This is a question which is often asked on the bicycle blogosphere, and also one where I have some first hand experience and, as with answers to most complex and often subjective questions, the answer is “it depends….”
I have to preface my comments with a statement I have never purchased a new bike from a bike shop, though I often buy parts from them, as well as from online sites.
The time I was most acutely aware of a prejudice or less-than-perfect customer service was when I was looking for new wheels and a three-speed-coaster-brake hub for my Speedwell. The responses I got from the bike shops were that I should buy a new bike as it would cost about the same (this was not even answering my question), or that they would get a quote and get back to me (only one shop out of three actually did this). So in this case I would say that I was not satisfied with the treatment I received. I put it down to the fact that I was a woman who was perceived as not knowing what she wanted, even though I was prepared to send a fair amount of money.
Fast forward a few years and my experience at bike shops now is a very different one, and it is not because I am a regular at any one bike shop. I get comments of “nice bike”, as I am on either my Speedwell or my Bennett. When I tell them that I have “restored” (although “customised” would probably be a better term) the bike, they tell me what a great job I have done. This often leads to a discussion of the merits of old steel bikes vs more modern bikes, and so on. Sometimes in the course of the conversation, the shop staff will offer to make an adjustment to the gear shifter cable and I happily accept the offer. Or they may comment favourably on some other component of the bike. So my lack of mechanical skills is made known, and that is not an issue with me, I am grateful for the free adjustment to the bike! There is never any attempt to sell me a bike or a part for my current bike, and often I don’t spend any money there, I am simply enquiring about a part and/or placing an order for said part/s.
So in answer to the question I have posed, I would have to say that my experience with working on bikes, no matter how badly this work is done, has altered the treatment I receive in bike shops. On the other hand I am not asking for a large job to be done at the shop. This last fact should actually have a negative affect on the treatment I receive as I won’t be spending large amounts of dollars at the shop, and nor are the staff encouraging me to.
When I buy online, of course, there is usually very little interaction with the vendor, it is simply a matter of placing the order and then, seemingly magically, it arrives a few days later. I have never had any problems with various online “bike shops” and I like that they allow easy price comparisons and offer good specials at times.
Many years ago, when I did triathlons, I also dealt with bike shops and, as I was working full time and had many other commitments at that time, I would simply drop my bike at the local bike shop and ask them to service it and change the tubes and tyres if necessary. This would cost a bit, and as I was “time poor” I didn’t mind this and I never found any fault with the service I received.
As for advice to give to women who are dealing with bike shops … most women don’t want to work on their bikes very much, and I am one of them. I will only do what I feel comfortable with. That puts us at the mercy of the bike shops so we want to get on well with them. Not all women want to tinker with their bike, or become experts in bikes, nor do they want to be athletic in their biking pursuits simply to gain credibility with the local bike shop, they just want some good service and impartial advice when spending their money on a bike, or parts for it.
The advice given on blogs about this is usually to build a good relationship with the local bike shop/s. This can be difficult however. If I get bad service, or poor treatment at a bike shop, I won’t go back there for some time. I usually just go to the nearest bike shop that is convenient for me, and in my area I have about 5 to choose from, as well as a comprehensive section at K Mart for certain parts and accessories. So, fortunately, I have plenty of choice. I have spent most of my bike dollars online though, because I know what I want, and it allows me to access good prices for those parts, some of which (eg Brooks saddles and skirt guards) can’t be bought here in Newcastle.