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Comment: 'There are loyal customers out there, so serve me, please!' - BikeBiz

Comment: 'There are loyal customers out there, so serve me, please!'

Guest columnist Velocentric takes no joy in clicking 'add to cart' and wants to buy local - but could bulk trade orders be preventing shops from satisfying customers, or have some given up on competing?
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Some of you may know of passionate Oxford-based cycle blogger VeloCentric from Twitter, where he’s ‘Blocked by the Doperati’ for asking the awkward questions. Here Alex Oates, the author of the blog, discusses how he thinks the industry’s front line could be doing more to retain loyal customers…

I recently visited a cycle shop to purchase a new pair of shoes from a brand that they stock. I wasn’t expecting them to have a £240 pair of shoes in my size on the shelf, but I was hoping they’d at least be able to order them for me.

I’ve had a relationship with this shop for the best part of 20 years, I make the vast majority of my purchases there even though I could order the same items online for less (even allowing for ‘mates rates’) and not have the hassle of negotiating traffic in the city centre. I support my local shop because I believe it’s important to do so and because I like the staff there.

So you can probably imagine my surprise when I was met with complete indifference at my attempt to give them a sale. Perhaps understandably, they didn’t have the item I wanted in stock (model or size), but when I asked if they could order them I was told to expect a four to six week wait because “we don’t do low value special orders individually, you’ll have to wait until we get a decent amount together.”

When I spoke with the store manager the response was no better – “if you want them quicker you can order them online”.

Sadly, it wasn’t an isolated event. Over the past six months I’ve left shops disappointed and frustrated more often than I have with the item I needed or an order placed. Shops appear to have given up in the competition with online, settling for selling accessories, tubes and tyres and the steady income from workshop repair bills.

As someone who takes an interest in the bicycle trade I fully understand that shops with a physical retail outlet are feeling the pinch from online retailers, that purchase decisions are increasingly made solely on the basis of who has the lowest price and that a number of ‘traditional’ retail establishments are struggling to adapt to a business model that sees them competing with places further away than the end of the street. However, as a customer none of that matters to me. I want to support my local shops, I enjoy being able to engage with staff over a purchase much more than I do pressing the ‘add to cart’ button on a website and I like knowing that when I buy locally my money goes back into the local economy, but I expect my willingness to support these shops to be rewarded with a reasonable level of service.

It amazes me that more than ten years after online retail became a part of day-to-day life I still have to make this point but it seems some still haven’t realised this fact:

You simply can’t compete on price alone.

Traditional bike shops must embrace the fact they’re not going to be able to sustainably compete with the online outlets on price and focus instead on offering an unparalleled retail experience. Make the customer feel valued, use your staff as the competitive edge they should be and sell on service, not price. You won’t win every sale and there’s always going to be the customer who’ll use your shop for advice before buying online, but accept it as part of the nature of the business and don’t let it hold you back.

A little while ago I visited another bike shop for the first time. The staff had no idea who I was or what I was looking to purchase but they all made an effort to say hello, to engage with me and (subtly) let me know they were available if I needed help. They were smartly presented, willing to answer questions and passionate about cycling in all its forms. Each time I’ve returned to that store I’ve had a positive experience and their willingness to cater to my needs and to go out of their way to help means that despite my long-standing relationship with the other store my money will now be spent here. They don’t compete on price (although they do have an online presence selling at the same prices as in-store), they focus on service and their relationship with the customer. This is the advantage that all retail bike shops have to offer but that so many are wasting.
Grab that advantage while you can, before somebody else does.

Oates has been riding all sorts of bikes in all kinds of places for nearly 35 years and frequently expresses opinions about the bikes, the business, the sport and the people who make them all what they are on Twitter (twitter.com/velocentric) and on his website velocentric.com

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