How did the business come about?
Always Riding opened its virtual doors back in April 2008, and came about from an idea for a clothing- only concept first mooted around late November after Leire and I met, went travelling, returned and decided to go into business together. Not the easiest thing to do after only meeting six months before. Day-to-day, we do everything; product copy writing, despatching, website work, SEO…it’s been like that since day one.
We’ve always known that guys like Wiggle/CRC were not to be messed with and couldn’t be disrupted without matching them pound for pound, something that was from another planet to where we were. So to try to find and fill a niche, we decided to go clothing and later, accessories- only as seemingly no-one was really doing it well. We started at the onset of the recession, so things were slow to get started, but this year turnover looks to be 50 per cent up over last year.
As a clothing specialist, you’re quite flexible on returns – why is this important?
We stepped outside of the cycling world to assess wider internet eCommerce trends and long, easy returns policies, ‘no hassle’ if you will, are a no-brainer. In all honesty, we really want customers to be happy with their purchases. If they’re not happy, we are not happy, so our returns policy and wider customer service behaviour is an extension of our personal feelings.
You offer rewards for reviews – how does this benefit yourselves and the customer?
We have a policy of rewarding each customer who writes a review of a bought item(s) with a future discount. Now importantly, we do not ask them for a positive review in return for the reward, but simply a review, good or bad. If it benefits other riders, it is a good review. It also benefits us as we can see which items are loved and those that should not be restocked.
What goes into selecting your labels?
We read pretty much anything we can get our hands on to see what might be a brand on the cusp of something really good. In addition, we get recommendations emailed in from our riders, as well as approaches from suppliers. Good old seat of the pants instinct has served us quite well. Of course, you can always make a mistake or two, and we have I can assure you.
How did you go about building your name in a business with such varied online competition?
That was really tough. We did launch with Solo, which at that time was new to market. That gave us an edge, but as we were totally new to online and retail, we had to suffer many hard lessons and get through countless hours of home-study before we knew enough to make sure Always Riding was a destination people knew about.
You’re keen to emphasise the customer service angle – tell us about your TrustPilot links:
Early on, we realised that no matter how loud and often you state your customer service ethos, you still need to back it up. So we partnered with Trust Pilot, a third party review collection service. Any order placed with us gets an independent follow up mail from TP, giving the customer a forum to rate us. So far we out-rate all the big guys, in fact, everybody alongside us in the BikeBiz Specialist Retailer category by a big margin.
How’s business been going?
The year is looking strong. As the boss of Amazon once said, you only have to be ten per cent different to have a chance. There is no doubt small business is tough. The Government loves to state how much credit there is out there – that is complete and utter bullsh*t. Even if you make a strong, regular profit, never fail to pay a bill and clean your credit card in full every month, you will still need to subject yourself to a humiliating series of talks, paper trails and forensic examination before a decision, months down the line, is made.
The lesson is, never be beholden to a bank more than you have to be, and monitor your business closely for changes.
What are the main obstacles to overcome for a business like yours?
I feel one of main obstacles is poor long-term planning. Without a strategy for the future, everything becomes rather like trying to drive from London to Birmingham, but only looking one street ahead, you’ll get lost.
Our second obstacle is protectionism in the industry. We’ve come up against suppliers telling us they don’t sell to web-only, but when you mention they sell to Wiggle they tell you that’s ‘different’. I have no words for people like that.
The third obstacle is price. if the worst offenders in the bike industry stopped thinking retail begins and ends with having the lowest price, everyone would make more margin.