The CrimsonBikes shop in Mid-Cambridge. (Photo: CrimsonBikes via Yelp)

In online reviews, dozens of customers of CrimsonBikes – a Mid-Cambridge bike shop that traces its roots back to a Harvard dorm room in 2008 – report never getting bikes ordered months earlier and difficulty getting refund checks. Several are out-of-state customers who ordered bikes last spring or summer.

In 76 complaints filed in the past year with the Better Business Bureau, customers report CrimsonBike’s website showing bikes as “in stock” during an unprecedented pandemic-induced bike shortage. “All the Seattle bike shops that I went to didn’t really have the type of bike I wanted and the size I needed, so I was looking around,” said Nina Forbes, who ordered from CrimsonBikes in late July.

It turns out many of the bikes listed as “in stock” were not yet available. “I went back to their website, and they kind of had this tiny banner at the top of the website that [indicated] some of these bikes are actually out of stock,” Forbes said.

In an email to a customer, CrimsonBikes pointed out that “many bikes we pre-ordered (and made available for customers to pre-order) are nearly half a year behind in production with no definitive arrival date from our suppliers” due to increased demand and Covid-19 constraints. Many customers, after months of waiting and not hearing updates via email or phone about their order status, began to get in touch with the bike store.

In interviews and reviews, customers mention difficulties getting in contact with CrimsonBikes via email and phone. “I can barely get a call back or an email update on when [a bike] will arrive,” said one Yelp reviewer.

When customers were able to get through, they said, they were told CrimsonBikes was prevented from refunding customer credit cards. In some cases, CrimsonBikes offered to provide letters stating that the bikes were never delivered so customers could initiate a chargeback with their credit card company directly. Some customers succeeded in settling their disputes this way, while others were rebuffed by their credit card companies because too much time passed since their orders.

Reluctant to refund

The alert that pops up on CrimsonBikes’ page on Yelp.

Many customers, having exhausted other options, requested refunds. These customers overwhelmingly report problems getting their refund. “When I canceled my order, I was told I would get a check in my email and that they couldn’t refund my card. I kept calling and emailing to check if my cancellation was processed, and I haven’t received any type of reply,” said Lauren Nagoda, a customer from Pittsburgh, in a review.

On Yelp, in addition to a spate of negative reviews, CrimsonBikes’ page shows a prominent “Compensated Activity Alert” and warns users that the bike shop offered $20 gift cards and T-shirts in exchange for positive Yelp reviews – a possible attempt to game the system on a site where more than 190 reviews average out to 2.5 out of 5 stars. It is unknown if this activity was detected before or after customers started leaving overwhelmingly negative reviews; a cached version of the Yelp page from 2017 does not show the alert.

When reached for comment, CrimsonBikes directed questions about the unfulfilled orders and refunds to its public email address. It did not respond to emails sent Wednesday and Thursday.

Signs of a turnaround

There are signs of bikes starting to arrive from the at 1001 Massachusetts Ave. shop, albeit months after they were expected: Two customers reported that they received their bikes within the past week. And much of the stock viewed online – what’s available ranges from a $140 kids bike to a $5,000 Fuji Transonic – is grayed out, unselectable and labeled as out of stock, unlike what customers reported from a year ago.

While customers said they were frustrated with their experience overall, those who spoke with Cambridge Day did not assume malicious intent. In fact, a number noted that they were willing to “give the benefit of the doubt” to a local bike shop in the midst of what they knew were difficult circumstances. But many CrimsonBikes customers remain out hundreds of dollars each and believe they’re no closer to getting the bikes they ordered or the refunds they requested.

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