fiber road wheel sets that sell for $1,000 to $1,800 less than the name brands. I admit they piqued my curiosity, largely because even with an industry deal, I’m priced out of the $2,500 wheel market.
So when Monoprice, a 14-year-old California company that sources products from Asia, announced that they were opening two new divisions dubbed Pure Outdoor and Cycling, and offered to send me some carbon wheels to test, I agreed.
Monoprice shares a near total lack of branding with the generic movement, but according to product developer Matthew Keasler, they got into the direct-to-consumer business for unique reasons. They were personally tired of getting gouged on afterthought items in the tech world, things like computer cords and flat screen wall mounts. If you ever paid more for a wall mount than you did for the television, you get it. It’s, as Ralph Nader might have said, a total screw job. (Which is why I still don’t own one.)
Monoprice took out the middlemen—all the middlemen. No traditional retailers. No expensive marketing. No brand building. You order your HDMI cables or wheels online and a few days later, they show up in simple brown packaging.
I tried their $799, 50mm, aerodynamic Carbon Clincher Wheel Set. It arrived perfectly true, and looked like most 50mm, aerodynamic carbon clinchers I’ve tested—minus the brand lettering, bumper stickers, and throwaway booklets of a recognizable company. Tires (25mm, to match the rim), tubes, brake pads, and skewers came in the box. I had the wheels mounted on my bike in about 15 minutes. Now I have about 20 days of varied use on them.
I was disconcerted by the thought of running what appear to be knock-off wheels in excess of 50mph downhill. So I spent the first dozen rides on the flats on weekly group rides, where a total wheel failure might take down the unsuspecting peloton but wouldn’t send me over a cliff. Gathering confidence, I then steered them onto some of our faster dirt roads where I probably wouldn’t run a $2,500 wheel set built for racing. And finally, I felt comfortable on big climbs and descents. The wheels still show no signs of wobbling. And as for performance, in terms of stiffness, they’re a marked improvement over the stock wheels that came on my bike. I feel like I’m benefitting from the aerodynamics—especially on the flats with more powerful riders setting the pace. And I no longer have any safety concerns.
The California-based crew at Monoprice decided to get into the cycling business because they’re underfunded cyclists, too. And because they value their own teeth, they made sure the wheels were heavily tested both in the lab, and (after that) with a small team of athletes before they ever hit consumers. Keasler is also quick to emphasize that the wheels aren’t knockoffs. Working with the factory in Asia (which produces brand name wheels), they incorporated their own design elements for what they say is a unique product. Keasler also stresses that Monoprice knows its place in the market. You won’t find them engineering entire drivetrains from scratch or building complete bikes. In the bike space, they intend to focus on essential aftermarket accessories like wheels, seat posts, and bottle cages. With Pure Outdoor, they have their eyes on items like trekking poles—they have an aluminum set that sells for $20—and packable solar panels. They’re also invested in the new category of indestructible, but incredibly expensive coolers—except minus the expensive part. “Our big focus,” says Keasler, “is to get around retail marketing and packaging costs so we can sell products at a fair price.”
That’s a fair statement. But this new generation of direct-to-consumer, quasi-generic product development does live in a gray area for conscious consumers. When is it okay to turn your back on established brands with long ties to the bike and outdoor industries and long histories of costly research and development, in order to chase value on the international market? And when do consumer protection concerns—in terms of price anyway—outweigh those allegiances?
I’d argue that the allegiances crumble when willing consumers are priced out of existing markets, which, if you checked the prices at our local gear shop lately, seems to be now.